I can’t recall ever meeting anyone who wasn’t moved, bowled over, impressed, mesmerized, or inspired in a positive way by São Salvador da Bahia dos Santos. I have seen countless first-time visitors fall head over heels in love with the 500-year-old city, and have never known anyone who left the city indifferent to its heady charms.
Brazil’s first capital, with its flood of baroque churches and its idyllic setting overlooking the shimmering blue Bay of All Saints, is one of those places where the descriptive cliché “magical” comes in handy. Bahians refers to it as axé, or “good energy.” But the truth is that in Salvador, life flows to a different rhythm. Time, like the warm Atlantic water that laps its shores, is more liquid here.
Although Salvador is a city of 2.6 million, its notoriously good-humored residents are a famously unstressed bunch who work hard but also have the fine art of relaxation down to a T. Of course, Salvador itself is very conducive to languor. Its balmy climate, sea breezes, and enticing beaches are constant companions.
Music too is everywhere—from the chants of the beach vendors hawking popsicles and grilled shrimp to the twang of the one-string berimbaus, a bow-shaped instrument African origin that accompanies spinning capoeiristas as they practice their graceful combination of dance and martial art.
Indeed, its legacy as the jewel in the crown of a Portuguese colonial empire that relied heavily on sugarcane—and slave labor—left Salvador with a large population of African descent. Unsurprisingly, African elements seep into every facet of Bahian culture: from the language and music to the popular Candomblé religion and the famous moquecas (a fragrant stew of fish or seafood), shrimp bobós, and spicy acarajés (crunchy deep-fried bean fritters) that have made Salvador a culinary capital.
Fused together with Catholic elements, these traditional culinary treats show up in the dozens of popular festas that invade the streets in the summer, exuberant celebrations that are equally sacred and profane and which culminate in the world’s biggest outdoor party, Carnaval.
However, it doesn’t matter what time of year you come to Salvador; innovative Soteropolitanos (as the capital’s inhabitants are known) are never hard-pressed to find an excuse for a party and are always commemorating something.
Getting to Salvador
Most international travelers arrive in Salvador by air, although if you’re traveling from another city in Brazil, you’ll either arrive by bus or car.
By Air: The Aeroporto Deputado Luís Eduardo Magalhães (Dois de Julho) is the city’s main airport (tel. 71/3204-1010), and quite a posh one at that. Located inland from Itapuã, it is around 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the city center. A taxi will cost around R$60. There are also executivo air-conditioned buses that pass along the coast and head to Praça da Sé, and regular municipal buses, which aren’t recommended unless you have very little luggage and an awful lot of time (an hour or more).
By Bus: Salvador’s bus station, Rodoviária Central (Av. Tancredo Neves, Iguatemi, tel. 71/3460-8300) is across the street from Shopping Iguatemi. From here you can catch buses to all destinations in Bahia and other places in Brazil. In front of the rodoviária, you can grab city buses to all destinations or hail a cab (a trip to the Pelourinho or Barra will cost you around R$20).
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition