The lazy, welcoming town of Ilhéus is the main city along what is known as Brazil’s “Cocoa Coast.” The town itself dates back to the early 1500s. During colonial times, it thrived due to the sugarcane trade. However, its true boom came in the late 19th-century with the introduction of cacau (cocoa). Plummeting world prices and the abolition of slavery caused the sugar plantations to go into decline.
owever, cocoa—which earned the nickname ouro branco (white gold)—drew freed slaves and entrepreneurs to the lush hills surrounding Ilhéus, all of them seized by the desire to strike it rich (or at least earn a decent living). A handful of “cocoa barons” (known as coronéis or “colonels”), with vast plantations, did indeed become immensely wealthy and powerful.
They basically ruled over their workers, and the region as a whole, until the 1980s, when a disease known as vassoura de bruxa (“witch’s broom”) decimated the cocoa trees and left the region’s economy in ruins, from which it’s only recently begun to recuperate.
Today, traces of the legacy of the “colonels” can be glimpsed by wandering among the grandiose mansions and civic buildings of Ilhéus’s small historical center. You can also read about their exploits in the novels (particularly The Violent Land) of famous Brazilian author Jorge Amado, Ilhéus’s most illustrious son; many of his books are set in his hometown.
Meanwhile, the loss in revenue from cocoa has been somewhat offset by the development of the tourism industry. Ilhéus is surrounded by native Atlantic forest and, to the north and south, boasts some attractive white-sand beaches—all of which make it well worth exploring.
Getting to Ilhéus
The Aeroporto Jorge Amado (tel. 73/3234-4000) is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) south from the center of town, and close to the beaches south of the city. There are daily flights to Ilhéus from Salvador, Porto Seguro, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. The long-distance rodoviária (tel. 73/3634-4121), in Pontal, is also only 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) west from the center and easily accessible by taxi or municipal bus. Águia Branca (www.aguiabranca.com.br) operates buses from Salvador (6 hours) and Porto Seguro (5 hours), while São Geraldo (www.saogeraldo.com.br) operates buses to Rio de Janeiro (23 hours) and São Paulo (28 hours). Driving to Ilhéus from either the north or south, you need to take the BR-101 to Itabuna, and then take the coastal BR-415 for 40 kilometers (25 miles) to Ilhéus.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition