Friday, September 10, 2010

Salvador de Bahia, Brazil: Baianas, Pelourinho and Capoeira

Simone and two Baianas in the streets of historic Salvador de Bahia, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

After we'd had our fill of lounging on the beach (for the sake of sanity, "time to stand still" for a few days is mandatory on long trips), we caught the city bus for the hour and a half ride into the historic center of Salvador known as Pelourinho. We checked into our hotel and set off to explore. Salvador de Bahia, the first capital of Brazil (1549-1763) and the largest city on the northeast coast of Brazil, is situated on the Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints' Bay) and is divided into two parts, Cidade Alta (Upper Town) and Cidade Baixa (Lower Town). Upper Town is where most of the historic sites are located and is generally the safest, most touristy part of the city; Lower Town is where more locals live and is home to the central market known as the Mercado Modelo (Model Market) which is now primarily a collection of stalls that sell souvenirs. The two sections of the city remained separate for many years because of the 279 foot difference in elevation and the lack of an efficient way to travel between them. In 1873, an elevator called the Elevador Lacerda was completed that turned an arduous trip into a 60-second elevator ride and the two areas have been integrated ever since. There is also a funicular tram that takes a bit longer but has amazing views.  

The renovated Elevador Lacerda connecting Upper Town and Lower Town (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Salvador's historic center is a UNESCO site, protected and preserved for its historic value. The first place we visited was the Catedral Basílica de Salvador (Salvador Basilica Cathedral), built around 1758 originally as a Jesuit church. We took a guided tour of the chapels, the sacristy and the Jesuit cloisters which included frescoes painted on Portuguese blue and white tiles called azulejos, which were being restored when we visited. The chapels are a mix of Baroque and Mannerist style art and altarpieces that date from the 16th century, carried over from previous churches built on the site. After visiting the main cathedral, we rode the elevator down to Lower Town to visit the Model Market and perhaps pick up a berimbau or some agogôs (Brazilian musical instruments). The lower section of Pelourinho has a very different vibe, more authentic in some ways. The Model Market is touristy, but the rest of the area feels more like a traditional Brazilian town, filled with street markets, shops, busy locals and motorbikes, whereas the upper section is mainly restored colonial mansions, gilded churches, music and shows specifically geared toward tourists.  

 Tourists posing with locals on the steps of Catedral Basílica de Salvador (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The market was colorful and interesting with lots of things to look at and food and drink to try and as we emerged from the rear exit near the bay, a group of young people were practicing their Capoeira moves, so for a few coins, we also got to see a great show. Capoeira is a type of Brazilian dance combined with martial arts, that was created by Brazilian/African slaves in the 16th century and is still practiced widely today. It's a combination of slow motion dance moves, kicks, acrobatics and play-sparring and is beautiful and exciting to watch. Young men and women often perform together and it is usually accompanied by drums and a type of hypnotic chant-like singing. Luis and I had first seen it by accident on another trip in Porto Velho, Brazil, when we happened to be walking by a Capoeira school and heard the music. The instructor invited us in to watch the class and it was so interesting and different than anything we had ever seen, we ended up going back every night that we were there. Luis learned a few of the moves, but since I am what you would kindly call "athletically-challenged", I decided against it, to avoid a long hospital stay from the inevitable groin pull. Still, it's hard not to admire the beauty and creativity of the art form. 

Capoeira dancers in the historic center of Salvador de Bahia (photo by Luis Bastardo)



  1. Hello, nice trip report. Just one correction: Azulejo means tile. The "azulejos" you've probabily seen inside the church are square tiles with blue and white paintings. It's not frescoes.

  2. Great, thanks for the info...good to know!