When you see the art form known as capoeira performed on the streets of Salvador, the capital of Bahia, you’ll have difficulty deciding if you need to call the police or stare in amazement. Surrounded in a roda, a circle of people clapping, chanting in rhythm to a berimbau, a one-stringed instrument, two capoeiristas combine evasive martial arts with aggressive ballet, handstands with cartwheels, attack with defense, as they lunge and circle-kick, not at each other, but with each other, forming a pulsating and expressive dance of balance, camaraderie, violence and history.
Spiritual, rhythmic and powerful, capoeira is the dance of the Bahian people. But there’s more to the dance and the people than meets the eye. Capoeira was developed by Brazilian slaves of African descent in the 16th century. Since it was illegal for slaves to practice fighting skills, they integrated native African religious dances so that when they practiced fighting it would appear playful.
The cradle of modern Brazilian civilization, Bahia is deeply rooted in its African heritage, pulsing with its own unique beat. The beat is sweetly infectious, as visitors find themselves dancing on beaches that grin under the light of the sun and march around historic sites still fresh with footprints from Portuguese explorers.
The sun shines almost year round in Bahia, which works out nicely for those who enjoy the wide-sweeping beaches and island playgrounds that shadow 600 miles of coastline. Travel agents send their clients here for the beaches, as well as for the colorful and electric atmosphere that is unmatched throughout South America.
Bahia’s new tourism slogan says it all: Smile, you’re in Bahia. Advice that’s easy to heed once you reach the capital city of Salvador. Founded in 1549, Salvador quickly became the premier city in all of Brazil and the second most important in the Portuguese Empire, after Lisbon. Evidence of the city’s rich history is still seen in its impressive colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, colorful mansions and ornate churches.
Evidence of the city’s rich culture is best found on foot, trekking through the narrow streets and in the arts and crafts markets, the best of which is the Mercado Modelo. To experience the city’s highs and lows, ride the Elevador Lacerda, an Art Deco structure housing old, electric elevators that carry 50,0000 passengers daily between the historic part of town 279 feet below to All Saints Bay.
To escape the elevator action, take a 20-minute plane ride south to Morro de São Paulo, a quaint little village brimming with cafes, restaurants and craft stores. This island paradise is famous for its numbered beaches, its car-free villages and the colorful fruit displays on the beach selling roskas &dash a tasty Brazilian drink made with spirits and sugar.
Further down the coast on Bahia’s southern tip is Arraial D’Ajuda. Founded by hippies in the early 70s, this tropical utopia conforms to no rules. Shops open at the end of the afternoon and close around midnight, just in time for the nightly luaus on the beach. Swimwear is perfectly acceptable, and even expected, inside restaurants and nightclubs. The unpaved streets are lined with small, rustic inns and charming restaurants that blend perfectly with the town’s carefree vibe.
North of Salvador, Costa do Sauípe may be the polar opposite of Arraial, preferring elegance and luxury rather than hippie insouciance. Costa do Sauípe is a 500-acre resort with major hotels, sports and leisure complexes, a professionally-designed 18-hole golf course and a fully stocked marina. The manmade structures only entice the natural beauty of the seashore, for it’d be nearly impossible to blemish the white sand dunes and coconut groves.
Nature is the luxury at Praia do Forte, a perfect 8-mile stretch of beach thickly lined with palm trees. From December to March, delighted visitors can watch thousands of turtles shuffle ashore to lay eggs. The sight of an enormous sea turtle as it appears in the waves and walks up upon the beach is one you’ll never forget. Time it right and you’ll see the miraculous hatching of the tiny turtles, followed by their epic flight back into the sea.
Bahia is not only a collection of seaside towns and amazing beaches. Bahia boasts lush green valleys dotted with tropical flowers, surrounding a mountain range of twisted red-rock formations that reminds many travelers of the American southwest. The attractions here are purely natural, as visitors hike the highlands, explore sinuous caves, mountain bike next to twisting rivers and swim in natural pools and waterfalls.
These hills, these streets throughout Bahia resound with history and culture, reflecting the combination of Native Indians, Portuguese and African races that created the people who are today Brazilians. And today’s Brazilians, especially in Bahia, do one thing better than any other race in the world—celebrate Carnival.
In Bahia, Carnival is a festival of epic proportions, attracting more than 2 million people to Salvador’s streets for six days of unbridled celebration. After the crowds subside and the streets washed cleaned, that jubilant air lingers, infecting the locals and tourists alike, painting smiles on everyone’s faces all year round. That is Bahia, the smile-maker.