Departing the comforts of the Ray’s in Punta, we weren’t sure exactly what we’d find in Olinda and Recife in Brazil’s Northeast state of Pernambuco. We were a bit nervous given our sketchy late night arrival – despite arranging a highly recommended hostel and transportation the day before, we arrived to an empty, locked building on an abandoned street. After making it clear to our Portuguese-speaking taxi driver that he could not simply leave us on the road, he somehow got into the building, found the keys, and showed us to our bare room. Sketchy, yes. Secure, unclear. Still, we were happy to be off the street, and spent the next 20 minutes securing the door, sweating in the 100% humidity without A/C, peering out the window, and locking up our bags in a secure steel mesh bag (while thanking Anne and Mike for the PacSafe recommendation). However, we were taken aback when we awoke to find a colorful hostel full of young, friendly Brazilians that proved to be an omen of the region’s friendly people, tasty meals and spirited culture to come.
After a breakfast at our hostel of fruit, soy & vegetable sandwiches and other Brazilian specialities (which we referred to as an omelette-type dish, a couscous/cereal-like food and that potato-cheese-vegetable thing) that proved to be (mostly) delicious after we (Michael) got over our initial hesitation, we headed out to tour the town of Olinda.
Over the next two days, we found ourselves winding through the narrow (albeit quiet, at least during the daytime) streets of both Olinda and Recife, while:
- Taking a tour of Olinda from a guide who spoke literally no English. Somehow, we actually managed to learn plenty of the city’s history from our guide via a combination of Spanish and Portuguese as well as many hand motions and plenty of repetition. In our defense, we tried to find an English speaking guide, but realized most guides used “I speak English” to hook you into a tour, and then knew no other English words. Our guide also proved to be fun, showing us a few local magic and card tricks and feeding us fruit from local trees.
- Visiting the first synagogue in the Americas, ironically located on “Street of Jesus” (though we later learned it had once been known as “Street of the Jews”). At the museum we learned about the history of the Jews in Northeast Brazil and their influence in the trade and construction of Recife.
- Eating a lot of tapioca, the local taco-esque food. The soft outer shell is filled with shredded meat and chunks of melted cheese. We opted for chicken (“frango”) and drenched ours in hot sauce (“picante”).
- Enjoying Olinda’s nightlife with friends we made at our hostel, drinking the local axa and listening to an impromptu guitar/harmonica jam session on the street. The city really came alive Friday night, as we partook in a 4+ hour parade marching through the packed streets to the sounds of a frevo and maracatu band while attempting our own version of samba dancing.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in gritty Olinda and Recife. Though reputedly not the safest cities, they showed us how friendly and fun Brazilians are – we received numerous offers of help on the bus despite not asking for it (Alie’s paleness screams “tourist”), a random vendor helped us for 30 minutes as we tried to set up our phone and recognized us the next day to ask if it worked, and despite not knowing English, most of the bar hoppers we joined up with tried to chat with us and show us a good time. On top of that, we learned some history and explored the cool Northeast corridor of Brazil. If you’re willing to rough it a bit and are OK in a city where nearly no one speaks English (including tourists), we certainly recommend a pit stop to Olinda and Recife.
Things to Do:
- A tour of Olinda is a must. In spite of the “Spanguese,” we were able to learn a lot about the city’s history and culture from our tour guide. We took in the sites of the city’s various 16th-20th century baroque churches, colorful colonial buildings, flavor-filled markets and many lookout points, topping out at Alta do Sé with views over Olinda, nearby beaches and the expansive city of Recife.
- Visiting in January, we were able to partake in Olinda’s pre-Carnaval activities. We hear that Olinda and Recife both throw fantastic Carnaval parties, and we got a flavor of that as we witnessed bands and dancers practicing in the streets as well as the Friday night parade through town.
- Olinda has many bars throughout the city (and plenty of street vendors hawking R$5 or USD$1.25 beers). We particularly enjoyed grabbing a drink at Bodega de Véio, a grocery store turned bar, and drinking on their outdoor balcony.
- Olinda is an artistic hub with countless studios throughout the streets. We loved peaking in to see the different art around town.
- Recife is a quick and (relatively) easy bus ride away. We enjoyed our walk through the streets of Recife Antigo (the city’s historic center), visiting the Jewish Museum, Cultural Center, crafts markets along the water at Marco Zero and the grittier (translation much more authentic and exciting) markets along the streets near Recife Antigo.
Days Stayed / Recommended: We spent 2 full days and 3 nights in Olinda, and accomplished plenty of sight seeing in those two days (covering both the historic districts of Olinda and Recife). There are also many beaches in the area to enjoy if you want to extend your stay. In fact, it seems that most tourists (largely Brazilians) come for the nightlife, and spend their days resting up on these beaches or generally relaxing around town.
Accommodations: We stayed in a hostel in Olinda, and would recommend staying in one in the heart of the historical center. Though some may be noisy from the streets, you’ll feel more comfortable and safe in the center of the action (hopefully avoiding the sketchy arrival we experienced). There were tons of cute pousadas and a few more upscale options. If staying in the larger city of Recife is your preference, we heard that Boa Viagem is a fun, touristy neighborhood to check out.
Local Food: Throughout the streets of Olinda, you’ll hear many food cart vendors calling out “Tapioca! Acaraje!”. We tried both, and while the shrimp-and-sauce-filled fried dough ball of Acaraje was okay, we absolutely loved the cheesy, doughy and spicy Tapioca (we had 3 in 2 days).