We arrived in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, feeling like true vagabonders. We rode a long public bus into the city and immediately took to climbing the narrow, hilly streets of the historic (and touristy) neighborhood of Pelhourino to find a hostel. After choosing one just off the center square, we quickly came to understand that Pelhourino brims with constant energy – we arrived during the Festival de Música e Cultura Olodum and the streets were thundering and crowded as locals and tourists danced, ate and drank. After two days of music thumping through the night, quiet finally arrived on Monday, and we enjoyed a calmer atmosphere as we roamed the streets.
Salvador has an incredible Afro-Brazilian culture stemming from the African slaves brought to Brazil via Salvador until slavery was finally abolished in the 1880s. The resulting fusion of African, Brazilian and European cultures creates a distinct and lively atmosphere, reflected in the music, food and general mood of the city.
In six days we:
- Moved from a jazz-jam performance at the Museu de Arte Moderna, to the samba-filled square at Praça Terreiro de Jesus, before finally settling in at Bar Galicia, attempting to match the pace, thrust and enthusiasm of the dancing locals.
- Spent considerable time in Pelhourino mixing sight-seeing with street-wandering and people watching in the central square.
- Braved the tourist-devoid streets nearby, stumbling on a few older men jamming out on the street where Alie was encouraged to join in, and drew cheers as she unleashed the dance moves she had learned the night before.
- Joined the crowds at Praia do Porto da Barra beach, which was packed with Brazilians in skimpy bathing suits (men included) and vendors hawking anything and everything giving you no reason to ever leave the shade of your umbrella (and yet Alie still managed to get too much sun).
- Walked a lot, including an unexpected detour through Ciadade Baixa (or the Lower City, created by a cliff dividing the peninsula into a lower and upper city) after the Cable Car we decided to ride from the Upper City broke down.
- Attended a Candomblé ceremony, intrigued and entertained as we were invited to witness an initiation ceremony (Bar Mitzvah?). We crowded into a room with 50 other participants as the new members danced and shouted to the sound of drums for several hours, ending with plates of traditional food (which Alie attempted to eat).
- Partook in the Bonfim Festival, making the 8km pilgrimage with what felt like all 4 million residents of Salvador clad in all white to the Church of Bonfim, where we witnessed women wash the church steps with flowers and water. We then walked the 8km back to our hostel, and learned that what started as a festive religious parade turned into an all out street party (in which we participated by drinking large quantities of Shin beer and Skol Beats).
- Augmented our love of Brazilian street food, feasting on numerous kebabs, spicy cashew nuts, and grilled cheese (not the sandwich – literally just a block of cheese, grilled).
We received countless warnings about safety before arriving in Salvador but we loved the Afro-Brazilian side of Brazil and highly recommend a visit to the unique and dynamic city. The city is visibly rundown (with numerous abandoned and collapsing buildings, tons of shanty developments, etc.) but we kept our guard up the entire time and found the city (particularly the tourist zones of Pelhourino and Barra) to be very committed to keeping tourists safe. Police filled the vicinity of Pelhourino and we felt comfortable leaving the tourist zones during daytime as long as we kept to busy streets.
Now two-plus weeks into traveling, we have also had a chance to reflect on the lifestyle of vagabonding. In Salvador, we finally started to understand that touring 24/7 isn’t possible, and have begun allocating more time to housekeeping and keeping up with news and life at home (wifi permitting…). Vagabonding is unique lifestyle that we are still getting a grasp on. Still, it’s been more than worth the long, dirty and English-less days as we’ve explored Brazil.
Things To Do:
- In Pelhourino, it’s worthwhile to both take a tour (there’s apparently a great free walking tour that takes you around the less touristy areas, unfortunately the guide was injured the day we planned to go) and to wander the streets on your own, taking in the various markets, art and music shops and churches. Igreja de São Francisco is a particularly spectacular church, with gold-covered walls and interesting tiled murals.
- Spend at least one day beaching at Barra, grabbing chairs and an umbrella (rent from Beto Oi as they provide awesome service for the same price, including free feet-cooling via men circulating with cans of ocean water – we were jealous). You can also explore the Barra neighborhood and enjoy the sunset atop a hill overlooking the ocean, the city and the lighthouse.
- Ride the elevator or cable cars (if they are working) down to the lower city to visit Mercado Modelo.
- If you’re in Salvador in January, the second Thursday of the month is the Bonfim Festival (the second largest in Salvador after Carnaval). If you can’t make it for Bonfim, there are apparently lots of other festivals throughout the year, and there are other ways to get involved in the unique religious celebrations. The town is 70%+ Catholic, but over half of those Catholics are actually Candomblé, which is a mix of Catholicism and African religious practices. We feared that attending the ceremony might be touristy and it was anything but that (the “tour guide” dropped us off in the middle of the city at 7PM and told us to climb up stairs with a woman dressed in all white; peering into shanty homes built on Salvador’s hilly terrain, we finally entered a slightly larger structure filled with people in white and traditional dress).
- At night, there are plenty of bars and restaurants to keep you busy in Pelhourino. On Saturday nights, “JAM no MAM” at the Museu de Arte Moderna puts on 3 hours of awesome jazz outside the museum and along the bay. During the week, we enjoyed dinner while listening to awesome live music at J&K Bar e Restaurante.
- There are several day trips out of Salvador. We chose to visit Praia de Forte, which turned out to be a bit of a resort-type beach. It was beautiful and relaxing, but super touristy; we recommend you check out one of the other options (e.g. Morro de Sao Paolo or Imbassai) instead.
Days Stayed / Recommended: We were in Salvador for six days with plenty to keep us busy. With all of the possible day trips and beaches, more time is certainly possible but you need at least 2-3 days.
Accommodations: We stayed in the heart of the action in Pelhourino with most of the other tourists – there are a mix of backpackers and nicer boutique hotels. Barra is the other popular tourist neighborhood along the beach, but it is a bus ride away from the center of the city (on the plus side there are lots of running paths along the water in Barra that fill up around sunset). For those looking for a bit nicer of a stay, there’s a Sheraton located near a nice park as well as other hotels throughout Barra.
Local Food: Acarajé, acarajé, and more acarajé. We tried it again, but unfortunately were still not sold on the shrimp-filled dough ball. We did eat a lot of grilled and kebab chicken with awesome spicy sauce.
Michael’s Sustainable Fun Fact: Recycling in Salvador comes in the form of entrepreneurial (and low-income) individuals roaming the city for empty cans and bottles – most get to you as you are finishing your last sip! Some individuals go so far as to toss their cans on the streets in front of buses to run over and compress them to ease the burden of carrying them to the recycling plant.