Discover Brazil's African heritage in Bahia

As the epicentre of Brazil's African heritage, the state of Bahia thrums with carnival energy and drum beats, while the layers of history can be traced from its lush coast to its rugged interior
Discover Brazil's African heritage in Bahia
Oliver Pilcher

This is the place where most of the Africans were brought. That’s probably the first thing you should know about Bahia. They were brought from the western coast of Africa to toil in the vast fields of sugarcane that once helped make Portugal one of the wealthiest empires in the world. Nearly 1.7 million enslaved Africans arrived here during the slave trade, and the country was the last in the Americas to make the practice illegal. Today, Bahia is Brazil’s most African state, with more than three quarters of its 15 million inhabitants tracing their roots back to the opposite side of the Atlantic. But really that’s just another way of saying that Bahia is Brazil’s most Brazilian state, since so many of the country’s contributions to the world, from its carnival to its capoeira, were first created in Bahia by Africans and their descendants and continue to grow and flourish here today.

Tiririca beach, ItacaréOliver Pilcher

My week in Bahia began in Salvador, the largest city in the country’s north-east region and the thumping heart of Afro-Brazilian culture. My guide Conor O’Sullivan picked me up at the airport and manoeuvred through the traffic skirting the edge of the sea. Home to almost three million people, Salvador lies near the southern tip of a peninsula that divides the immense Bahia de Todos Santos from the bright blue waters of the Atlantic, and climbs up a tall escarpment. The 150-year-old Lacerda Elevator, one of the world’s busiest public lifts, carries people from the lower part of the city, the Cidade Baixa, to the upper part, the Cidade Alta. 

As recently as a decade ago, Brazilians spoke of Salvador as a failed city, lamenting its high crime rate, its crumbling infrastructure, its abandoned buildings. But the years since then have seen its fortunes rise. As Conor drove me to the sleek Fasano Salvador, a 2018 opening from the Brazilian hotel brand with outposts in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and part of the growing number of luxury hotels to bet on the city’s prospects, he praised the revitalisation projects of recent local governments.

We saw evidence of those efforts as we drove. Crews of workers were spreading fresh asphalt on the roads, and in a palatial old building construction was underway on the Museum of Brazilian Music – a tribute to the musical legacy of a city where Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso pioneered the Afro-Brazilian sound Tropicália in the late 1960s.

Ornate ceiling of Cathedral Basilica of SalvadorOliver Pilcher

The ambitious aim has been to position Salvador as the leading cultural destination in all of Latin America. It wouldn’t be the first time the city had worn that crown. Four centuries ago, when Rio de Janeiro was little more than a pirate’s nest, Salvador was the capital of Brazil. It’s one of the only cities in the Americas that still looks largely how it did when it was established during colonial times. Pelourinho, the historic neighbourhood, is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with steep cobbled streets twisting in every direction and stone squares flanked by Portuguese cathedrals lined with gold. Throughout the day and into the evening, the sounds of elaborate drumming ricochet off the façades of the grand old houses, which are painted in the colours of the tropics – the orange of papaya, the yellow of mango, the blue of the sea. 

Brazil has been hard-hit by Covid, and lockdown means these sounds have likely been muted for now. One evening, while hurrying to a dance performance at a local theatre, Conor and I ran into a throng that had gathered in a narrow street to watch an impromptu show by one of the neighbourhood’s drum groups. Abandoning our plans, we stood there swaying to the thunderous rhythms of Banda Olodum, a legendary samba-reggae band that performs each February during Salvador’s Carnaval, which rivals Rio’s as the biggest in Brazil, if not the world. ‘It’s not difficult to be waylaid here,’ said Conor. ‘There’s a spontaneity and a sense of fun.’

Mestre Valmir and his son practising Angolan capoiera in his studio in SalvadorOliver Pilcher

I didn’t fail to notice that my guide to the most African city outside Africa was as Irish a guy as you could hope to meet west of Galway, but Conor has lived in Salvador since 1982, and he knows everyone. One of his friends is Mestre Valmir, a charismatic capoeira master who welcomed us into his training centre and held forth about the origins of the martial art, recounting how slaves developed it in the sugarcane fields, adopting musical instruments and acrobatic moves to fool their oppressors into thinking they were dancing, as opposed to practising a form of self-defence.

Mestre Valmir’s capoeira studioOliver Pilcher

We watched his students take turns facing off in the centre of a circle while he led a group of musicians on the berimbau, or musical bow. The fighters would plant their hands on the floor and wheel their heels at each other while carefully avoiding contact. ‘Capoeira teaches respect for the other,’ he explained. ‘You don’t want to hit the other person, you just want to show that you could.’

Moqueca fish stew at Casas Bahia in the cityOliver Pilcher

Another friend of Conor’s is Tereza Paim, the chef at Casa de Tereza, one of a crop of restaurants that have established Salvador as a rising South American food city. Owing to its West African influence, Bahia’s spicy cooking has always stood out from the relatively mild fare found in other parts of Brazil. We shared a moqueca, a peppery fish stew cooked in azeite de dende, a thick orange oil derived from the berries of the African oil palm.

The stew arrived sizzling in a terracotta pot, the smell of onions and tomatoes and fish and spices all mingling above the brightly painted tabletop. Ingredients from across the Portuguese empire merged before us into something delicious – Bahian history boiled down to its culinary essence.

A third friend offered an engrossing account of an important facet of that history. Daré Rose is a scholar and Filha de Santo (congressional member) of candomblé, a religion born of beliefs and customs that travelled to Salvador from West Africa in the holds of slave ships. As recently as the 1970s, its followers faced persecution by the government, but they kept the faith, and today in Brazil they number in the millions. Daré took us behind the whitewashed walls of her terreiro, a building where candomblé is practised, set amid a stretch of forest in an outlying area of the city.

The temples, inconspicuous structures of stucco and wood, stood in stark contrast to the gilded extravagance of the baroque churches that loomed over the central squares. Some were decorated with simple carvings or motifs that represented different orixás, or deities. They include Xangô, the axe-wielding god of thunder, and Yemanjá, the fish-tailed goddess of the sea. Beginning in the 1950s, Brazil’s preeminent novelist Jorge Amado and the whimsical painter Carybé held honorary positions of prestige in the community, Daré told me. Together with the photographer Pierre Verger, they culture and the daily lives of its people, attracting visits from Pablo Neruda, Simone de Beauvoir and Fidel Castro.

Cabana Bobo on Resende beachOliver Pilcher

Salvador was a stronghold of the Brazilian left in those days, and it still is. One night we squeezed into a packed bar called O Cravinho, where cachaça infused with cloves and other spices filled casks lining a shelf along the wall. On the TV, former president Luiz Inácio Lulada Silva, known as Lula, was giving what you could see was an emotional speech, even if you couldn’t hear him above the cheerful commotion in the wood-panelled bar. A Supreme Court ruling had just led to Lula’s release from prison, where he’d served a year and a half of a 12-year sentence for corruption. He had taken bribes, to be sure, but no one I met in Bahia doubted the sincerity of his dedication to the cause of improving the lives of Brazilians of colour. 

During my travels, his nemesis, the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, was leading an assault on his social programmes and affirmative action policies, which had been widely credited with lifting millions out of poverty. At the bar, old men were staring at the TV with tears in their eyes. Watching from the pavement, a woman in a wheelchair who must have been 90 tipped a plastic cup to her lips. 

Locals’ bar on the Maraú peninsulaOliver Pilcher

If you visit Brazil, you’re probably also looking for serene beaches and scenes of natural splendour, and you can find 76 superlative versions of both without venturing outside Bahia, a state about the size of France with a dazzling diversity of landscapes. In recent years, more and more people have been drawn to the remote Maraú peninsula, a thumb of land endowed with mangroves, waterfalls, sparsely populated islands, magnificent rainforest and miles and miles of idyllic beaches. 

To get to the hotel where I was staying, I first boarded an hour-long flight from Salvador to Ilhéus, the faded former hub of the chocolate industry that reigned over this region – the so-called Cacao Coast – until a blight decimated the crop in the 1980s. From there it was another hour down a dirt road that runs the length of the peninsula. The difficulty of getting from one end of Maraú to the other has kept it safe from the depredations of big developers.

Exterior of a beachfront bungalow at Casa dos ArandisOliver Pilcher

My hotel, Casa dos Arandis, which was set between the palm-fringed beach and the rainforest, had the laid-back vibe of a surf retreat, with bungalows made of salvaged wood and Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the salty breeze. Lying in the hammock on my porch, I could hear the churning of the Atlantic beyond the clusters of tropical greenery that shaded the sandy footpaths. Jogging down the beach, I passed three people in the span of a mile. 

The co-owner, a surfer in his early 60s, was a white guy from Rio nicknamed Cacau, which means cocoa, and although he tried explaining the origins of the nickname to me over a fresh bowl of locally grown açai, it was a complicated story and I got lost. He served nectar from cocoa fruit in a shot glass as soon as I stepped out of the car and continued to offer it to me throughout my visit, sometimes spiking the milky ambrosia with cachaça, always extolling its many nutritional benefits.

The hotel’s owner Nanana Teixeira talking with local surfer Juan Diego EvangelistaOliver Pilcher

Cacau was bullish about the local cacao industry’s prospects of recapturing its former glory. A growing number of farmers, many of them his friends, were embracing organic methods and other ecologically enlightened practices, partly to stave off the sorts of diseases that had ravaged the region’s crop in the past. Each morning at the hotel, I sat down at a table laden with their products – not just cacao nibs but also banana and papaya and mango and a cherry-like fruit called pitanga, as well as coconut milk and coconut water, all of it local and organic. 

One day after breakfast, I followed Cacau on a stand-up paddleboard through a maze of mangroves to an uninhabited island where some of his farmer friends had been growing all kinds of fruits I’d never heard of, let alone tasted. I bit into a capiá, a small yellow ball with the texture and taste of a sweet potato, then one of the farmhands hacked apart a cocoa pod – oblong, orange, with ribbed leathery skin. We all just stood around grinning at each other while chewing on the sweet lemony pulp, spitting out the bitter seeds that are used to make chocolate.

Chapada diamantina, my final stop in Bahia, is a national park in the sertão, the rugged outback that ripples across north-east Brazil’s interior. It’s difficult to sum up the place’s staggering scale, scenic beauty and sheer ecological variety without just resorting to a recital of its greatest hits. I’m thinking of its dozens of waterfalls, some hundreds of feet high, and its cacti, many of which grow taller than houses, and its extraordinary caves, which draw spelunkers from around the world, and a freshwater pond carpeted with ancient white seashells so tiny you could fit dozens on the tip of your finger.

Restaurant in São Francisco square in the city’s old townOliver Pilcher

The land is mostly dry and rocky, dominated by dramatic bluffs and buttes. Stretches might remind you of the American Southwest, but then you’ll spot a capuchin monkey scurrying across a cliff, or a tree that sheds its bark each day so the green skin beneath it can draw energy directly from the sun, and you’ll realise that there’s no other place like this in the world. Right in the middle of all this natural beauty is a burst of unnatural colour, the pastel-painted town of Lençóis. 

I spent four nights at Hotel Canto Das Aguas, a rambling pousada of pink and green stones on the banks of a rushing river. In the mornings I’d sit on the veranda with my coffee and watch jewel-like birds peck at the papaya the staff had set out for them in bowls. In the evenings I’d stroll across a footbridge into the centre, where scores of backpackers gathered outside the restaurants that line the cobblestone streets, while street musicians strummed and sang mellow bossa nova classics.

Bougainvillaea in the city’s Largo dos Aflitos neighbourhoodOliver Pilcher

Decades ago this town wasn’t so charming. For a brief stretch in the 19th century, it was the diamond capital of the world, and the African people and their descendants in the area ended up working in the region’s mines. This persisted for generations. My guide Mil told me that the mining companies would buy diamonds from the workers at just 1.5 per cent of their market value – and in most cases probably less, since the workers were essentially confined to their isolated settlements and had no way of ascertaining the value themselves. Mil said his father had been a miner. The family lived day-to-day, trading diamonds for sacks of tapioca and beans. Now the mines were closed, and many of the locals worked as guides, mining the beauty of the park itself.

Each day, Mil would drive me to some spectacular site that somehow outdid whatever he’d shown me the day before. One morning we hiked along a river in a striated gorge strewn with slabs of pink quartz. Another day we penetrated the darkness of the soaring Lapa Doce cave while he provided running commentary on the ghostly stalagmites that revealed themselves in the beam of his torch. (‘This one, it looks like an owl. That one, it looks like the nativity when Jesus is born.’)

On my last day, Mil said there was a view I had to see. We’d have to drive two hours to get to the trailhead, then hike for another few hours, but it would be worth it. The place was called the valley of Pati. When I asked what that meant, he said no one knew. People from Africa had given it that name long ago, and now its meaning was forgotten.

Musicians walking from Tiririca to Prainha beachOliver Pilcher

We climbed a steep trail onto the top of a plateau, then walked for about two miles across a savannah. Every so often some arresting new species of flora would appear. Furry cacti. Purple blossoms shaped like slippers. Bright red bursts of threadlike petals flaring up from the rocks. The view, when we finally reached it, was as stunning as promised, across the green valley to colossal grey cliffs rising like ships from a sea of leaves. I thought about something Mil had told me on an earlier hike. We’d been discussing what makes Bahia special when he asserted, as Bahians often do, that samba was invented there, despite what people will tell you in Rio. 

He stopped in the trail, pressed his wrists together behind his back and stood very still with his ankles touching. In the days of slavery, he said, if you were caught practising capoeira or candomblé, or committing some other transgression in the eyes of your oppressors, that’s how they’d make you stand, with your feet and hands bound together, sometimes for days on end. But if you stood there and didn’t move, you would die. Your blood would stop flowing. So you shuffled your feet, an inch at a time. One foot forward, the other foot back. Samba. ‘It was necessary,’ he said, looking at me intently. He considered the point important enough to bear repeating. ‘It was necessary.’ That was Bahia. A beautiful place where people had endured unimaginable cruelty by creating a culture that made it even more beautiful. 

Sunday afternoon on Prainha beach, ItacaréOliver Pilcher

Getting around

Tour operator Matueté can arrange tailor-made itineraries around Bahia, including guides, transfers and accommodation.