Brazil: Sun, saints and spirits in Bahia

South America and West Africa are separated by thousands of miles of the Atlantic Ocean – yet remain united by the ancient traditions still celebrated in Brazil's vast coastal state of Bahia
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The Independent Travel

Beyond the rocks below me, where a dozen bare-chested men were casting out improvised fishing lines; beyond the foam that hissed on the serrated rocks at their feet; beyond the white horses that crested the green Atlantic waves; and beyond the distant clouds that mimicked landfall on the horizon... Beyond where I stood on the brink of north-eastern Brazil and thousands of kilometres of southern Atlantic Ocean, lay Angola.

These were the southern suburbs of Salvador, the first capital of Brazil, founded by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, but given shape and form by the millions of slaves from Angola and the Guinea coast that they brought with them.

Salvador is no longer the capital; it was first usurped by Rio de Janeiro in 1763 and then, 50 years ago, by the modernist metropolis Brasilia. But this city of almost four million souls remains the capital of the vast state of Bahia and the de facto Afro-Brazilian capital of an even more immense country.

Built on a broad peninsula that shoulders the Atlantic, the city guards the mouth of Todos os Santos bay, some 20 miles across at its widest point. To find its spiritual heart, I headed north from my vantage point in the seductively sleepy suburb of Rio Vermelho, with its enchanting coastal vistas, to the elevated Pelourinho quarter, a candy-coloured patchwork of colonial craftsmanship. This was where the Portuguese founded a fortified city overlooking their prized harbour, the hub of colonial Brazil's sugar, tobacco and slave trades.

To the uninitiated, the name Pelourinho rolls off the tongue like the names of the national football team, but it has an altogether more sinister translation. The "pillory" district takes its name from the punitive posts that African slaves were ritually tied to by their Portuguese captors for castigation or for sale to work on the plantations.

The post was removed from Pelourinho Square in 1835. As I stood on the baking hot cobblestones of the square the only remaining vestige of the practice was the name; the bright pink, blue, yellow and green-daubed colonial buildings that once surrounded the pelourinho now flirted innocently with the afternoon sun.

It was all as pretty as a Battenberg cake, but something curious lurked behind me, perching awkwardly in the shadows on a little stone plinth at the back of the square. The contorted assemblage of what looked like used car parts formed some half-man, half-beast figure, no taller than a child. My Salvadorian guide, Marcos Reis smiled, "Orixa; Candomblé spirit." This particular orixa, was Exu, one of the most exalted Candomblé deities. An Afro-Brazilian spiritual tradition, Candomblé was formed in Salvador by the slaves of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Togo and Benin and is a loose association of their animism-rooted beliefs and traditions. Still practised today, fundamental to the tradition are the orixas, the spirits linked to nature that are invoked by maes (literally a mother, or priestess) and paes (fathers/priests) in the hundreds of temples scattered all over the city.

Marcos could trace his lineage back to Nigeria and Benin and as it turned out was the grandson of a well-known mae, Menininha do Gantois, who lived from 1894-1986. Born into a royal family, do Gantois was a celebrated oracle – even after she had gone blind in her later years, she still professed to be able to see and read signs.

The Brazilian samba funk musician and actor, Seu Jorge, who came to fame via the film City of God, had recently spent two weeks being inducted into the Candomblé traditions of the do Gantois family. I asked Marcos whether he'd enjoyed himself. "He was... pretty crazy," Marcos disclosed coyly.

It might be all the rage with celebrities now, but Candomblé hasn't always been so established. As the Portuguese were rustling up churches such as Salvador's baroque Sao Francisco, with its 800kg of gold leaf (the interior would make Mr T tremble), Candomblé was banned by the Catholic Church. It survived in pockets and now exists in a loose association of different houses, such as that of Marcos's family, Ile Gantois. Its suppression also led to Candomblé incorporating elements of Catholicism – when required, saint association was a nifty masquerade for orixa worship. When slavery was finally abolished in 1850, Candomblé became more socially accepted, and now it's thought that around two million Brazilians are followers, even if Catholicism is their principal religion.

One of the most significant examples of this religious pluralism is embodied by the 18th-century Roman Catholic Bonfim church. Once a year thousands of Bahiana ladies dressed in umbrella-like white dresses and turbans walk 8km from lower Salvador to Bonfim church, ferrying floral offerings and water. Upon reaching the church they wash the steps, singing traditional songs in the Yoruba tongue. Although outwardly a Catholic festival, Our Lord of Bonfim is worshipped in Candomblé as Oxala, father of the orixas.

Marcos and I traced the processional route, thankfully by car. The reach of Candomblé soon became apparent as we stopped at the rambling Sao Joaquim market, north of Pelourinho in the Liberdade district. The semi-covered bazaar felt tangibly more African than South American. Stalls shaded by tarpaulins were laden with colourful and pungent fruits, vegetables and herbs, baskets of dried shrimp and rows of plastic bottles filled with red dende oil – a heavy palm derivative favoured in the local cuisine. A colourful bottle of cachaca, the sugar-cane spirit base of the unofficial Brazilian cocktail, the Caipirinha, caught my eye. Emblazoned with a yellow label bearing a semi-nude devil lady lapped by flames, it looked like a bargain, for little more than £1. "I hope you're not going to drink that. It's for offerings," Marcos winced, "and sometimes for old folks." Much of what's sold in the market – from the higgledy-piggledy towers of caged pigeons and doves, to vibrant Catholic/orixa figurines, wooden drums and bottles of cachaca – is for Candomblé ceremonies, whether for offerings or as part of the often hours-long spirit-possession rituals.

While Candomblé is one of the most significant legacies of the slave trade in Bahia, there was another that was more familiar, to me at least. Marcos led me down to the docks, where crumbling colonial buildings are being earmarked for development. A huge mansion decorated with azulejo (Iberian blue-and-white ceramic tiles) was draped in construction netting as part of a Hilton makeover, while a slope of decrepit 19th-century buildings has been tagged for restoration by ultra-high end boutiques such as Chanel and Gucci.

The redevelopment felt incongruous – for now the docks retain a gritty but local flavour: coconut stalls pepper the main square and scruffy dogs twitch in the shade. What grabbed my attention was a commotion at the entrance of the Modelo market. This former slave market and customs house was rebuilt in the original neo-classical style after burning to the ground in 1969; it is now prettily washed in primrose-yellow paint. Outside, a group of boys aged from about eight to 18 were in the middle of a bout of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that has become world-renowned. The rhythmic movements are thoughtV C to have been developed by Angolan slaves from indigenous Brazilian Indians, who many believe conceived capoeira as a game. The slaves modified the moves to incorporate chants and rhythms beaten out on a berimbau, a stringed percussive instrument that looks like a rudimentary sitar. In the past it was used against the Portuguese, but has now returned to its non-combative roots. The display going on outside the market was pretty scrappy, the smallest boy getting increasingly frustrated by his lack of finesse. But as the older boys got into the rhythm, an impressive display of spinning, kicks and cartwheels took shape. Imagine a hybrid of ballet and breakdancing and you're some way there.

Back up in Pelourinho, Marcos took me to one of the most eminent of the city's capoeira schools, that of Mestre Bimba. Bimba founded Salvador's first capoeira school in 1932 and was responsible for first its acceptance then its resurgence, which ended its ban (the "dangerous" art was outlawed by the government in 1890). His style blended traditional Angolan moves with more modern techniques. Behind a peeling turquoise-painted wall, a group of small children studied their teacher with furrowed brows as they tried to keep balance on one wobbly leg.

It is estimated that between 1.2 and 2 million people were forcibly taken from Africa to Bahia before slavery was abolished in 1850. Many first set foot on Brazilian soil in Salvador, but others were off-loaded directly at the tobacco, coconut and sugar-cane plantations that were established for miles along the shores either side of the city. My next move was north to the coastal resort of Praia do Forte, another former slave port; within half an hour of leaving the city I was flanked by white sand dunes and dense coconut groves – the start of the Coconut Coast. The slave trade may be history, but the agriculture that was established at that time is still a current and dominant economy in Bahia.

Praia do Forte gained its name from the homestead of the Portuguese settler Garcia d'Avila, which locals thought resembled a fort. He came to Bahia in 1549. After a period presiding over customs in Salvador, he established the first farm in Brazil and the largest coconut plantation on the Bahian coast that extended for several hundred miles.

These days the idyllic town, with its tiny white and grey painted church, gleaming white lighthouse, fishing boat-filled bay and romantically crumbling fort, belies a major tourist draw. After a 45-minute walk north along the shore, hemmed in by fawn sand and tangled trees, a series of vast, low-slung resorts commences. Set back behind the coconut groves, this is the destination of choice for many wealthy Brazilian holidaymakers and was my next stop.

My digs may well have taken inspiration from d'Avila's fort. The Iberostar Bahia, a mock-colonial residence in epic coral-coloured proportions, is all lofty ceilings, marble floors, fish-filled lakes and open-sided walls; there is even a smattering of orixa statues thrown in for good measure. It's a seductive place where tourists are drawn to the warm Atlantic Ocean, the vacant tropical beaches and the good living. But there are other distractions too. These range from Brazil's principal sea turtle protection project back in the village – Projeto Tamar, with its cheerful visitors centre – to birdwatching trips in nearby wetlands.

Bahia's coast isn't all about big, modern resorts. Two hours south of Salvador (in Brazilian terms, a short hop) by launch is Morro de Sao Paulo, the main town on Tinhare Island. The settlement was established in 1531 by the Portuguese explorer Martim Afonso de Sousa, who commandeered the first official Portuguese expedition to Brazil and was the country's first royal governor.

You enter the island via a stone arch that once marked the entrance to the Portuguese fortress, but emerge into a shallow turquoise bay lined with bars, shacks, backpacker hangouts and restaurants. With no paved roads and a limited number of 4x4s permitted on the island, you need a sense of adventure to get to know the real Tinhare.

A jarring drive along a sand track through pastoral vistas of empty fields and past the pousadas dotted along the First, Second, Third and Fourth Beaches brought me to the end of the line – Enchanted Beach. It was a lovely, if lonely spot. The unkempt white sand was littered with forest debris; the glass-clear sea ran out from the shore in stripes of blue and green, so you had to wade out for what felt like miles to get the water over your knees; brightly painted fishing boats were marooned on the sand at low tide, with mangroves cutting off the beach at high tide.

I stayed at the Anima Hotel, a collection of bungalows built into the forest and surrounded by heliconia and hibiscus flowers. Other than my fellow guests, the only other neighbours were dragonflies, butterflies and land crabs. There were no motorised watersports or beach bars. If you wanted to go snorkelling, a fisherman would wade out with you to the reef, or guide you into the forest to visit the prawn fishermen who live in wooden houses perched alongside the river. Entertainment extended to a game of jaguar and turtles (an Amazonian version of chess) and a library.

One perfect afternoon a film of thin white cloud seeped over the cobalt sky. The wind picked up. Eventually, as the sun set, a gentle rain blew in. I sat on my veranda as that fine rain picked up to needle sharp drops that hammered down on the roof. Palm fronds were beaten down from the trees.

Distant rumbles grew louder until the thunder reverberated in the ground beneath me and lightning lit up the sky like Guy Fawkes Night. It was a spectacular performance that kept me bound to my bungalow for hours. Later that evening, the staff couldn't impress on me enough how unusual this was for the time of year. But I couldn't help thinking that, rather than climate change or a freak storm, this could only have been the work of the orixas.

Travel essentials: Bahia

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Hayes & Jarvis (0871 664 0246; hayesandjarvis. com), which offers trips to Bahia from £1,399 per person. The price includes TAM flights from Heathrow to Salvador via Sao Paulo; a three-day Heritage of Colonial Salvador tour with B&B at the four-star Blue Tree Premium; a walking tour and folkloric show; followed by five nights' all-inclusive at the four-star Iberostar Bahia.

* Salvador is served by TAM (020-8897 0005; from Heathrow via Sao Paulo.

Air Europa (0871 423 0717; flies from Gatwick via Madrid.

Getting around

* Daily ferries between Salvador and Morro de Sao Paulo are operated by Ilha Belha (00 55 71 9184 3122;; R150 (£57) return; two hours.

* There is a R10 (£3.70) tourist tax on arrival and R0.62 (25p) on departure.

Staying there

* Pestana Bahia Lodge, Rio Vermelho, Salvador, Bahia (00 55 71 2103 8000;

* Hotel Iberostar Bahia, Praia do Forte, Bahia (00 55 71 3676 4200;

* Anima Hotel, Praia do Encanto, Morro de Sao Paulo, Bahia (00 55 75 3652 2077;

Visiting there

* Bale Folclorico da Bahia, Teatro Miguel Santana, 49 Rua Gregorio de Matos, Pelourinho, Salvador (00 55 71 3322 1962;

* Associacao de Capoeira Mestre Bimba, 1 Rua das Laranjeiras, Pelourinho, Salvador (00 55 71 3322 0639;

More information

* Brazil Tourist Office: 020-7399 9000;

* Praia do Forte tourist information:

* Morro de Sao Paulo tourist information: