Traveller's Guide: North-east Brazil

In the second instalment of our four-part series, produced in association with Lonely Planet, Bridget Gleeson examines the Afro-Brazilian heartland and blissful beaches beyond

Brazilians call the north-eastern state of Bahia "a terra da felicidade" – the land of happiness. It's not hard to understand why when you're flat on your back on a white sandy beach, or face to face with a school of tropical fish, or dancing in the street to the rhythm of African drumming, or watching the sun set over the ocean with a cold caipirinha in hand. However, for all the apparent festivity, the heartland of Afro-Brazil is steeped in strife. But it's the sharp contrast between light and dark, between the painful past and the exuberant present, that gives Brazil's north-east its unique cultural identity.

One of the oldest cities in the Americas and Brazil's first official capital, Salvador da Bahia was founded by the Portuguese in 1549 and later became the hub of the African slave trade in the Americas. Five million Africans were brought to Brazil as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries. Thanks to their descendants carefully preserving and celebrating a wide range of African traditions, the coastal city is marked by an intriguing cultural mix.

Women in colourful dresses sell traditional African street food in front of colonial Portuguese houses. Antique bells ring atop Catholic churches, and nearby, followers of Candomblé – a mystical, African religion – release flowers into the sea in homage to one of their orixas, or deities. At night, Bahian women prepare traditional Afro-Brazilian food for the locals streaming by on their way to the Forte de Santo Antonio to watch a spectacular sunset over the water. The Portuguese fort, dating from 1698, contains the oldest lighthouse in South America; the classic street snack to try nearby is acaraje, balls of dough fried in dende (palm) oil and served with spicy sauces.

In Pelhourinho, the city's historic centre, festive displays of capoeira (a form of martial arts developed by slaves) enliven European-style plazas. Visitors can learn the basics at Associacao Brasileira de Capoeira Angola (00 55 71 3356 7640; capoeirabrasilbahia.com). The family friendly capoeira association runs classes open to all ages for around R30 (£8) per person; no Portuguese language skills are required to participate. Afterwards, you can watch the professional capoeiristas practise their craft.

Even in the most peaceful contemporary settings, remnants of the region's dark past remain. A favourite Saturday evening draw for both locals and visitors is JAM no MAM at the Museu de Arte Moderna (00 55 71 3241 2983; jamnomam.com.br), featuring live bossa nova music on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The museum is housed within the historic Solar do Unhao sugar-producing complex, a space that Bahians say is haunted by the ghosts of slaves.

It's not all about Africa in Brazil's north-east, though. The region is home to a number of gorgeously preserved historic cities famous for their colonial architecture. In Salvador, the Pelourinho is the historic centre: with its vibrantly hued old houses, pretty colonial churches and steep cobblestone streets, it's like walking through a larger-than-life jewellery box.

Further north, on the banks of the Rio Sao Francisco, Penedo in Alagoas state is packed with notable 17th- and 18th-century churches. Olinda, in Pernambuco, is famous for its Baroque chapels and pastel-coloured houses just north of Recife, and on the far northern coast, Sao Luis in Maranhao is crowded with gorgeous old mansions that earned the city a spot on Unesco's World Heritage list.

History and culture aside, the blissful white beaches along the Atlantic coastline – from the fashionable holiday enclaves of southern Bahia to the tranquil fishing villages of Alagoas, and extending all the way up to the sand dunes of Natal, in the far north – are reason enough to visit. A land of happiness, indeed.

Parties and festivals

Rio de Janeiro's carnival might draw the largest crowds, but many Brazilians say Salvador's celebration – bringing in more than two million partygoers for six days of revelry just before Ash Wednesday – is superior. At the annual Carnaval de Salvador (27 February-5 March 2014; www.carnaval.salvador.ba.gov.br), the emphasis is on music, with Bahian axe and pagode (pop music) bands playing atop trios eletricos (floats loaded with huge speakers) and an ongoing parade of blocos afros (Afro-Brazilian drum corps.) Most big cities in the north-east host a lively but lower-key carnival.

Other festivals of note are tied to Candomblé tradition. February's Festa de Iemanja ( culturatododia.salvador.ba.gov.br) is held in Salvador to honour Iemanja, goddess of the sea and fertility. Devotees release offerings of flowers, perfume and mirrors into the sea in the bohemian district of Rio Vermelho; later, the ceremony erupts into a huge street party that lasts into the small hours.

Music and dance

North-east Brazil has proud and distinct musical traditions. You'll hear forro, an energetic mix of African drums and accordion strains. In Salvador, get an overview of afro, samba, and capoeira  set to the live percussion – as well as the mystical music and dance of the Candomblé religion – at an evening performance of the world-renowned folkloric ballet troupe Bale Folclorico da Bahia (00 55 71 3321 0025; balefolclorico dabahia.com.br). Tickets cost R40 (£11). Sao Luis is regarded as the nation's reggae capital; pull up a chair at Bar do Nelson (00 55 98 8776 2875; facebook.com/nelsonreggaeroots) or one of the casual pavement bars in the historic centre.

Food and drink

A one-of-a-kind indulgence that's not to be missed, Afro-Brazilian cuisine combines fresh seafood and coconut milk with West African staples such as dende, a rich palm oil. Try a classic moqueca (fish stew) at one of the breezy seafront restaurants in the lively Barra area of Salvador, such as Caranguejo do Porto (00 55 3245 9197; caranguejodoporto.com.br). In the Pelourinho, take a break at Cafelier (00 55 3241 5095; cafelier.com.br), a quaint café on a cliff above the bay. Try a caipirinha, the beloved cocktail of limes, sugar and cachaça, a high-proof sugarcane spirit – you'll find these everywhere but at Cafelier, they're perfectly prepared and served in glass goblets.

Peaceful beaches

In Bahia, dreamy stretches of white beach include the rustic Caraiva ( caraiva.com.br) and the magical Praia do Espelho ( praiadoespelho.net.br), just south of Trancoso where the Uxua Casa Hotel (00 55 73 3668 2277; uxua.com) epitomises the boho scene. Casas from R1,684 (£431), B&B. Further north, near Porto Seguro, the clifftop Arraial d'Ajuda ( arraialdajudaportal.com), is a getaway for Brazilians and Argentinians. Two hours by boat from Salvador is the postcard-perfect, car-free isle of Morro de Sao Paulo ( morrodesaopaulo.com.br). Going north along the coast, Maceio ( guiamaceio.com) in Alagoas, is a relaxed destination. In the states of Paraiba and Rio Grande de Norte, expect to spot dolphins around Praia da Pipa ( pipa.com.br). For sand dunes, head to Natal and further north to Lencois Maranhenses ( parquelencois.com.br).

Where to stay

In Salvador, the lovely Casa do Amarelindo (00 55 71 3266 8550; casadoamarelindo.com) is in a 19th-century colonial house in the heart of the Pelourinho. The colourful boutique hotel features a terrace cocktail bar with sweeping sunset views over the Baia de Todos os Santos. Doubles start at R350 (£94), including breakfast.

Further north, right on the beach in the "Sun City" of Natal, a famous Brazilian nature photographer runs the romantic Manary Praia Hotel (00 55 84 3204 2900; manary.com.br). Doubles, including breakfast, start at R418 (£112).

Soak up the colonial charm of Sao Luis at the affordably priced Portas da Amazonia (00 55 98 3222 9937; portasdaamazonia.com.br), an Italian-run pousada inside a restored mansion in the Centro Historico. Doubles start at R115 (£31), including breakfast.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Many travellers arrive in Brazil's north east via Salvador's Luis Eduardo Magalhaes International Airport (SSA), served from Gatwick via Madrid by Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com); from Heathrow via Lisbon by TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com); and by TAM (020 8741 2005; tam.com.br) from Heathrow via Sao Paulo. TAP also serves Recife's Guararapes International Airport (REC) and Natal's Augusto Severo International Airport (NAT) via Lisbon.

For travel within the region, try Brazilian airlines such as TAM, GOL (00 55 300 115 2121; voegol.com.br) and Azul (00 55 4003 1118; voeazul.com.br). Foreigners must buy plane tickets through a travel agent, as airlines' websites generally don't accept non-Brazilian credit cards.

For shorter hauls, take advantage of Brazil's excellent network of comfortable short- and long-distance buses. A wide variety of carriers and schedules are available on the website Busca Onibus ( buscaonibus.com.br).

Lonely Planet's guide to Brazil is out now, priced £18.99 ( shop.lonelyplanet.com)

Next week: Central-West Brazil

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