Salvador, Bahia & the Recôncavo: A Guide

Why is Salvador So Not Like the Rest of the World?

This is an out-of-the-ordinary guide to extraordinary Salvador da Bahia, Brazil — and to Salvador’s protean environs (the Recôncavo) and their vast importance to Brazil and the world-at-large. Almost like forbidden knowledge, recognition of this area and its history are cloaked in obscurity. But like most unreasonable things, there are reasons this is so.

That’s the way — and this is how — I see it anyway…

‘I’ is me, Randy ‘Pardal’ Roberts, stranger in a yet stranger land, here with my arm slung across the shoulders of redoubtable chuleiro João do Boi (John of the Ox), of São Braz, Bahia

Sprawled across broad equatorial latitudes, stoked and steamed and sensual in the widest sense of the word, limned in cadenced song…

Brazil was conceived in a conundrum wrapped in a smile inside an irony.

Which is to say that Brazil was conceived in Bahia. And Bahia was predicated on the area around the great bay over which Salvador presides like a diamond in the rough.

This is a center of gravity where the important architecture is not set in stone, glass or steel. Those who built the culture here were not in a position to avail themselves of architects and engineers…they worked with what was available to them: their voices, their hands, their bodies, the percussion instruments they themselves were able to build…in some cases, the strung instrument of the master’s house, the viola machete.

The truly magnificent architecture here (with all due respect to Salvador’s Centro Histórico, Pelourinho) is aural.

You don’t enter it. It enters you.

Welcome to the primary port-of-call for the greatest enforced odyssey in the history of mankind. In a supreme act of irony the fabulously elemental joy that Brazil is famous for was created here, by these people, in the area around Bahia’s great bay, under the direst of circumstances, in what can only be called a true act of transubstantiation.

Caetano Veloso, son of the town of Santo Amaro, Bahia, set at the north end of the bay, explained it like this in his song Desde Que o Samba é Samba (Since Samba has been Samba):

Samba is the father of pleasure
Samba is the son of pain
The great transforming power…

You can hear this song right here —

And venerable Raimundo Sodré, son of a son of Santo Amaro (Sodré himself was born further into the interior, in the sertão, or backlands, in Ipirá, Bahia) put it like this:

“Where there’s misery, there’s music!”

You can hear Sodré here in his Sacando a Cana, Bagging the (Sugar) Cane (the song begins: “The samba of St. Vincent, rocked the marketplace…”) —


was Brazil’s first capital (from 1549 to 1763) and is today the capital of Bahia. And Bahia — a King Solomon’s minefield of color and culture — a place of so much living — is humanity’s and history’s all-time capital of exodus by argosy into human bondage. Some four times the number of enslaved people landed in the entire mainland United States…were landed in the city of Salvador and environs alone. More Africans than at any other port-of-call throughout the entire history of the African Diaspora.

These environs, the area around Bahia’s great Baía de Todos os Santos — Bay of All Saints — the diaspora’s historically freighted and ponderously weighted naval — ground zero for Brazil’s sun-corona-vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture — bear a denomination justifiably echoing a thunderclap (thrown by Nzazi of course, Thor of the Bantus who formed by far the greatest population in this area): the Recôncavo [“heh-KAWN-kah-vo”]…

Salvador, Bahia and the Recôncavo
Salvador to the right. The Recôncavo comprises the area around the bay.

Where survivors — Nzazi himself, and Oxalá and Iansã, Dandalunda and Katendê and Kabila et al — of the long gloaming twilight of the gods on the African continent found a new home and in whose music and dance a national ethos would be born.

The pulses which propel Brazilian music like a sustained, subtly controlled explosion — propel the Carnival samba of Rio de Janeiro — propel the softly understated bossa nova of Brazilians at Carnegie Hall in the ’60s — were all ultimately derived from the music played for these deities in Bahia’s houses of candomblé (that is, the sacred music of African Brazil).

In these places, the gods dance

What is dead now in Africa is movingly alive and beyond well in the convictions of a grand  swath of the population of Bahia.

A population the collective consciousness of which is cradle and repository for the immense immaterial treasure troves of a place even the name of which (Brazil) was inspired in heat and embers (from brasa, through pau brasilis — Brazilwood, with its crepuscular red tint).

You’re not in Kansas anymore, baby!

[Why “Numinous Bahia”? Numinous is based in the Latin numen, a presiding spirit. It has come to mean suffused with mystery and enchantment, an illumination felt and not seen…]

If You Can’t Stand the Heat: A warning for prospective visitors to Brazil

Two Black Americas

Carnival in Salvador

Festivals in Salvador

Cuisine and Restaurants in Salvador

Beaches in Salvador

Tour Guides to Salvador & Environs (us!)

Places to Stay in Salvador

the Salvador-based fiction of Ben Paris

…and much much more in the menus at the top of every page; likewise linked to in the footers at the bottom of every page.

Portas do Carmo, Salvador da Bahia is located in Salvador’s Centro Histórico at Rua João de Deus, 22
If You Really Want to Understand Salvador

Have you, dear traveller, ever noticed how different places scattered across the face of the globe seem almost to exist in different universes? As if they were permeated throughout with something akin to 19th century luminiferous aether, unique, determined by that place’s history? It’s a trick of the mind’s light (I suppose), but standing on beach or escarpment in Salvador and looking out across the Baía de Todos os Santos to the great Recôncavo, and mindful of the fact that more slaves entered this bay than did slaves enter any port anywhere else in the world…if nothing else one is easily brought to the conclusion that one is in fact in a place quite unlike any other.

Modern Salvador da Bahia (often incorrectly written as “Salvador de Bahia”, “da” being a fusion of the preposition “de” and the definite article “a”) is many things, these depending to some degree upon who is doing the conceiving and considering. It’s the third largest city in the world’s sixth economy, with innumerous modern apartment buildings looking like gleaming upended harmonicas, these filled with occupants of the professional classes who shop in New York and take their kids to Disney World. Ships fill the bay, carrying away industrial plugs for blast furnaces, resins, chemicals…the stuff of large-scale manufacturing by multinational corporations.

Yet of Salvador’s 2,500,000 inhabitants, the vast majority are descendents of those who worked for the owners of the “big houses” on the plantations on the other side of the bay, and the big houses located in old Salvador, in what is now a neighborhood rather than the entire city, the area called Pelourinho (for the pillory which stood in various of its principal squares).

It’s possible to live an almost European existence in Salvador if one moves within carefully circumscribed limits. From tower to imported car, along expressways to modern office buildings and clinics…but even a glance from the balconies of those well-stocked towers belies first-world fantasies; red-clay barracos — simple houses, a step up (maybe) from shacks, crawl up hillsides and dip into valleys. The destination signs fronting Salvador city buses are emblazoned with places like Mussurunga, Massaranduba, Periperi, Alto do Cabrito…by way of areas called Ogunjá and Bonocó. Private schools for the more fortunate economic classes offer capoeira, alongside football (soccer), volleyball and such. Baianas de acarajé (women dressed in flowing white, sitting before their tables selling the foodstuff called — more properly in Yorubá — akara, the addition of “jé” rendering “to eat akara”), may be found evenings selling to lawyers and businessmen on their way home, cans of beer washing down the African comestibles.

There are thousands of houses of candomblé in Salvador, these vastly outnumbering the numerous Catholic churches and even the evangelical churches which have sprung up in the suburbs like toadstools, these latter attracting customers…worshippers that is…drawn to the harangues telling them that God desires their economic success too…

And the radio. There is Globo, owned by the family of now-departed Roberto Marinho, who parleyed his insider’s connections with Brazil’s dictatorship into the country’s largest media empire — playing its depressing mix of mostly American hits of the ’70s and ’80s. But across the dial, on both AM and FM, the clave and rhythms are most definitely of African derivation (although for the most part cheapened and debased). Publicly-owned Rádio Educadora however continues to demonstrate that not all is (to repeat) cheapened and debased in government here, with the occasional program of top-flight Brazilian music, including choro on Sunday mornings.

And of course there are the people themselves, their melanin content ranging from darkest African through dusky indigenous Indian to lightest European, the preponderance weighted toward the darker end of the spectrum. Although there are exceptions, the prevailing wisdom is, as expressed by sambista Ederaldo Gentil, Todo branco tem negro na família (Every white person has a black person in the family). In contrast to the United States, where “one drop” defines who is considered “black”, the distinction between persons of European-heritage ethnicity and those of African-heritage ethnicity is conceived differently here. Part of this is due to the fact that, unlike in the United States, where the children of slave-owners and slave-women were themselves consigned to slavery, in Bahia this was often not the case, creating a class of mixed-race people (“black” in the United States) who were here called “moreno” and who had property, rights, and freedom. And with churning intermarriage and a mathematician’s nightmare of racial combinations in people’s backgrounds, particularly amongst the “common” people, and the consequent commonality of cultural background, the feeling of I’m the black or white dude and he or she is white or black is rare here except amongst the top-most, old landed economic class, or would-be snobs who ascribe to that benighted class’s pretensions and prejudices (and there are more than a few of the latter around). Salvador is not home to a racism-free society as is often touted…but day-to-day personal relations between most people are thankfully free of the back-of-the-mind fencing so common between people of different continental heritage in the United States.

Salvador, Brazil’s First Colonial Capital…

Salvador (the city was generally referred to as “Bahia” until well into the twentieth century*) sits on a spit of land sticking south south-west into the Atlantic Ocean. And although it sits well within the tropics at a southern latitude of thirteen degrees, it receives a refreshing sea-breeze which seldom falters until the wee hours of the morning when things have generally cooled off anyway. The city sits on a huge bay, a Baía de Todos os Santos (the Bay of All Saints), and the topography is predominently hill and valley.

* See an interesting article from the New York Times dated July 14, 1874, in which “our own correspondent” (the Times’, that is) refers to the “town” as “Bahia”…

It’s for this reason that people speak of a cidade alta (upper city) and cidade baixa (lower city). Both are connected on the bay side by the famous Elevador Lacerda, a “marvel” hailed mightily in most guide books. Forget the marvel (you’ll see what I mean when you’re on it), but the elevator does beat walking up down the steeply inclining streets which serve the same function of connection. There is a fifteen centavo charge for the ride. That’s less than five cents as I write, so who’s complaining. There’s also the nearby Plano Inclinado, same price.

Elevador Lacerda, in Salvador, Bahia
The Elevador Lacerda, with the Forte São Marcelo (Bahia’s belly button) off to the right
Elevador Lacerda from the Lower City in Salvador, Bahia
From the Cidade Baixa (Lower City)

It’s this rugged geography which is so disorienting to people new to the city. Neighborhoods (bairros) tend to be built on the heights, with thoroughfares twisting around and between. Streets zigzag and change names, and a lot of them are one-way, necessitating roundabout ways of arriving at any given destination. It can take a long time to catch on, but by the same token it can add even more of an element of mystery to the place.

One of Salvador’s principal characteristics is the outgoingness of its people. People talk to strangers here, are friendly to them. People are not divided by that initial suspicion of strangers that marks so many other places, at least as far as where sociability is concerned. It’s easy to meet.

But there’s another characteristic which often takes first-time visitors to Salvador by surprise: I’m referring to the city’s urbanscape, its architecture, building and home styles. Colonial Pelourinho was built while Bahia was the economic powerhouse of South America, and many of the buildings are splendid. Most of the rest of Salvador was built on a shoestring, and the results range from the unpainted claybrick shacks of the poor to the reinforced concrete buildings one sees everywhere (usually in need of painting), to the more expensive modern and generally undistinguished apartment towers found in the middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods. People expecting leafy tropical bungalows may be disappointed. This is an urban, third-world city, with plenty of crowds and traffic jams. It does, however, retain its renowned Bahian soul, and tropical serenity (along with those leafy tropical bungalows) is very close at hand.

Lastly, perhaps the quality most fundamental, most elemental to Salvador and Bahia, most striking in the sense of setting this place apart and making it its own — is its zeitgeist. Bahia’s timeframe runs independently of the (developed) world’s decade-defined stages of development. Music here, for example, isn’t 70s, 80s, or 90s. It is, rather, measured in its distance from — or more precisely by its proximity to — the senzalas (slave compounds) of centuries past, to the quilombos (communities formed by runaway slaves) of both past and present. Likewise for Bahia’s lovely and deadly Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira, continuing to grow and develop without abandoning the ethos of struggle that spurred its creation in the first place. Oxalá, Oxóssi, Xangô — Yemanjá and Iansã — all virtually forgotten on their native ground across the Atlantic — are known to everybody here, determining to a large degree the makeup and timing of Salvador’s yearly social calendar. The zeitgiest of Bahia is that its time is its own, a time in many ways above and independent of the carryings on of the rest of the world.

Moreover these manifestations of popular culture are current, now, modern. They hearken back to the past but aren’t stuck in it. They are not continually re-enacted museum pieces but rather a part of a continuing flowering and evolution. Put simply, they are a part of life here.

Salvador’s Relationship with the Recôncavo

For a lot of people — both those who live here and those who visit — it doesn’t matter. But to the point is an anecdote related to me by Mateus Aleluia, of Os Tincoãs, a now-legendary vocal group from Cachoeira: “A Bahian slave once said to his master, ‘You have conquered us, but our culture will conquer yours.'” Whether this is true or not hinges upon what one calls culture, but in that the pervading art of Bahia — as in most all Brazil — is music, and given that the greatest root of this musical culture is buried deep within Recôncavo massapé, a strong argument may be made for its validity.

The peninsula upon which Salvador is situated is like the thumb of an open and grasping hand, what is normally thought of as the Recôncavo then being defined by the curved index finger. This way of definition developed when agricultural products were brought to Salvador by boat, sometimes making their way first down the Paraguaçu river after having been carried overland from the sertão (backlands) to Cachoeira, the river debouching into the bay at Maragogipe. The city of Bahia (as it was usually called then) was crouched on the bay, comprised of a commercial district much smaller in area than today (landfill has increased it greatly), the area around the upper section of the elevator, and what is now called Pelourinho.

São Francisco do Paraguaçu, in Bahia, Brazil
The Igreja de São Francisco do Paraguaçu presides on the Baía do (bay of) Iguape, across the water from Maragojipe.

Much of the remainder of the peninsula was given to sugarcane plantations, and dotted within the Atlantic rainforest were countless quilombos; both are attested to today in commonly used city names. The neighborhood of Garcia was once Fazenda Garcia (fazenda being a farm or plantation), and this denomination is still used today to distinguish one end of Garcia (fim-de-linha) from the other (the Campo Grande end). Neighborhoods Engenho Velho de Federação and Engenho Velho de Brotas are so called for the old mills (engenhos velhos) which pressed the caldo (juice, so to speak) from the cane so laboriously hacked out of the fields. The neighborhood of Cabula is named for an nkisi (deity) of candomblé angola (the first candomblé to arrive in Bahia)…whose rhythms comprise the basis for samba, meaning that the rhythms to which so many in the world inexpertly swayed as Stan Getz’s saxophone soared and João and Astrud Gilberto sensuously intoned — this paragon of suave Brazilian sophistication — was born in the rough senzalas of Bahia. Ironically enough, the barefoot senzala version was/is far more sophisticated than the sophisticated version.

But times have changed, and Cabula is now a crowded, non-descript middle-to-working class Salvador city neighborhood (plenty of candomblé around though), and Engenhos Velhos de Federação and Brotas are swarming working class neighborhoods (ditto the candomblé); the senzala samba, the samba chula and samba-de-roda have disappeared. A vastly simplified and deeply moronified version — Bahian pagode — is heard everywhere in Salvador, but the real-deal stuff has died out here in the big city. It remains, however, a potent force on the remainder of its native ground, the Recôncavo proper, where it is danced to on pounded earth, under moonlight broken by banana, palm and mango leaves, lifting the souls of its participants almost like something religious, which it was, and gods aside, is.