Eric Page is seduced by the sights, sounds and colours of this often overlooked South American gem.
Nestled in the Bay of Santos, on the Bahian Coast, wrapping in outstanding beaches, a myriad of islands, forests, natural wonders and a seriously vibrant city culture, Salvador is everything you’ve heard Brazil can be, but often overlooked as everyone goes to Rio.
Salvador is better, smaller, easier to navigate, safer by far and has a laid back vibe of sensual enjoyment that is famous even among the Brazilians. With a population that is 98% black or mixed this is the original capital city of Brazil and one of the oldest places in South American, settled by the Portuguese in 1500.
The old quarter of the city is on a par with Havana in Cuba or Cartagena in Colombia; dense, colourful with some jaw-dropping architectural treats, lively squares and the ubiquitous churches, convents and grand houses, most of them now museums or galleries.
It’s a world heritage site, built up on the old cliffs overlooking the thrusting, glittering skyline of the more modern parts of the city, and is one of the most beautiful colonial centres in the whole of South America.
You can spend many a day wandering, eating, looking, buying, talking, dancing and doing the thing that locals seem to spend their whole days doing: smiling and flirting.
I’d always wanted to visit Bahia since listening to Arthur Lyman with my grandmother. The city is remarkable; a modern, inspiring, crumbling colonial area of breath-taking magical realism and a sense of animation and exoticness. I love South America, Brazil is exciting but Salvador is something else.
Once the magnificent capital of Portugal’s great New World colony, Salvador is an Afro-Brazilian jewel. It’s brilliantly hued centre is a living museum of 17th and 18th century architecture and gold-laden churches. Salvador has a tropical climate throughout the year with the humidity and heat relieved by the winds blowing in from the ocean.
Salvador will seduce and surprise you, I fell in love with the place, skating down the seafront along the palm-lined boulevards, stopping to drink fresh coconut water and eat some fried shrimp patties, watching the huge dark sexy men jog by, the monkeys playing and hot tropical sun warming my skin, feeling a sense of excitement and frisson of interest that’s often missing from a city holiday.
With the pound so strong at the moment it makes this tropical destination very cheap and astonishingly good value. I took the local buses all over the city, which are fast, furious and a seriously cheap way to experience everyday Brazilian life, just avoid them at the rush hours unless sweaty frottage delights you.
Wandering the cobblestoned streets of Pelourinho, gazing up at the city’s wonderful streets and squares, I was transported. It’s packed with creative artistic shops, schools of music, dance and capoeira. These pastel-coloured 17th and 18th century buildings still have a real community feel. Pelourinho is the location for music, dining and nightlife. It felt like I was walking around in a novel that had come to life. It’s a stunning place, and the heat, tropical trees, sexy people and colourful clothes are enchanting – I swear I glimpsed Carmen Miranda giving me a sultry look and the people are seriously friendly.
Relax, wander, explore, there’s a visible police presence everywhere so it feels safe and it’s a superb place to stop, grab something to eat and just watch the world go by. Food is a mix of Brazilian and African cuisines, with an abundant use of coconuts, ginger, hot peppers, shrimp, spices and flavourful dendê oil, made from palms. I walked all over the city, sampling the food stalls, the ladies that run them take pride in their food and their reputations.
Salvador (and Brazil) in particular gets a bad press for violence and crime. There is a level of poverty but if you’re considerate with a little common sense you’ll be fine. Avoid flashing your bling or super-expensive tech and avoid dark alleyways and certain areas of the city after dark; taxis are cheap and reliable.
After a day of tropical sunshine, samba and the soft tropical breeze I relaxed considerably and happily got my camera out. Most folk speak some English, but you’ll need to speak Brazilian Portuguese to go off the beaten track.
Barra, the main beach (it’s in the top ten of The Guardian’s urban beaches), is superb with soft sand facing west and everything stops for sunset. It’s a small but lush place, we wandered down at dawn to swim in the quiet clear waters then again at night to swim with the bats skimming the surface and fish jumping and swimming around us.
There’s sunbathing and boating, snorkelling, fishing, a beach gym and the volleyball men. Choose one of the ‘beach ladies’ who run the deck chairs, umbrellas, etc, they are friendly and a great source of local info. The beach is busy in the day, packed on the weekend and very cruisy always, both with sexy ‘working boys’ and sexy locals.
Salvador has a young gay and lesbian scene that is constantly changing with a lot of places to go and there’s an openness to Brazilian society and Salvador in particular that made it a comfy place to walk around holding my Bf’s hand and I saw lots of other folk doing the same, all genders, all types.
Sexuality, like race, is very fluid in Salvador – everyone has a mixed heritage and no-one defines themselves as black or white, most guys have their own degree of bi-sexuality and don’t define as gay or straight. Only 10% of people are gay in Salvador, but only 10% are straight too – the remaining 80% will be bi-sexual to some degree.
We explored the bars and clubs and enjoyed them, the saunas were interesting. Spartacus online has an up-to-date list, use taxis to visit them.
Carnival in Salvador runs from February 4 to 10 and is the biggest carnival in the world. Around two-million people participate in the Carnival Parades over six consecutive days and all night. Dozens of bands make a parade along the 2km parade route, playing on big trucks called Trios.
In Rio you’re a spectator, in Salvador you’re the show, if you want full Brazilian spectacle, then Salvador is the place to go. It’s cheaper and easier to navigate than Rio. You can dance on the streets with the crowd for free – called pipoca, watch from a wide camarote balconies or you can dance on the Carnival inside a safety area cordão surrounding the Trio, protected by bouncers.
You need to buy a pass abadá, a colourful T-shirt from £50 to £250 per day, depending on the artist playing. Some include free drink and there’s more space to move and dance in the procession. If you don’t speak Portuguese be careful what you buy (see Carnival the easy way). It’s an eye-popping dance your feet off experience which has few rivals in the world for pure indulgent muscled buff fun.
Carnival is a very peaceful event – most incidents are just rips-off. Transportation changes dramatically during Carnival so stay in areas close to the Carnival Parades: Barra, Ondina, Vitoria and Pelourino.
Accommodation is almost always a seven-night package during Carnival, so be aware when booking flights.
Salvador has everything you could want from a South American holiday: the long tropical beaches, the bustling exotic city, the old historical quarters, the food and pulsating daily life, islands and jungles to explore, the juxtaposition of thrusting new skyscrapers up tight against Favelas and painted colonial buildings, dark brooding churches gilded and decorated in high Baroque, a tangible excitement to your day and a great free zoo!
The friendly, optimistic and engaging people, the men who make your jaws/trousers drop and a real sense of being somewhere seriously different. It’s a heady mix. Salvador will stun, seduce and amaze you.
Carnival the easy way
If you would prefer to stay with some friendly British gay men in Salvador, who will sort out your Carnival visits, tickets and parties, and take you out and about to local beaches, bars and restaurants, then consider staying with Paul and Alasdair from House Guest Brazil.
Originally from Brighton, they have lived in Barra for over 10 years and they have a series of comfortable accommodation and travel options from six, nine or 12-day holidays to take all the stress and worry out of your first, or returning, trip to Salvador.
They’ll make sure you have the best, safest experience during your stay. You’ll be welcomed with your own exclusive parties to meet the locals and they’ll take you to rehearsals and events that tourists never see so you will really get to experience Carnival like a local!
To view their website for more information and prices, click here:
Or email them directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re more independently minded, Airbnb offer some great places for a range of budgets. Right on the beach is Barra Pousada Noa Noa, very cool and run by a lovely couple. www.pousadanoanoa.com
Or for something more mainstream try the four star hotel Sol Express Hotel from £50pn. To book directly, click here:
Direct nine-hour flights for Jan/Feb from Madrid or Lisbon (cheaper from Madrid) from £500 with AirEuropa, TAP or IBERIA, connect via Gatwick BA or EasyJet. Salvador is well-connected with internal flights and an excellent place to use as a base to explore Tropical Bahia and the northern Brazilian coastal states: