Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sheila's Top Ten Tips for Travel in Bahia, Brazil

 Should you go to Brazil? Should you get off the beaten path and visit Arraial D'Ajuda, Cumuruxatiba, Corumbau, Caraiva, Espelho, Trancoso, Santo Andre, Belmonte? Should you stay in a pousada rather than a resort?  I was evaluating all these things for myself, and came up with my top ten list of things a potential visitor should consider.  My advice probably won't hold true in some other places in Brazil, but it may provide a template for questions to ask.

  1. If you don't speak Portuguese, pick a pousada where the owner speaks your language, and get a "transfer" (taxi) from the airport to the place you'll be staying.  Find a pousada that is walking distance to places to eat, if you don't want to deal with having to find a taxi.  Note that most Brazilians speak only Portuguese.
  2. Don't rely on your US or UK ATM card working.  Sometimes it will; often times it won't.  Travellers checks are also not widely used.  Bring Brazilian reais with you.  You can find the exchange rate on and order money online if you're in the US. (It arrives by Federal Express from Travelex, and someone over 18 must sign for the cash.)  You'll need plenty of 2 real notes (about $1) to give to porters for tips.  Other service (usually 10% is included in the bill.  One great thing about pousadas is that you can just order drinks and it goes on the invisible tab, to be settled at the end of your stay.
  3. Travel with only what you can carry.  Ditch the evening dress and high heels.  Bikinis are worn by all shapes and sizes, and shorts and t-shirts are the most common attire for morning, noon and evening. You probably won't have anywhere to wash your clothes, so keep in mind that white clothes get dirty very quickly around sand! Note also, that voltage varies in Brazil.  In Rio, for example, it's 110; in Bahia, it's 220.
  4. Bring plenty of sunblock and bug spray.  When it's very windy, there are few insects, but if you're susceptible to bites, use something like Buggspray TM, particularly at dawn and dusk (between 5:30 and 6:30 morning and evening.). I had expected to experience no-see-ums, but none seem to exist at this time of year on this coast.
  5. Go to Brazil in off season if you want to find some of the best weather and no crowds.  Avoid June and July (the rainy season) and avoid from December through March (after Carnival/Easter).  October/November and April/May are good times to consider--though no one can guarantee the weather.  If it rains, you have to be self-sufficient.  The part of Bahia we visited would probably not be a great place for kids, but check out for other possibilities.
  6. Don't go off the beaten track if you're susceptible to illness, or are taking medication.  You may find that there are no doctors at all.  Pharmacists prescribe and sell all kinds of medications, but they're unlikely to check whether what they recommend is compatible with your medical situation.  I strongly advise getting insurance for a trip like this.
  7. Hire a car only if a) you're fluent in Portuguese or b) you don't mind getting lost, navigating bumps, bicycles or scooters or c) you relish the challenge of sand/dirt roads with no signposts.
  8. Be prepared to go with the flow.  Rooms are likely to be clean and fairly basic. (Remember, they usually also cost very little.)  Commonly, there's only one cold tap in the sink. Most of the time there's hot water in the shower (no bath), but not always. Hair dryers are rarely provided, so looking beautiful may be a challenge.  If any of those things bother you, or if you want tennis or golf or major water sports, you'd probably be much happier at a resort.  Of course, you probably wouldn't see the real Brazil...
  9. Make this a vacation, not an alternative work venue.  Sometimes the internet works; often it doesn't, or is interrupted mid-stream.  Plus, it's really hard to work when an idyllic beach is 50 yards away and you're sitting in a deck chair.
  10. Consider the services of someone like Alison McGowan, who can customize a trip for you, and also accompany you.  Alison's role as travel interpreter allows you to take a trip off the beaten path and still have peace of mind.  You won't get lost, even in the most remote locations, you can discover places of local interest, and see the authentic Brazil that few tourists experience.  A travel interpreter is there when you need her, even to to interpret at evening meals, and inconspicuous when you want to be by yourselves.  You can find Alison at

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Reflections on the Hidden Pousada Trip to Bahia, Brazil

I came to Brazil with expectations of a beach holiday, and to help my twin sister, Alison McGowan, evaluate hidden pousadas for the American and European market.  It became so much more that that.  After 40 years of being apart, since Alison lives in Brazil and I live in the US, it was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect, while appreciating Alison's extraordinary knowledge of her adopted country.  On this trip, we have been places and seen things that virtually no foreign tourists have ever experienced.  We have met fellow travellers, with interesting lives and recommendations based on their own travels.  And, we've been privileged to see a totally unspoiled part of the world, where life is vibrant, yet slower.  Daniel, at Pousada Mata N'Ativa in Trancoso said it best when asked why his prices were so low.  He explained that it was more important for his guests to appreciate his pousada and its amazing gardens and details, rather than to make money.  At a time when the global economy is in crisis, that attitude seems remarkably sane.  Today is November 4, 2008, and tonight we will know who the next President of the United States will be. I haven't watched television or seen a newspaper or answered my cell phone in two weeks.  I am totally relaxed.

Last Day in Bahia, Brazil

This has been the trip of a lifetime, with Alison McGowan as organizer, guide and intrepid problem solver.  I started writing early about our last day at Pousada Victor Hugo in Santo Andre.  The weather was unusually grey and overcast, and--for the first time--very humid. Somehow the sand was different, too.  The morning walk felt as if we were climbing sand dunes, our feet plunging inches down with every step. But as I wrote, and thought, and listened to the birds in this idyllic place, the wind decided to provide one last perfect day. 

Everyone needs a "virtual" place to which they can retreat in times of stress.  An unspoiled beach on the northeast coast of Brazil will always be mine.

End of the Road: From Santo Andre to Belmonte

Once again, the day commenced with a long walk on a deserted beach with perfect blue skies.  The wind picked up from the northeast, ensuring another clear day.  Alison's pousada interview with owner, Hugo, encouraged us to take a trip along the road north, before going to a recommended restaurant on the ocean nearby for more peixe frito (fried fish).

I had looked at the map with some curiosity.  From Santo Andre, there is a 55 kilometer "yellow" road north.  That meant asphalt, albeit with irregular speed bumps in some most unexpected places.  According to the map, the road ends at a town called Belmonte, located where a large river meets the ocean. No towns or villages are marked in between.  Why is the road asphalt, when so many roads here are dirt and sand?  What else is up there?  Hugo enlightened us.  Belmonte used to be one of the largest coffee producing towns in Brazil--in the 19th century, and it was still a vibrant place until the 1940's, when a plague hit the coffee plantations.  The business never recovered.  But Belmonte is hardly a ghost town.  It's as if the original fishing village has just absorbed and encroached on the extraordinary colonial architecture.  Ruins of by-gone grandeur, some derelict, some painted in garish colors, stand side by side with fishermen's cottages, the squares and promenades curiously deserted. Between Belmonte and Santo Andre is lone long sandy beach, along which there is virtually no development. (We heard that the Nestle family still vacations there.)  Until CVC discovers this stretch of coast--unfortunately already beginning--this is the place to find certain solitude in a gorgeous setting.

On the way back, we stopped at Maria Nilze's restaurant, just a few kilometers north of our pousada.  The protocol here is to order, then lie on the beach or in a hammock, while your food is being prepared.  An hour or so later, you enjoy fresh fried fish and rice, this time prepared with succulent root vegetables.  Delicious, and enough to last us all day.  Prices are not cheap--about $25 per entree, but what most people know when they first come to Brazil is that portions are usually designed for two people sharing.  Tip:  bring a friend with the same culinary tastes.  I've been very careful with the water here (don't drink the tap water), but I've eaten everything, including salads, with no ill effects.  Perhaps I've just been lucky.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Weather Surprises in Trancoso, Brazil

The pousada Mata N'Ativa has an extensive array of DVDs in English to borrow, so Alison and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to watch The Illusionist, which we both enjoyed.  Watching a tv set reminds me that I haven't missed this activity at all: two weeks out of contact with the woes of the world has something to recommend it.  Half an hour after returning to my room, I thought I heard the sound of a bug getting squashed in a zapper.  Since I'm susceptible to bug bites, I checked out the situation, only to discover that the sound I heard was rain on cocoa leaves.  During the day--and in fact for the past two weeks--it's been blue skies and sunshine without a cloud in sight.  So it was somewhat strange to find a storm appearing out of nowhere and continuing all night long.  The surprise was not so much that the weather turned, but that it didn't turn at all.  The rain stopped at 6:30am, when Alison and I walked up to the Trancoso quadrangle, where 16th century houses line the perimeter.  I left the pousada without my usual sunblock and sunglasses, because the sky was still grey.  Five minutes later, it was bright sunshine and blue skies.  So much for making assumptions.

It was hard to leave this pousada, but we needed to get to Santo Andre, which is located on a road that leads from Porto Seguro to, well, nowhere.  We were encouraged, despite the night's rain to take the short cut from Trancoso to Arraial D'Ajuda, and from there to take the balsa (ferry) to Porto Seguro. This was to be followed by another balso to Santo Andre.  I think we've really got the hang of the dirt roads and ubiquitous speed bumps, which I announce loudly to Alison so we don't fly over them.  Of course, we're only doing about 25 miles an hour, so it's not really a problem.

From Porto Seguro north, the road is asphalt and passes large numbers of resorts, often catering to the ever-present CVC crowds in yellow buses. One look at the resorts tells us that we made the right decision to go the pousada route.  It would be totally possible to have a British or American experience on the beach, without ever knowing that you were in Brazil--except for the fact that almost all the tourists are Brazilian.  This part of the world has definitely not been discovered by foreigners.  Once again my US ATM card didn't work, so I'm completely reliant on Alison.  I think she believes I'll pay her back.

We had expected the Victor Hugo pousada to be close to the balsa, given that the directions ended there.  Not true.  It's about six kilometres down the road, and totally off the beaten track.  The pousada is right on the beach, with a very attractive restaurant set among hibiscus plants and thatchd roofs.  It's lovely here at all times of the day, but particularly when the sun sets (about 5:20pm!)  We'll forgive them for having rooms that don't live up to Mata N'Ativa standards.  After all, we've set our new standards very high.  It will be fun to just relax on our last day in paradise.  I think I have just about enough sunblock to survive.  

Fish on the Beach in Trancoso, Brazil

I don't like fish very much.  In fact, I rarely eat it in the US, since it's often over-priced and tasteless.  It took coming to Brazil to change my mind about fish.  We moved from Pousada Hibisco to Pousada Mata N'Ativa, which is close to the beach.  Alison remembered that there was a good beach bar, Barraca do Jonas, which served excellent friend fish and chips.  It was easy to find Jonas--a place where the tables are right on the sand, and all the women are in bikinis, no matter what their size.  Interestingly, fried fish was nowhere on the menu, but the waiter was quite happy to take us into the kitchen to select a large Red fish, which was subsequently fried to perfection.  Not cheap, but well worth it.

Our new pousada in Trancoso, Mata N'Ativa, was only about 100 yards away from the first, but light years away in terms of ambience.  The rooms are fantastic, with wonderful touches, like fresh hibiscus flowers around the room.  The bathrooms have showers that are integrated into a small internal, floodlit, garden.  Outside, the owner Daniel and his wife, have planted a tropical paradise with a vast variety of interesting trees and plants.  This is an extraordinary pousada, where no attention to detail has been spared, from inlaid wood in the shape of a tree in a polished concrete entryway, to wood carvings of trees in the furniture.  Several rooms have private whirlpools, so the lack of a swimming pool is no disadvantage.  In fact, I felt so relaxed that after breakfast, I slept for two hours in a hammock.  This is the only pousada to which we've been that provided toothpaste, hairdryers and incredible natural hair products and body washes (made locally).  Too bad you can't buy them.  Daniel is a young engineer, who's worked all over the world.  He seems much more interested in guests enjoying the eco-atmosphere he's worked so hard to provide, than making money! If I wanted to spend a week somewhere to de-stress, this is where I'd come.  But remember to bring a Mastercard or Amex card; they don't take VISA for some reason.

Pousada Mata N'Ativa is a hard place to beat, so it's too bad we were only able to spend one night there.  Next stop, the Victor Hugo pousada in Santo Andre.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Trancoso, Brazil: History and Indians

Trancoso itself is an interesting town, with a large, grassy, pedestrian-only quadrangle, overlooking the ocean.  The square is dominated by an 18th century, white church, but the town is much oder.  The cemetery occupies a prime spot, with a cliff-top view.  Trancoso obviously attracts many Brazilian tourists, but there's not another foreigner in earshot--partly, I'm sure, because virtually no one except the well-heeled tourists speaks English.  This is not a problem with my sister as guide, but would make it very difficult for anyone with no Portuguese.  Another difficulty is that the ATM, so temptingly located near the main square, did not accept my debit card.  For trips like this, where credit cards are usually not accepted at pousadas either, you need to take a lot of cash. The plus side of this is that there appears to be virtually no crime here.  It even feels safe walking alone along the beach.

The journey from Espelho to Trancoso was once again on dirt and sand roads, but ones which had been upgraded fairly recently.  It's all relative.  There were still penty of ruts and bumps and pressure on the shock absorbers of our faithful little car, but the road was wider than many we've been on, and the bridges overlooking the prairie-like countryside at least had small walls to protect us.  We came through an interesting Indian reservation, where we stopped and bought incredible polished wood dishes at rock bottom prices.  The children, dressed in native headdresses and carrying slots, clearly knew the price of a photograph and we gladly parted with our $2.50.  At least here you can be sure that the money is going to the people who need it.

Three new friends from the pousada in Espelho joined us in Trancoso for the evening, and we had a very enjoyable dinner at Cacao on the square.  All are Brazilian, but one is Jewish, of Romanian descent and married to another doctor of Syrian descent.  The other member of the trio is a young woman of Japanese parentage.  Pousada people tend to be very interesting and friendly. These were no exception.