Bahia has long been on my short list of places I’ve wanted to visit while in Brazil. I finally made it to Salvador and the beaches of Morro de Sao Paulo during the school’s recent winter break.
It’s hard to know what to make of Salvador before traveling there: Most Brazilians I spoke to had warned that it’s “ugly” and “dangerous.” When we arrived at 1am, pulling down a deserted street to our hotel, we were concerned that the warnings of Salvador would ring true.
But like most places in Brazil, I found that opposite to be true. Granted, Salvador has the crumbling glory of a former colonial city, but if that’s your thing – as it is mine – you’ll enjoy your time here. Salvador’s old town, Pelourinho, is a colorful delight, filled with old world architecture and musicians. It reminded me a bit of New Orleans, with a large splash of the Caribbean thrown in.
We stayed at the charming Studio Do Carmo Boutique Hotel, which is located smack in the center of Pelourinho. Our large, lovely room faced the quiet back of the building, overlooking the terrace where breakfast was served every morning. The walls of this beautiful inn, or pousada, were covered in paintings and sculptures from local artists; a short walk around the old center will quickly reveal that Salvador has a bohemian heart.
We made the most of our one full day in the city by first getting lost in the twisty, cobbled streets near our hotel, taking in the golden glory of the Nosso Senhor do Bonfim church, and popping into the occasional gallery and shop. Prices were surprising reasonable for a large Brazilian city, especially one whose economy depends hugely on tourists. But compared to Sao Paulo and Rio, shopping and eating weren’t overpriced for someone making their money in reals (and a steal for someone who works for dollars.)
Afterwards, we shelled out R$0.15 to ride the Elevator Lacerda from the “upper town” to the “lower town,” where the Mercado Modelo is located. Inside the bustling artisan market, we browsed hand-made dresses, lattice-design shirts, and all manner of knick knacks, before riding the elevator back up to the old center.
The next day we boarded a two-hour catamaran ride to the island of Morro de Sao Paulo.
Morro is located on the tip of Tinhare Island, about 154 miles from Salvador and only reachable by boat or plane. While the island is scattered with small beach towns, Morro is the most popular, with a surprising number of decent restaurants, shops, pousadas (inns) and larger beach resorts. After much deliberation, we opted to stay outside of town at a proper resort, the Patachocas Beach Resort.
We specifically chose this hotel because it offered a free shuttle into town; but it was only once we were there that we learned the shuttle ran sporadically, making the journey into town quite inconvenient. In addition, we might not have felt the need to travel into town every night for dinner, if our resort had had more than one restaurant, and an overpriced one that served truly awful food at that. Not average, but actually bad. No beach bar. No store to buy snacks. Nothing. Just this one, crappy, expensive restaurant.
With that said, the resort itself was lovely, directly on the beach, with friendly and helpful staff. Our room was also clean, large and comfortable; hoorah for comfy beds and a great shower. (If you do decide to stay here, don’t waste money on the bungalows, as they are literally the same as the regular rooms.) There are also pop-up beach restaurants a short stroll from the hotel along the coast, which, while also pricey, offer delicious, fresh seafood.
The beach itself is a dream, with easily accessible natural pools to soak in during low tide and warm water temperatures that make you want to never get out of the ocean.
However, if I had to do it again, I would either find another beach resort that had more on-site eating options and/or a shuttle that runs every hour.
While Morro is a beautiful destination, I would say that if you are going there for anything less than seven full days, it might not be worth the effort. To access the island, we took a catamaran (R$95 one-way) which crosses through open sea. I had read beforehand that people often get sick on the crossing, so I did apply a seasickness patch, but it seemed to be a dud, because I was sick for the full two-hour journey. Due to the roughness, we decided to take a popular alternate route for the return trip that, while one hour longer, was the same price as the catamaran AND was supposedly less turbulent. It involved a 20-minute speed boat ride, followed by a 1:40 bus ride, and culminated in a 40-minute “ferry” ride. All was well until the “ferry,” which in reality was a tug-boat type vessel that literally was tossed around like salad in a spinner. Women were crying, old people were praying. While I didn’t get sick, due to my paranoid application of two seasickness patches, I did feel queasy. Perhaps there’s no patch strong enough to ward off nausea in such raging waters. Also, it’s the first time in my vast travels I have actually felt unsafe on a vehicle… and that includes traveling the roads of Vietnam and India!
If I had to do it over again, I would opt for a one or two hour bus ride from Salvador where the beaches are sure to be equally stunning.
(One other note: You can fly to Morro on a propeller plan, for about R$300 one-way, but given how windy the area is, I’m not certain that would be preferable.)