The Northeast Region

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This article originally appeared in the 2012 Brazil Travel Planner. It has been extracted from its original format. To read the full travel planner, visit the digital edition.

Chapada Diamantina National Park
Chapada Diamantina National Park

This part of Brazil—embracing nine states from Bahia in the south to Ceara and Maranhao in the north—is best known for colonial history, African influence, distinct culture, dramatic national parks and above all: golden-sand, palm-fringed beaches; sweeping, isolated expanses of dunes; and warm aquamarine waters. And nowadays, you can fly nonstop from Miami right into this corner of the continent, landing in Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco, and Salvador da Bahia.Salvador da Bahia

For color, magic and natural exuberance, you can’t beat Salvador, where Brazil was born. Overlooking the Bay of All Saints, the hillside port city may sit geographically on the South American continent, but spiritually Salvador is bound to African-slave trade roots.

Day 1: Let’s get to know upper and lower Salvador, a city connected by mass-transit elevators. In the upper part is the Pelourinho, a marvelous district of baroque churches, museums, cafes and restaurants, and with music everywhere. Top site: the Church and adjoining Convent of San Francisco, representing simply glorious examples of baroque art. Also see the Museum of Sacred Art and the Afro-Brazilian Museum next to the Catedral Basilica. In the lower city, spend time in the Mercado Modelo, a multi-level building chockablock full of Brazilian crafts.

Day 2: Enjoy a day excursion north to Cachoeira, a riverside town that is a treasure chest of 16th and 17th century colonial architecture. It’s also a center of Afro-Brazilian culture, with a large number of traditional Candomble religion terreiros, or settlements, as well as home to the Sisterhood of Nossa Senora de Boa Morte, a female religious order created by freed slaves over 200 years ago. On returning to Salvador, hopefully there’s time for Solar do Unhao, a well-preserved 18th century complex that served as a transfer point for sugar shipments. The Museum of Modern Art is also here, as is a fine restaurant staging a popular evening folklore show.

Day 3: Sail out (on a ferry or catamaran) to one of the 56 islands in All Saints Bay. Itaparica is the largest, its beaches a favorite with snorkelers, windsurfers and divers. Spend a final evening back in the Pelourinho quarter to visit art galleries, catch an impromptu performance of street dancing, or dine out on Bahian specialties.


Day 1: In the morning drop in to the traditional market of Mercado de Sao Jose; visit the Casa da Cultura, which showcases northeast crafts on the premises of an old prison; take a walk around Old Recife’s colonial buildings and houses and have lunch in a local cafe. Then take a drive four miles north to beautiful Olinda, whose historic center is a treasure house of baroque churches and artists’ ateliers, recognized by UNESCO as a World Culture Heritage Site. The Museum of Sacred Art occupies a 17th century bishop’s palace, while the cobbled streets host sidewalk cafes.

Day 2: Take a day trip (83 miles) to Caruaru, host town of the largest open-air market in the northeast. The market is divided into many sections: a bird market, artisans market, herb and medicinal cures market; Tuesdays is an especially big day, for the cattle and clothing markets are open. In town is the Museu do Barro exhibiting traditional ceramics, and next door is the Museu do Forro, saluting the region’s most famous dance music.

Fernando de Noronha: An Offshore Treasure

The ultimate getaway in Brazil may just be the gorgeous, tranquil archipelago of Fernando do Noronha, located 340 miles off the coast by air from Recife. Here visitor numbers are limited and spinner dolphins and sea turtles outnumber the local people. Think of the treasures of 16 pristine beaches set among craggy sea cliffs; remember that this is one of the world’s finest scuba diving locations; and know that accommodations are in charming, although not inexpensive, pousadas.

Discoveries North from Recife

Along the 800-mile-long coast stretching north of Recife, consider hanging out along Praia de Pipa, a happening place known for good surfing, snorkeling and dolphin watching. Then do the dune-buggy thing among the Saharan-like sand dunes of Natal, and head for Lencois Maranhenses, one of Brazil’s most spectacular national parks, famed for its immense snow-white sand dunes with valleys of jade-green lagoons. Finish with a spectacular hike (with a guide) in the Chapada Diamantina National Park, whose trails cut through 375,000 acres of valleys, plateaus, and canyons. And right in this neighborhood—155 miles away and a short hop by air from Recife—is Sao Luis, whose French-built colonial quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of wondrous note are the majestic palaces and block after block of azulejo-tiled mansions. Two must-see museums are Casa do Maranhao and Centro de Cultura Popular, both showcasing the region’s colorful traditions. And across the bay (1.5 hours by boat) from Sao Luis lies the hilltop colonial town of Alcantara, the favorite settlement of the wealthy sugar and cotton plantation owners in the 17th and 18th centuries. Spend a day of discovery among the baroque treasures of dilapidated and overgrown churches, once-grand palaces, and tile-covered mansions.