Fortaleza, Brazil – November 2000

This being my 12th update for BootsnAll tells me that I have now been in Fortaleza for one year. I really am not sure when the time has gone – probably spent at the beach or Almea Guema no doubt, but its quite incredible to think that a whole year has passed since I first tried to bring some order to Fortaleza.

It’s been an interesting year as I have been able to watch tourism take off here in a big way. Since my first visit here in 1997 the city has changed inconceivably and the growth, especially over the last year seems to be exponential. As I predicted some time ago Brazil, and in particular the North and North East is touted as the “next big place” and many package operators and tourists are looking towards Brazil for their next summer holiday. For those who are thinking that perhaps they would like to see the real, unspoilt Brazil the time is now – in a few years time all this will be changed. Each week I seem to be bumping into more and more foreigners on the beaches and bars around town.

I remember, back in 1997, when I was a real novelty and hardly anyone had seen a foreigner – how things change! I don’t want to take any responsibility for this but it has been nice to meet up with some many BootsnAll readers over the last year – a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Amy from San Francisco, who for all eternity now shall be known as “That really nice Amy girl who introduced us to these two strange German guys who were so weird we really hope that they had been doing drugs”. Don’t worry Amy, the story is safe with me and there is no need to be embarrassed – Gaudencio and I were embarrassed enough for two!

Whilst I was getting all reminiscent about the good old days and how only the elite of the world’s backpackers knew my current stomping ground, I picked up a copy of VEJA – the funky weekly news magazine. According to VEJA, the most sought after things at the moment here in Brazil are All Star shoes, chatting on ICQ and mobile phones.

I was ecstatic when I read this. I cam claim responsibility for introducing All Stars boots to Brazil (when I arrived to live here a year ago I had on my black All Stars and they attracted quite a lot of speculation – they were unique here in Fortaleza. Now, after considerable lobbying on my part I am glad to see the youth of Brazil finally waking up to a design classic).

ICQ (my number is 55484129) I have switched on all the time and according to my girlfriend I spend more time chatting with friends using ICQ then I do working (she told me this via ICQ, I hasten to add). I also am never seen without my mobile phone so by all accounts I must be one of the coolest people in town. I was also pleased to see that Britney Spears was considered to be beyond cool as I am developing a bit of a crush on her.

For a whole week I was strutting about showing the article to everyone and proclaiming myself the king of Brazilian cool until someone pointed out to me that I had misread the article and they were actually referring to pre-teenage girls. It shall be a long time before I live this down.

Meanwhile, back in the real world the Sunday Times is continuing its crusade to get everyone to Brazil with another article in it’s travel section. Once again it’s worth while having a closer look at the piece and seeing what, if any, truth exists.

The article begins:

On Campo Grande, an ornate square in the middle of Salvador, a line of vehicles idles at a green light. Despite alerting toots, however, the battered Volkswagen at its head shows no sign of moving. The driver, it seems, has other things on his mind. Not a stalled engine, slipped gear or anything automotive; rather, his pretty female passenger, a dark-skinned woman with a mass of raven hair, with whom he is otherwise engaged.

In Britain, such behaviour would be likely to induce an outburst of road rage. But here in the capital of Bahia, Brazil, where the pursuit of the nation’s four great passions are concerned (sex, food, God and football), such actions are to be applauded. The woman releases her chum and smiles apologetically. The other drivers beep their horns in cheeky approval. Delay is not an issue.

Philip says: Oh yes, this is a lovely image no doubt, but I am not sure I have ever seen anything like this in Brazil. My Brazillain friends also laughed at this. We did think the binding together of sex, food, God and footy was a nice image – but then again that could be applied to anywhere in Brazil – not just Bahia.

In our cynical age, encountering a populace this uninhibited is heartening. There are no airs and graces here. Exotic, remote and, indeed, a little illicit, it’s still a vibrant tropical playground, untainted by outsiders, where you adjust your rhythm to suit the place (and absolutely not the other way round).

Ten years ago, of course, such syrup was being ladled on another Latin hot-spot, Cuba. And though it may be a tad spurious to compare the two (we are, after all, talking of lands in different hemispheres), if all goes according to plan, the Brazilian province of Bahia will be joining Castro’s island as one of Latin America’s primo destinations. As part of a 15-year programme to place Bahia in our high-street brochures, a World Bank initiative has helped to pump $1.6 billion into tourist development in this, one of the continent’s poorest regions.

Philip says: I am not sure this is strictly true. There seems to be some perverse joy taken by the Brazilians in claiming to be the poorest state – one state will say, “hey we don’t even have a pot to piss in” and the next, just to keep up with them will say, “we don’t even have a window to throw the pot from if we did have a pot to piss in”. However, compared to many other places Bahia is pretty poor but I am sure no one would be best pleased to know that they are the poorest state in South America.

But what will “development” mean? Being slashed and burned by traveller’s cheques? That is a moot point. There are those who now bemoan Cuba’s trampling and homogenisation by an onslaught of funseekers, but the possibility of seeing their El Dorado Tarmac-ed over by the Club Med set clearly hasn’t ruffled the locals here … yet. Even within Brazil, Bahians are fabled for their relaxed attitudes, especially towards matters temporal.

Philip says: good point, the people are notoriously laid back. You will never see a stressed Bahian – unless he happens to be chasing you down a back street with a machete trying to rob you that is – something which, according to the local tourist office, happens reasonably often.

In Salvador’s main bus station, the clock is wound seven minutes fast – a spot of kidology to thwart passenger lateness. If you want to do something on a strictly punctual basis, you have to ask specifically (and amusingly) for what the locals call horário britónico, British time. Though nobody ever does.

Philip says: Nonsense – to get Brazilians to turn up a mere seven minutes late for anything (the exception being buses and planes which always leave on time) would be such a miracle that the world would probably come to an end. You have more chance of getting a Dutch man to buy you a drink than expect things to run on time. I have been to meetings which started hours, if not days, late. I think the story about the bus station clock is a nice story, but little more than that.

Potential visitors to Brazil have long been deterred for two reasons. One: distance. Two (and let’s not beat about the bush here): crime.

Philip says: on my first trip to Bahia the tourist office told me they were considering marketing the state with the phrase “come to Bahia and get your throat cut”. They were the most paranoid people I have ever met – everyone on the streets were so busy rushing around telling each other to be careful that no one had any time to mug anyone else.

The result is that Bahia’s engaging local culture, Salvador’s beautiful colonial architecture and, above all, the stunning, virginal beaches, have remained something of a secret. The area is blessed with the best praias in the whole of Brazil, 700 miles of near-cartoon paradise: white sands, azure skies, warm waters, lush tropical vegetation and wilting heat. The seaside casualness slinks through everyday life like the cha-cha-boom of a mellow bossa nova.

Philip says: Time out Sunday Times. A few weeks ago you told us Natal had the best beaches in South America – now you are telling us this? Can you please make your mind up because I want to make sure I have been there and written something about it before hoards of tourists arrive. I am very skeptical about this.

Salvador sits on the tip of a peninsula. Great arcs of sand are strung between the colonial forts that ring the city. It’s all there, like some great cliché: barefoot boys leisurely hoofing cheap plastic footballs (and displaying skills beyond the wildest imagination of a Premier League yeoman); old folks locked in hazy reminiscence; tanned young lovelies in their fila dental (dental floss) bikinis, who gleefully accept the eye-popping attention of the lads as an affirmation of attractiveness.

Philip says: Ding Dong! Journalistic hyberbole. I am a bit of a connoisseur of bikinis and am sure that Salvador, being a little more conservative than Rio is unlikely to being awash with fila dental (more the pity as most of the women there were stunning). In fact, after a year on the beaches of the north and north east I have only seen a few of such fila dental – normally worn by fat old birds well past their prime I am sad to add. But then again this doesn’t sell newspapers does it? Salvador was quite conservative on its beaches.

When people talk of Brazil, they are wont to generalise. For a nation the size of the contiguous United States, with enormous diversities, this is unfortunate. To most it’s still a “dark continent”, experienced either through Rio or Amazonia; the metropolitan versus the wild, the Latin versus the Indian. That’s a shame, as Brazil’s soul is actually located here, in the northeast, a historical kindred spirit to the Hispanic Caribbean, yet tantalisingly inaccessible to the charter flight (thus far). Bahia is exotically different from Brazil’s rump, in its culture, its music, its cuisine – and, most significantly, in its ethnicity. Like Cuba, Bahia is black, an Africa in exile – as though, in accordance with tectonics, Brazil’s jutting shoulder still nestles in Africa’s Atlantic crook.

Philip says: Well put – no problems here. The people in the NE are jumping up and down happily now.

In Salvador, African heritage is everywhere: in speech (Yoruba, a West African language, is still spoken by the elders); in the turbans of traditional dress; in the religious practice of Candomblé, the voodoolike fusion of African deities and Catholic saints (concocted to hoodwink evangelical masters); and in Capoeira, a once-forbidden martial art turned quasi-dance. And, most wonderfully, Africa explodes in the food, the Comida Bahiana, whose aromatic wafts charge the air. Its crowning glory is the magnificent seafood stew, moqueca, always served with a side order of pimenta sauce, which – a note of caution – can cause cerebral combustion.

Philip says: The people are justifiably proud of their food and it is deliciously spiced.

The African connection, of course, comes from colonial times. Tragically so. Stand in Salvador’s Largo do Pelourinho, a triangular courtyard of pastel-hued colonial buildings turned boutiques, and it is hard to imagine this pleasant spot witnessed any ill. Its name, though – “place of the pillory” – suggests otherwise.

Philip says: Pelourinho – the actual translation is whipping post. A bad translation like this changes everything. I would like to think that this was unintentional but I guess it was toned down to hide some of the colonial past.

Here was the whipping post to which slaves were strapped. Over more than four centuries, a staggering 10 million souls were transported from Portugal’s African possessions to work the plantations. Salvador was Brazil’s principal slave port, so most of them were bought and sold on this very spot. It’s all chronicled in the Museu Afro-Brasileiro.

Not that one should regard human bondage as some historic relic. As Brazil did not abolish this shameful practice until 1888, a mere 1 lifetimes ago, many older Salvadorans are first-generation descendants of the later arrivals. With 75% of Salvador’s population of African descent, the legacy is all around you. Harsh living fact. No surprise that, once a year, the city exorcises its demons in the orgiastic explosion of Carnaval. As the locals are swift to remind you, a million revellers make it bigger than that of Rio: it’s also the antithesis of its southern cousin, more a participatory street event than a samba-drome glam-fest.

As with Cuba, music has long been the catharsis. Salvador accounts for the greatest proliferation of national talent, from Joao Gilberto (who, with Tom Jobim, created bossa nova) through Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, to African-influenced groups such as Olodum, whose massed ranks (blocos) of drummers provide the pounding rhythms of the city’s soundtrack. If you’re looking for a local techno scene – as a sour MTV film crew were, to the bemusement of their guide – frankly, rave boy, you’re on the wrong continent.

Philip says: Good point – the local music is easily accessible and beginners might like to check out the Unplugged album by Gilberto Gil as a good introduction.

Up the coast, those African influences are still prevalent in their humblest forms; dugout canoes, women washing clothes in rivers, or with baskets perched on their heads. Here, under shady palms, you can swing in a hammock and slurp on a caipirinha, Brazil’s lethal rum and lime cocktail. You can get there along the northbound Estrada do Coco (Coconut Highway), winding through sleepy fishing hamlets like Arembepe (where Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin chilled in the 1960s), up to Praia do Forte, the picturesque village that is now the centre of Project Tamar, set up to protect the giant sea turtles that lay eggs along the shore.

Actually getting to Bahia in the first place, though, is not so simple. There are currently no direct flights (though they will start in May 2001): you have to peg down to Rio or Sao Paulo and double back to Salvador on a 1,000-mile domestic flight. An improvement on Amérigo Vespucci’s day, granted, but a pain nonetheless.

Philip says: A better way would be on Q international from Europe, then a bus (24 hours) from Fortaleza.

The Italian tar first mooched down this coast in 1501. Lured by a fertile hinterland that yielded impressive sugar crops, the Portuguese founded a colony in 1549. At its peak, Salvador was second only to Lisbon as a seat of the Empire, exemplified by the ostentation of the Igreja de Sao Francisco, with its exquisite gold-leaf interior. Indeed, Salvador served as Brazil’s capital until 1763, when power shifted to Rio.

And this is where that cash injection comes in. With a huge face-lift, Brazil’s third-largest city can again challenge Rio for spectacle. Derelict until recently, Salvador’s historic quarter has been lovingly restored, its 18th-century Portuguese mansions, baroque churches and squares marking it – like Havana – as one of the finest colonial cities in the Americas.

Philip says: Partially restored at least and don’t rule out Sao Luis or Ouro Preto as the most beautiful colonial towns in the Americas. Salvador was nice but not that nice!

The development is not confined to the urban. Until recently, Praia do Forte, 40 miles north of Salvador, was the end of the line. Now, with Bahia’s reinvigoration, it is merely the gateway to a spanking new highway, the Linha Verde (Green Line). It skirts the coastal swamps, passing a procession of pretty beach settlements – Imbassai, Subauma, Baixio – offering endless opportunities to find a pousada (cheap hotel), always equipped with the twin necessities of a fridge and a mosquito net. Here, doors remain unlocked, and as for the question of security – well, gringo, they are a trifle miffed you even bring it up.

Philip says: I have been travelling in Brazil for a year now and not once have I ever stayed in a pousada with nets – I always carry my own as the mozzies of Brazil adore English Arse. As for leaving your door unlocked anywhere in Bahia, or anywhere else in Brazil, it’s just asking for trouble and only a really silly person would do this.

Quashing crime, however, will be the key to Bahia’s success. Though it was way south in Rio where street kids were being ruthlessly culled in the early 1990s, in Salvador possessions were fair game. Sometimes the scams were to be applauded for sheer nerve. Eight years ago, I sat on a stationary bus as the conductor worked his way down the aisle taking fares, only to see him skip off the back as soon as his genuine counterpart stepped on board.

Suffice to say that in the great clean-up, beaches are now well lit at night and generously policed. One must still exercise common sense – avoid unsavoury streets, don’t wear an expensive watch – but it’s a world away from what it was: narrow cobbled streets, once no-go areas, are now filled with the chatter and music from bars.

Politically, not all are turning cartwheels. The sprucing up has necessitated the relocation of the homeless who lived in the ruins – though when you see kids in the old town running around with cellphones, you can only assume the wealth has begun to trickle down: either that, or the pickings have been particularly good lately.

The next stage – an airport extension, giving Salvador international status – will make a critical difference. From May 7 next year, Airtours begins direct charter flights from Gatwick; a nine-hour journey time will make Salvador a recommended alternative to Florida or the Caribbean.

Other European airlines are also drawing up schedules. Ominously, Dominican-style gated international hotel complexes are springing up along the coast, such as that at Costa do Sauipe (complete with purpose-built “authentic” church and fishing village).

Bahia stands on a precipice. Yes, it’s the “new Cuba” – in that this gem of culture and nature was previously isolated and is now ripe for discovery. But will it descend into another overcrowded, overpromoted purgatory? Maybe. Personally, I think not. But just in case, I’d get your visit in soon. God forbid Bahia would ever start setting its watch to horário britónico


Geography
Located just under the equator, in a clearly tropical position, is the Cearense coast. The greenish-blue water is warm all year around. The average temperature ranges from 25 to 28°Celsius.

Fortaleza is the capital of the North Eastern Brazilian state of Ceará. It is a large, modern city where bold, new architecture contrasts with beautiful beaches and tall coconut palms.

Brazil Map
Ceara State Map

Weather
Why ask? It’s going to be hot, between 27 – 33°C, blue skies and heaven is a local call.

Accommodation
Accommodation falls into three categories. Hotel, motel and pousada.

Hotels range from the reasonably priced such as the Hotel Passeio (tel/fax 085 252 2104) which has doubles for about R$30 a night, to the mid priced Olympio Praia Hotel (about US$100 a night) which includes a massive breakfast (tel 085 244 9122) to the massive Ibis Hotel (silly price).

Motels are a Brazilian institution and most rent by the hour. Mostly, or so I am told, they are clean and reasonably priced. If you are considering staying in one it might be a good move to check the room before handing over any cash.

Most people stay in a pousada. These small, often family fun hotels generally offer excellent value for money, clean rooms and friendly service. There are about 65 officially registered pousadas in central Fortaleza. Unless you are arriving in the height of summer, finding a nice room shouldn’t be a problem.

Health
Generally Fortaleza is a healthy place – the odd hangover permitting. However, there is some concern about a recent outbreak of dengue fever. As always, plan ahead and ask your local doctor before travelling. Malaria is not an issue in this area. Up to the minute updates can be found at:
www.cdc.gov
And more specifically on dengue.

Travel
Fortaleza is three hours flight, or two days by bus from São Paulo the main gateway to Brazil. The flights are not cheap, but sometimes Varig has special deals.

The best way to travel around Brazil is with an air pass, which must be bought outside the country.

The Author
The author, who by his very own low standards is a hell of a guy, spends as much of his time as possible travelling. When not waiting for a bus in some remote part of South America he can be found guiding tourists around town, or muttering something about having to be in Poland next week. If he were a country in South America he would be Suriname.

Traveler Article


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