The land of happiness: Brazil´s Bahia state – National Geographic 2018

16th April 2018
The land of happiness: Brazil´s Bahia state – National Geographic 2018

The land of happiness: Brazil's Bahia state

It takes a plane, boat, horse and cart and bone-shaking beach buggy to reach Brazil's most secluded coastal town, the 'Republic of Caraíva', home to pristine forests, beach-shack cuisine and locals who like to do things their own way

Monday, 16 April 2018

In the wild southern reaches of the Brazilian state of Bahia, as you edge closer to Espírito Santo, there's a long beach known as Praia do Espelho ('Mirror Beach') for the way its waters shimmer and glitter reflectively under the endless sun. Many Brazilians have heard about it — it's often picked for those 'world's most beautiful beach' lists — but most haven't visited, because it's more than out of the way.

Here, I climb up to the headland to get a better look at the coastline. It stretches ruggedly in both directions as far as the eye can see, as pristine and unadulterated as when the first conquistadors sailed down here in the mid 16th century.

Close to here, in fact, is the spot where the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral — blown off course while on a voyage to India — became the first European to lay eyes on Brazil. He sailed these parts on Easter Day 1500, naming the mountain he saw Monte Pascoal. Today, the national park named after it remains one of the last places you can encounter a swathe of virgin Atlantic Forest — most of the trees having been cleared by plantation owners in the colonial period. Cabral remarked on how beautiful, friendly and healthy-looking the indigenous people were, and went on his merry way.

The Age of Discovery put this part of southern Bahia on the map, but the most read about and talked about spot on this stretch of coast today is undoubtedly Trancoso, about 20 miles north. Since the international jet set 'discovered' the town a decade ago, the coastal region has been firmly on the radar for savvy travellers to Brazil. The fabled town is undeniably gorgeous and still retains its laid-back, unpretentious vibe; a grassy central square doubles as a football pitch and space for horse grazing, banked by restaurants, small galleries and boutiques; its long, palm-lined, sandy beaches are lapped by a warm sea; there are exceptional villas to rent. But for those with a little more time to spare, and a little more curiosity to expend, there are patches further afield in southern Bahia worth discovering.

If Trancoso is Bahia lite — Bahia diluted by flavours from the rest of the world — then go further south and you get Bahia straight, no chaser. I'm discovering the southernmost coastline, travelling towards the border with the state of Espírito Santo, as part of a multistage overland trip that involves a motorised beach buggy, a horse and cart, a wooden ferry boat and a 4×4. As I left Trancoso, the owner of my hotel called out: "Have fun at the ends of the Bahia earth!"

To get to the ends of the Bahia earth, we've weaved south on dirt tracks, rolling through patches of Atlantic Forest, papaya plantations and buffalo grazing grounds. On the way, we break the journey with a stop at Restaurante da Silvinha, a tiny place set back from the sands on Espelho Beach. The owner, Silvinha, serves a set lunch to order — providing you phone ahead that morning to tell her you're coming. This local institution only has three tables, so, although the food and setting are rustic, it feels exclusive. The food, which is mind-blowingly good, is hard to describe, but it's as if a Michelin-starred chef had decided to turn their hand to pescetarian, hippy fare. Silvinha combines the freshest local seafood and organic vegetables with oriental-inspired seasonings, coconut milk, homemade tropical fruit chutneys and purees, and juices made with fruits and berries from her garden.

Satiated by Silvinha, we drive along sandy lanes to the Caraíva River, where a ferryboat awaits to transport us across. And it's goodbye to the 4×4, because where we're headed is a car-free zone. On the other side of the sleepy river is a tiny, jungled peninsula where the river meets the sea: the village of Caraíva. A local offers to transport my bags via horse and cart to the pousada where I'm staying, and so I jump in, flying off the seat with every clop of the horse's hooves. After several minutes, twisting and turning down sandy lanes, he deposits me at the gate of Le Paxa, a hotel set in spacious gardens bordering the tempestuous Atlantic surf.

Le Paxa has an open-sided living and dining area with a couple of bedrooms leading off it, and two small cottages in the garden, one with a palm tree growing through the roof. This is where I'm staying. My four-posted bedroom is trussed up with mosquito nets. The whole place has a beautiful, chic simplicity; mixing local art and objets with reclaimed hardwoods and antiques from around the world. As with the other places I stay at in Bahia, nature infiltrates the tiniest domestic flourishes — there are always fresh flowers: a jug of flame flowers decorating the breakfast table; a tiny jug of flowers arriving with the pudding tray. The term 'hotel' doesn't really fit Le Paxa, as the owners live on site and so one feels somewhat en famille.

Viva la Republic

I quickly become enamoured of this dreamy village on the eastern bank of the mangrove-lined Rio Caraíva. It was only connected by road in the 1980s, with electricity arriving in 2007. Locals campaigned for cables to be laid underneath the sandy byways, which means Caraíva is one of the rare places in Brazil free from ugly hanging electricity wires. Mobile reception is practically nonexistent and the road in and out, accessed by a little wooden river taxi, is unpaved, so can become impassable after heavy rain.

From an outsider's perspective, the village feels a bit like an experiment in ideal living. Because it occupies a tiny, elongated peninsula between a river, the sea and the Caramuru-Paraguaçu Indigenous Reserve, with Monte Pascoal National Park beyond, there's nowhere for the town to grow. Lying in bed I can hear the sound of the crashing Atlantic surf, which occasionally takes on a hazy eau de nil hue where it merges with the river. Along the satisfyingly empty beach, where dolphins frolic, a few friendly Indian women sell simple but stunning homewares and jewellery, made with local timbers and the polished and dyed seeds of local fruits, including the acai berry.

Also staying at Le Paxa are two women: the Paris-based colleague of the owner, who's having a little holiday, and an elegant older woman from Belo Horizonte, who makes me laugh even though we don't speak each other's language. On an epic walk together, we head towards Espelho Beach in search of a coastal lake. First, we recross the Rio Caraíva in the tiny ferry boat, then walk for about two miles before reaching a shack where someone has nailed a sign to a wooden tree proclaiming: 'Bem Vindo. Praia do Satu' ('Welcome. Satu Beach').

Here, at Satu's Beach we drink refreshing coconut water and eat prawn pastels (filled pastries). It reminds me of some of the best beach shacks in the Caribbean. Above us, the flag of the 'Republic of Caraíva', featuring a dog, flaps in the gentle breeze. Satu, the owner, tells us the waters we're gazing at are full of turtles, and in the distance, kitesurfers plough the horizon.

After swimming in warm waters, we wander back to Caraíva before the high tide cuts us off, and find arroz com camarão (rice and shrimp) waiting for us — pepped up with pimenta de cheiro peppers — which pops with aromatic flavour.

The owners of Le Paxa have invested heavily in their adopted village, running a little fashion boutique stocked with summer wear from Paris and a range of beauty products they've created using oil from local almescar trees. There's also a cafe, offering galettes (flat, round cakes), a crêperie, and a pizzeria whose crowning glory is a chocolate and banana pizza (which sounds like an aberration but is, in fact, a triumph).

At their riverside jazz bar, Bar Do Porto, we're serenaded by an amazing guitarist to whose tunes everyone in the bar sings along to enthusiastically while waving their arms — a typically Brazilian, unselfconscious response to live music.

Another of Le Paxa's contributions to the local community is the NGO it runs, which provides around 80% of Caraíva's school-aged children with free music, dance and art lessons, adding to the bohemian vibe of a village that's long been a magnet for artists, writers, musicians from far and wide.

Caraíva has a strange, complicated history. According to colonial maps of Brazil, it was founded in 1537, and its Portuguese-descended residents were living entirely off-grid even as late as the 1950s. When the planners of the Monte Pascoal Historical National Park (created in 1961) flew planes over the area to establish its boundaries, they noticed a previously unknown village, Caraíva, and excluded it from the national park territory. However, the state of Bahia had already gifted the land to the federal government to create the park, so Caraíva was effectively cut loose from Bahia, which is why the locals refer to it as the 'Republic of Caraíva', and tend to dance to their own tune. In 2006, having continuously occupied the place for over 400 years, they narrowly missed being relocated when its was proposed that their village be annexed by the adjoining Barra Velha indigenous land. So it's hardly surprising they retain a wary, David-versus-Goliath-like defiance when it comes to outsiders.

The latest big shot to have been summarily dispensed with is Globo, Latin America's biggest TV network, which many Brazilians argue controls the nation. Globo wanted to film the soap opera De Volta pra Casa in Caraíva but when it was put to a vote, 88% of the villagers said no and so the TV giant duly retreated with its tail between its legs. The locals had just found out the news when I arrived and were thoroughly enjoying their victory.

At Toca do Siri Caraiva, a new bar across the road from the village's tiny, whitewashed 1920s church, I encounter Bob Rodriguez, Caraíva's answer to Tom Cruise in Cocktail — an eccentric barman who spends the European summer working in bars in the Canary Islands and Formentera. He's created a sensational gin cocktail made with juniper berries, biri biri fruit (which resembles star fruit) and lemon, which he sets about making for me with such intensity that he gently mists my face with tonic in the process.

The healing place

I have one more journey south, to Corumbau. To get there, I hop into a horse-drawn carriage that takes me to a beach, where taxi drivers on beach buggies from the local indigenous Pataxó village of Barra Velha have congregated. I'm then whisked on an exhilarating, bumpy, half-hour beach ride to the Corumbau River, which is brown with silt. "They call it the Coca-Cola river," smiles the ferryman, when I ask its name. I jump into a small boat along with some other passengers. On the other side, we walk for a few minutes along the beach until we arrive in the village of Corumbau, where a car is waiting, having been sent from my next hotel, Vila Naia Corumbau, a few miles down the road. I'm starting to realise why not too many people seem to have made it down here from Trancoso.

Nestled amid a large palm grove, the hotel comprises four rooms and four cottages set back from the wild, remote beach. In the 1990s, Renata Mellão, its owner and the founder of Sao Paulo's Museum of the Brazilian Object, came here for with a friend who was looking to buy land. They found a plot and the friend, Renata tells me, said: "This really is in the middle of nowhere. No one is going to come here. I don't want it. You have it." And so she did, although it was several years before Renata commissioned an architect friend to create Vila Naia Corumbau.

To call the hotel's location secluded, or off the beaten track, would be a huge understatement. To call its beach deserted would be similarly underselling its Robinson Crusoe glory — approximately nine miles of deserted beach, banked by virgin vegetation. Coral reefs necklace the waters offshore. The only living thing I encounter on an hour's walk along the beach at dusk is a terrier. During the day, I walk half an hour to the village, where I find a few beachside restaurants, two pretty sandbanks jutting out into the cobalt waters, a tiny whitewashed church, a woman selling watermelons, the giant corpse of a dead tree adorning the sands like an installation, and not much else. At a cafe, I explain to the owner that I'm quite hungry but don't have any money on me; would it be OK to have some fried fish and pay her tomorrow? "Yeah, sure," she says. About 400 people live in this tiny village, and most are fishermen; their tiny, colourful boats moored in the lagoon.

Of course, I don't have to walk to the village to get food; the simple but well-executed Bahian menu at Vila Naia — fish from the local fishermen, vegetables from the hotel's organic garden or from local farms, fruit grown nearby — can be ordered anywhere on the property, including the gardens, the pool, the restaurant or your room.

When it's time to leave, my journey from Caraíva to the airport is in a car and takes just four hours. I can't help thinking that departing the same way I arrived would be a more fitting conclusion to my time here, but I'm grateful for the chance to see the hinterland of southern Bahia. The dirt road runs through patches of jungle for two hours before it hits the highway, passing grazing Brahman cattle, coffee, pepper, and palm oil plantations — Monte Pascoal occasionally appearing on the horizon — then edging past Itamaraju mountain, its summit like a broken chunk of Cadbury Flake.

I realise that spending four hours in the back of a car at the end of my trip is the best way to acclimatise properly after Corumbau — a fitting name, given it means 'distant place' in the Pataxó language.

On the way, my driver tells me that Vila Naia has suffered a dip in popularity since the helicopter and small plane operators out of Porto Seguro ramped up their prices. And travelling by road, of course, puts a lot of potential guests off. I'd hate to think that this corner of the world would ever become completely isolated. Brazilians call Bahia the terra da felicidade — the 'land of happiness' — and, here at Corumbau, I've come to understand what that really means. But, perhaps, you have to make the long journey there to truly appreciate the ends of the Bahia earth.

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