In a stone courtyard, a team of male musicians hammer away on big bass drums and taut snares. Dancing as they play, the troupe creates an infectious rhythm that draws a crowd of curious passersby. Further down the street, I find a mostly female gang of drummers working through a few energetic jams.
The fact that I’m visiting the city of Salvador, within Brazil’s state of Bahia, in the weeks leading up to Carnival, goes some way towards explaining why the streets are filled with the sounds of drums, singing groups, samba bands, firecrackers and fireworks, but this is a lively music-filled city all year round.
“Drumming says who we are,” explains Tula, a local guide who shows me around the city’s historic centre. “This movement [of drummers] was born to show the people we have an identity. ‘I am from Africa, and I have the drum, which is a symbol of this’.”
Salvador is a city with serious problems, including poverty, high levels of crack addiction and crime. I hear reports of travellers being robbed while I’m here and it pays to be cautious. But despite all of this, it’s one of my favourite cities in South America and that’s largely due to the Afro-Brazilian culture here: the people, food, customs, dance and music, especially drums. Salvador was built on the money made from the Portuguese slave trade. “Today, 70 per cent of Bahians are descendents of Africa,” Tula says. “The base of the culture, the food, the music, is from Africa.”
In the historic centre, where I’m staying, a walkable tangle of cobbled streets is lined with colourful, slightly crumbly 17th- and 18th-century colonial buildings, shops, bars and churches. Tula leads me into a Franciscan church, where a 3D artwork on the ceiling has the eye of a dove following us wherever we walk. There’s a lot of gold used in the interior, a sign of colonial Brazil’s riches. It’s a jumble of styles inside, from Baroque to Rococo, and African masks carved from wood. The slaves made everything inside the church, Tula says, but the European masters didn’t think black people had a soul, so they weren’t allowed to worship inside. Instead, the slaves built their own church, a light blue building just down from the cobbled square Praça de Pelourinho, which used to host a slave market. More recently, it’s where Spike Lee filmed the video for Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us, which featured local drum group Casa Do Olodum.
I call in at Olodum’s HQ in the heart of the town, where they’re getting ready for the Carnival. On another cobbled street,
I stop in at the shop for Dide, an all-female drum troupe. They sell clothes and jewellery inside. Many of the city’s percussion groups do social or outreach work with street children or drug users, so much of the money from these shops goes to a good cause.
Tula and I walk down to the main tourist market, Mercado Modelo, close to the seafront with stalls selling paintings, football tops and souvenirs. Outside, a high energy posse performs Capoeira, the Brazilian mix of martial arts and dance created by descendants of African slaves, all to – what else? – a drum soundtrack.
Back in my hotel room, the music continues with rhythms reverberating into the evening, on the streets, an impromptu gathering of singers and drummers forms, the sound thundering through my room.
At a football match the next day, a derby between local teams Bahia and Vitoria, the drum squads get the party atmosphere started as the sunny stadium fills up. They play throughout the match and continue long after the game has finished, as the fans file out into the evening darkness. The beatmakers must be even more exhausted than the players, who between them fail to score a single goal.
The drums stop the next day. I catch an early bus across the state of Bahia, through increasingly lush green countryside, to the town of Lençóis. It couldn’t be more different. Salvador has crowds, crime and a relentless energy; Lençóis’ cobbled streets are spacious, quiet and safe.
I meet Jaime, a local guide, and together we hike out of town and up into the overlooking hills of the Chapada Diamantina National Park. It’s hot work under the afternoon sun and I envy a group of bikini-clad girls bathing in rock pools in the Lençóis river. The town below grew from the diamond trade that sprung up here in the 19th century (Chapada Diamantina roughly translates as ‘diamond plateau’).
“You can imagine thousands and thousands of people working here, by hand, like termites. It’s crazy, huh?” says Jaime, as he shows me the mined ravines and scars in the rocks that were blasted to extract diamonds.
The jewels created a kind of gold rush (or diamond rush), Jaime tells me, as we walk back through town, with people flocking here to make their futures.
“You can imagine in the diamond period, there were bars and prostitutes, people selling diamonds, drinking, fighting … like the Wild West. ”
Times have changed. The area became a national park in 1985 and diamond mining was banned in 1995. The local treasure now is the peaceful, remote countryside that attracts in-the-know tourists; though little-known outside the country, Brazilians rate it as one of their most beautiful natural areas, sometimes referred to as a ‘lost world’ because of the dense rainforests, tabletop mountains, caves, pools and waterfalls.
I set out with Jaime next morning to explore, driving out to Palmeiras, starting point for one of the region’s most popular hikes up to the top of Fumaça Waterfall. At 385m, it’s one of the biggest in the region, a fun, sometimes tough, uphill walk on rocks and a riverbed of pink, purple and yellow clay that becomes slick when wet. I’ve come prepared for the brilliant sunshine consistently on show in Brazil, but today the rains arrive; wearing just shorts and a T-shirt, I’m soaked to the skin.
Jaime and I join others at the top sheltering under rocks from the cold rain, until there’s a short break. We take our chance. From the ledge, as the cloud dissolves, there’s a fantastic view of the verdant Capão valley, shadows rolling along the canyon walls. Treetops far below look like broccoli.
The wind is so powerful that it turns the cascading water into a fine spray that drifts up like smoke (Fumaça means ‘smoke’). I crawl carefully to the edge, like several others, and peer nervously down at the pools far below.
We eat in Capão, a small, chilled-out town that’s popular with backpackers and has cannabis smoke wafting through the streets (could the two things be connected?). As lightning fills the sky, Jaime and I tuck into Pizzaria Capão Grande’s pizza with carrot and pesto (sounds odd, but it’s great), over which we drizzle homemade honey with chilli.
On another trip out from Lençóis, I join a minibus of travellers to visit more of the park’s natural highlights. At the first stop, we cross a rickety bridge and hike alongside the rushing Mucugezinho river down to Devil’s Pool, a good but chilly swimming spot. The waters around Lençóis run brown with plant material they pick up which, combined with the white froth that collects on the surface, makes it look like a big river of beer – one up on Willy Wonka.
Next, we hike down a steep hill to the entrance of Lapa Doce cave. We turn on our torches as the sunlight fizzles out and we walk into the cool, dank darkness. Crickets scuttle across the sandy floor. Our torches pick out bats nesting in the cave’s high ceiling.
The cave system is full of strange, giant rock formations and stalactites. “It’s a very slow process,” Jaime says. “It takes 35 years for a stalactite to grow 1cm.”
You could marvel at the mind-bogglingly slow process, the concept of time itself … or you could find the rocks that look like boobs. “Look: all natural, no silicone!” Jaime laughs, shining his beam on to the top of a perfect breast. He calls a phallic shape jutting from the ground ‘Erectus Stalactite’. Others, he suggests, look like a dinosaur, a sombrero, an angel’s wings, a dancing couple – although sometimes you have to look really hard to see the resemblance.
After lunch, we hike to Pratinha Cave, not too impressive on our visit, but at the right time of year and the right time of day (July/ August, about 2-4pm), the lake in the cave is said to glow bright electric-blue. We don’t stay long, instead going for a swim in the fantastically clear waters of the Pratinha river. The water is just the right temperature for this hot day of walking – refreshing but not bitingly cold.
The last stop of the day involves another uphill climb. It’s not far, but it is steep, as our gang moves up the rocky path of Morro do Pai Inácio Mountain. The reward of the summit, 1150m above sea level, is a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, green limestone cliffs and canyons. There’s a radio mast visible; the rest is all nature, as far as the eye can see. Fittingly for Bahia, the land resembles African plains.
Tourists pose for photos and wait for dusk. My group finds quiet spots on the rocks and settles down to watch the sunset in reverent silence. Up here, there’s not a single voice, not a single drumbeat.
WHEN TO GO: December to March is high season, with Carnival taking place in February. It’s a great time to visit, but also the busiest and most expensive. To avoid crowds and reduce your costs, visit during low season from May to September. Although this is Brazil’s winter, the temperature is a pleasant 15°C at the lowest.
CURRENCY: £1 = BRL3.12 (Brazilian Real)
ACCOMMODATION: The caipirinha happy hour and huge breakfast at Hostel Galeria 13 make it an enduring favourite. Dorms from £10pn. hostelworld.com
British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Rio de Janeiro six times a week, starting from £796.19 return, including taxes and charges. From here, fly to Salvador with TAM from about £99. ba.com book.tam.com.br
The best of the rest of Brazil
This slice of paradise located off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, with beaches, bars and jungle treks, is hugely popular with backpackers and budget travellers.
The mighty Iguassu Falls are a regular stop on travellers’ itineraries as they make their way into or out of the country to or from Argentina.
Fernando de Noronha
This small island, off the country’s north coast, is often referred to as the most beautiful place in Brazil, with great scuba diving and the chance to see sharks, dolphins and turtles – though the environmental tax and expensive flights can put many off.
Remote bohemian beach resort on the northeast coast with white-sand beaches that are great for adventure sports, such as kite-surfing, with none of the crowds of Rio. Electricity only arrived here in the Eighties and local law forbids street lights, even today.
The Insider’s guide
Rogerio Câmara is the owner of local Chapada Diamantina National Park tour operator, Nas Alturas
What advice would you give travellers going to Brazil?
Brazil is a big country and it’s not easy to get from one place to the other, so allowing plenty of time is really important. Before travelling to Brazil, it’s useful to research the weather conditions in each area and the local celebrations, so you’re not surprised with prices or availability when you get there.
What’s your favourite place in Brazil?
It’s impossible to choose just one so here are three: Paraty because of its lively culture, beautiful islands and the fact that it’s home to a lot of artists. Iguassu Falls, because it’s the natural wonder of the country. The Pantanal, because it’s the ecological capital, a destination that contains a large variety of flora and fauna.
Where’s the best beach life?
Buzios has a variety of beaches and all of them are easy to access. Trancoso is perfect for people looking for isolation. Fernando de Noronha has 16 beaches with clear waters and it’s home to countless species of fish, marine turtles and dolphins.
Is there a national food or drink visitors should try?
Caipirinha is the national drink, made from cachaça (sugar cane rum), sugar, lime and ice. Feijoada and Acarajé are two national dishes. Feijoada is a stew of beans with beef and pork and Acarajé is made from peeled black-eyed peas formed into a ball and then deep-fried in dendê (palm oil).
What should people pack?
Bring all the basics, such as light clothes, bathing suit, hat, sun block, repellent, light coat – and some extras, such as good energy to party from dusk till dawn.