One morning in Barra, there was a memorable sight taking place on the beach in front of the hotel.
Watching from the promenade balustrade was a small crowd. They were viewing a group of boys and girls on the beach, doing samba exercises before work. I began to watch, and they rotated in a ring, swivelling their hips to samba music and letting out whoops of delight. Olodrum drummers beat out a rhythm, and each person moved his or her body to the music. To me the scene epitomised Salvador - taking advantage of the beaches and living life to a musical rhythm.
Barra is the closest beach suburb in Salvador to the centre. It forms a right angle to the Baiae do Todos Santos, with the famous Farol de Barra (lighthouse) at the very apex of that angle. The beaches start about 500ft away to the north of the Farol at the Porto do Barra (where I stayed) and then turn to the east where they run forever along the coast of Brazil. Salvador is an extraordinary city, many of its residents are very poor, but everyone has time for the beach at the weekend. My recommendation to anyone coming to stay in Salvador is to stay in Barra. The advantage of the beach is obvious, but it is slightly more relaxed then the madness of Pelhurinho. Connections to the airport and bus station are close, and although noisy at night, there is a chance of sleep - something you don't get in the more budget options in Pelhurinho. As discussed before, the airport bus runs the entire length of the Orla Atlantica before heading to Pelhurino, making getting to and from the airport easy. But more importantly, ordinary buses ply this route, allowing you to sightsee in Pelhurinho during the morning and head back to Barra for a swim in the afternoon.
To get there, take a taxi from Pelhurinho (10 reals) or a bus. The bus, heading south, will pass the impressive Campo Grande. If you want a good example of the gentrification of Salvador de Bahia, then have a look at this massive square. I suspect it was a no-go area twenty years ago, but now it is rather classy. I walked through one day, feeling very safe and enjoying the hot sunshine. Care has been taken with it, with trimmed green lawns, Greek temples, gold statues, and gushing fountains.
But the southwestern exit is what you will be interested in, as it turns into Avenida Sete Semptembre. This is Salvador’s uber-rich street, with towering condos standing on cliffs overlooking the Baiae. If you are staying in the area, it is useful for its supermarkets and houses a number of English/Portuguese-language colleges. Then it dips severely downhill, almost to an excessive degree, before levelling out at the start of the Orla Atlantica and the start of the beaches. This area which contains a bus stop, open-air restaurants, and all the amenities of a small community is called Porto do Barra
Barra is primarily for Baianos. There are foreign tourists there, but essentially the beach is for those who live in Barra or nearby. Therefore it attracts many different characters. During the daytime, things are mostly good - the coco-verts sellers sell their ware for about 1 real, surfers clutch surfboards on their way to catch waves, and the whole promenade sounds with the noises of laughter and music.
This continues when the sun goes down (a classic Bahian attraction is watching sunset at the Farol), but I think Barra changes character at night. More desperate characters arrive, and as a tourist, it pays to exercise caution. The authorities in Salvador have noticed this and post armed police every 50 yards along the promenade to watch over visitors. It would be a shame to avoid Barra at night. The chatter of people along the seawall is very atmospheric, and one evening as I was enjoying a capirinha, two Bahian children started to do an impromptu capoeira dance in front of me. A word of caution about the street children in Barra: if they do bother you, then walk away quickly. It’s not their fault they live a desperate life, but perhaps avoidance is the best policy for a tourist.
The first sandy beach you will find will be at Porto do Barra. Barra beaches have the prerequisite white sand but also as this is a promontory, they have plenty of surf and rockpools. Swimming is possible if done carefully (I did see a lad limp back after a swim in the sea) and due to the sun looks emerald green. The main attraction is the Farol de Barra but if you follow the right angle around you can reach the Morro de Christo. This is a large grasscovered mound that sticks out to sea. You need to hop over the wall and pass through a copse of palm trees and walk up the dusty track. At the top of the mound is a small white Chisto Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), just like the one overlooking Rio de Janeiro. From here, you get a superb view over the surf lashed beaches and the Praia de Farol, which is a gentler beach and where families head to on a Sunday.
But the attraction where all the tour buses pull up is the Farol de Barra. Of course, there are Baiana's selling corn-on-the-cob and other hawkers, but it is really a very impressive example of Brazils heritage. This is ground zero for Brazil - this is where their country started. The Portuguese didn't sail into Guanabara bay in Rio back in 1500 - oh, no - they sailed into the Baiae do Todos Santos. The lighthouse stands on the site of a colonial fort built in 1534 whose cannons were aimed at the bay and were primed to blast the Dutch, English, and Spanish competition. The fort/lighthouse itself has commanding views of the bay with stone octagonal walls soaring forty feet into the air each one topped by a turret. Before you enter the lighthouse, have a wander around its walled circumference at the wave-crashed inlets and the views up and down the bay.
To be frank, this is the best museum I saw in Salvador. It had been upgraded in 2000 and was complete with English translations was fully worth the 3 reals entrance. First was the history of Salvador and its inclusion on the trade routes from Africa and India. Next were 16th-century nautical maps of the area. I could even see how deep the water was in the bay from readings taken in 1558! Old maps picked out the sweeping beaches, the island of Itaparica and the rocky escarpment that Pelhurinho was built on. There were plenty of shipwrecks in these waters - models of galleons, ship lenses and figureheads dotted the museum. The massive courtyard had been turned into an open-air restaurant. I climbed up to the battlements and looked down on the restored cannons and lighthouse tower, and the view across the bay was amazing. I'd say the Farol de Barra was worth your time - a lot of thought and care had gone into it.
But the main attraction in Barra is the beaches. I got myself into a routine the eight nights I was there - sightseeing in Pelhurino in the morning, back about two for a sleep, change into swimming trunks, and run across the road to the Porto do Barra beach, followed by drinks with friends at ten o'clock at night. But the best bit was definitely the beach - running across the sand, diving straight in, total immersement in the green water. Lord, it was wonderful. I felt I could play in the water to my hearts content...
This is the life....