As I strolled along Itaparica beach, there was a movement off to my left. The water splashed, and a man's head emerged. The rest of him followed, striding out of the surf, black as ebony, clutching a snorkel and dripping water in the sun. He smiled a greeting, then threw his catch onto the sand - a huge starfish as big as your hand that writhed and wriggled. With a grin, he scooped up his prize and made off down the beach, an air of satisfaction apparent from his swagger.
Itaparica beach is as close as I have come to paradise on this trip to Brazil. The sense of remoteness and space on the beach were one of the attractions of my tour of the Baiae dos Todos Santos (Bay of All Saints). An agency in Pelhurinho fixed me up with an excursion that included a day adventure around the enormous bay that enfolds Salvador de Bahia. For fifty reals (£12/$15), I got a trip in a sailboat which took in numerous islands and beaches and fitted in a lunch at the biggest island - the colossal Itaparica. The Baiae do Todos Santos is one of the main attractions in Salvador de Bahia. The city itself sits at a right angle on its edge overlooking the bay. There are over 31 islands within the bay, mostly uninhabited, and the biggest Itaparica is so big that it looks like the mainland across the bay from the heights of Salvador. I thought I saw good beaches on Ilha Grande...but nothing prepared me for the vastness of Itaparica.
Early that morning, I had to get myself to Marina Bahia in the Cidade Baixa. When the sun is out in Bahia (and that is a lot, even in spring) the water of the Baiae looks bright blue, and bobbing in the marina was our lancha (sailboat). The boat was too stories high, with plenty of seating for the hundred or so tourists on board who look out on the open sea. The view as we chugged away from the marina was impressive. The whole of the Cidade Baixa in its dilapidated glory soared above us. The stark marble of the Lacerda elevator could be seen, as could the fading pastel colonial buildings high on the outcrop. We also had musicians to play for us - three lads who sang bossa nova anthems. Each one was very good - assured drummer, enthusiastic tambourine player and very professional ukulele strummer. It really added ambience to the journey.
It took two hours to cross the Baiae do Todos Santos. With capirinhas with little umbrellas being passed around, I was beginning to feel a tourist rather than a traveller. It was all abit "Caribbean wedding" or "Pirate Theme night", and it was an unenthusiastic Steve who saw Ilha Mare loom up on the horizon. The lancha moored on a little breakwater, and we had to walk along this breakwater to get to the beach. This was fine until we realised we had to pay to reach the beach. Tourist trap? Oh, yes, they even charged you for using the toilets, and passengers were plied with so many capirinhas, they had no choice. The tourist hordes descended on the obligatory white-sand beach, and the hawkers and sellers descended on the hordes. Unfortunately, rain prevented any serious beach enjoyment, as the tourists hid in the covered restaurants from the downpour and the hawkers found they had their customers trapped. I can now add Ilha Mare to Phuket and Buzios on the list of tropical resorts I have visited in the pouring rain.
Then it was back on the lancha and another hour south across the Baiae to the prime attraction - Itaparica. The tropical sun came out, and as we approached the island, an endless screen of palm trees filled the whole horizon. White flecks of beach could be seen rubbing up against the moving surf, and this surf seemed to stretch for tens of miles in every direction. As we glided in, we had to moor 100 feet from shore because the water was so shallow. Motor canoes crewed by teenage islanders came out to meet us, and everybody, young and old, had to feel their way into the canoes, which buzzed back to where the surf was breaking. There, we still had to jump into the water to reach the shore, and to everyone’s amusement, the older generation were carried on the backs of these islanders.
Then it was a couple of hours on Itaparica beach. Brazil is famous for its beaches. Jericoacoara, which is way up on the Caribbean coast near Fortaleza, is regularly voted the best beach in the world. But for sheer size, Itaparica has to be one of the best I have ever seen. You literally couldn't see the end - it vanished into the distance. The backdrop was palm forest interspersed by little wooden shacks. The sun came out and lit up everything, and the beach itself was mainly compressed sand with water drifting in to little tidal inlets, staying shallow hundreds of yards out to sea. I strolled for an hour along its shore, watching the Baianos on horses gallop past and letting the warm water lightly brush against my feet.
After we climbed back aboard the lancha, the rain clouds moved back in. I didn't mind because it created a huge rainbow arcing over the beach at Itaparica. One final good memory to keep...