The Reconcâvo: Santo Amaro and Cachoeira

Colonial buildings, many of them white with terra cotta roofs, cluster on either side of a narrow blue river.

From Cachoeira, you can cross the rickety British-built wooden bridge to the town of São Félix. Photo © Paulo Marcos, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Named after the concave-shaped Bay of All Saints, the Reconcâvo refers to the former sugarcane region surrounding Salvador. Once the major purveyor of Bahia’s great wealth, the colonial cities of Santo Amaro and, particularly, Cachoeira were prosperous regional capitals whose prominence is reflected in the impressive array of baroque churches and gracious mansions that line their sleepy cobblestoned streets and squares. Today, this hilly region is given over to the cultivation of paper (hence the bamboo plantations) as well as fruit and spices such as cloves and peppers. The towns—despite a certain air of dilapidation—retain a distinctive charm. The Reconcâvo is also known for its rich cultural traditions, linked to the African heritage of the largely black population descended from the slaves who worked the sugar plantations. Since both towns are within a two-hour drive from Salvador, they can be easily visited in a day trip. However, if you want to soak up the region’s history and distinctive flavor, consider staying overnight in Cachoeira.


Santo Amaro

Only 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Salvador, this typical Recôncavo town—the hometown of Brazilian musical sibling superstars Caetano Veloso and Maria Betânia—is attractive and unpretentious. With elegant squares framed by baroque churches and a couple of ruined plantation manors, it’s a pleasant place to wander around for a couple of hours if you’re on your way to or from Cachoeira. Highlights include the colonial buildings around the Praça da Purificação, among them the 17th-century Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Purificação, with its Portuguese tiles, and the imposing 18th-century Convento dos Humildes (9 a.m.–1 p.m. Tues.–Sun.), at Praça Padre Inácio Teixeira dos S. Araujo, which houses a small museum of religious art. Don’t leave without sampling the sequilhos, crisp buttery biscuits made by the nuns at the convent.

Festivals and Events in Santo Amaro

Santo Amaro hosts two of the most interesting festas populares in the Recôncavo. On January 6 is the Festas dos Reis, during which the town’s squares are given over to music and merrymaking.

On May 13, Bembé do Mercado celebrates the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888. Offerings are given to the orixá Iemanjá, and there are plenty of traditional African-inspired songs and samba-de-roda dancing.


Cachoeira

Two hours from Salvador, this atmospheric town on the banks of the languid Rio Paraguaçu is a small treasure trove of colonial architecture, which after years of abandon is slowly being restored. Cachoeira is also a center of Afro-Brazilian culture; there are a large number of traditional Candomblé terreiros as well as the Irmandade da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of Good Death)—a female religious order created by freed slaves over 200 years ago. The order’s annual Festa da Boa Morte has become a major event, attracting loads of afro-descendentes in search of their ancestral roots.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Cachoeira was one of the wealthiest and most populous cities in the Brazilian colony. Its strategic location upriver from the Paraguaçu’s entrance into the Bay of All Saints made it an important crossroads for the riches—particularly the gold mined in the Chapada Diamantina—that were being shipped from the interior down to the coast and off to Portugal. Meanwhile, its fertile soil lured Portuguese colonists to cultivate sugarcane in the surrounding hills and led to the importation of thousands of African slaves who worked the plantations. While the slaves toiled, their rich masters poured money into the embellishment of the thriving town, bequeathing a legacy of fine baroque churches.

By the early 19th century, colonial rule was being increasingly challenged, and as a hotbed of revolt, Cachoeira achieved national prominence. Cachoeirenses led the battle for independence against Portuguese troops. When Brazil subsequently won its independence, it was in Cachoeira that Dom Pedro I chose to be crowned as Brazil’s first emperor.

At the end of the 19th century, sugar prices had diminished, and slavery had been abolished. Cachoeira and its neighboring town, São Félix (across the river), however, still prospered due to the cultivation of tobacco, the quality of which was renowned throughout the world. In recent decades, however, even tobacco’s importance has dwindled. Today the glory of former times is but a distant memory preserved in the town’s rich architectural and cultural heritage.

Getting To Cachoeira

Santana (tel. 71/3450-4951) provides hourly bus service between Cachoeira and Salvador (R$16), via Santo Amaro, with departures from Salvador’s Rodoviária. If you’re driving, take BR-324 from Salvador for 60 kilometers (37 miles) until it meets BA-026 near Santo Amaro. From Santo Amaro follow BA-026 for 38 kilometers (24 miles) to Cachoeira.

Sights in Cachoeria

You can discover Cachoeira’s treasures in a half day of pleasant wandering around, which can also include a boat trip along the Rio Paraguaçu.

Praça da Aclamação

Praça da Aclamação is a grand square lined with impressive edifices. The Casa da Câmara e Cadeia is the town’s 17th-century jailhouse that currently functions as its city hall. You can’t miss the splendidly baroque Igreja da Ordem Terceira e Convento do Carmo (tel. 75/3425-4853, 8 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sun.). The church is richly decorated with Portuguese ceramic tiles, an ornate gold altar, and an exquisitely paneled ceiling. A side gallery features polychrome Christ figures, produced in the Portuguese colony of Macau, whose gory realism is enhanced by a mixture of bovine blood and rubies. Inside, the Museu de Arte Sacra do Recôncavo (R$3) has a collection of religious art and objects. It can be accessed via the cloister of the magnificent convent, which operates as a pousada with a restaurant. Housed in a handsome civic building, the Museu Regional (tel. 75/3425-1123, 8 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–noon Sat.–Sun., R$2) has an unassuming collection of 18th- and 19th-century furniture and decorative objects.

A couple of blocks away, on Rua 13 de Maio, is the coral-colored building that is the headquarters of the Irmandade da Boa Morte (10 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, donation suggested). Inside, a small museum displays interesting photographs detailing the sisterhood’s history and traditions, including the famous Festa da Boa Morte. From the museum, a steep ascent leads to the Praça da Ajuda, where you’ll come face-to-face with the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, a simple stone church built in the 1590s that happens to be Cachoeira’s oldest (sadly, it can’t be visited). Descending an equally steep alley in the other direction will bring you to Rua Ana Nery, where you can visit the 17th-century Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora do Rosário, renowned for its wonderful blue-and-white ceramic tile panels.

São Félix

When you’re through wandering around Cachoeira, cross the rickety British-built wooden bridge that leads across the river to the town of São Félix. Aside from some attractive pastel-colored riverfront buildings, the main interest of São Félix is the Centro Cultural Dannemann (Av. Salvador Pinto 29, tel. 75/3438-3716, 8 a.m.–noon and 1–4:30 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 1–4 p.m. Sun.), a warehouse that has been converted into a contemporary art center. Apart from interesting temporary shows, the center hosts the prestigious Bienal do Recôncavo in November of even-numbered years. Famed throughout the world for its fine cigars, Dannemann still produces its heavily perfumed smokes on the premises. To catch a glimpse—and a whiff—of the process, make your way to the rear of the building, where women dressed in white sit at ancient wooden tables, rolling cigars as if it were still 1873. Even if you don’t inhale yourself, you might want to buy a few to take home as the ultimate gift for the smokers in your life. Also in São Félix is the Museu Hansen Bahia (Ladeira Santa Barbara, tel. 75/3245-1453, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–noon Sat., free). Located in his former home, this museum is devoted to the expressive woodcuts and paintings of Hansen Bahia, a German engraver who fled Nazi Germany for Cachoeira (changing his last name along the way) and never looked back. Hansen’s work reflects a strong local woodcarving tradition that you’ll notice as you wander around town.

Festivals and Events in Cachoeira

Without a doubt, the most famous event in Cachoeira is the three-day Festa de Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte. Held every year in August, it lures visitors from all over Brazil and the world, and for this reason, if you want to stay in Cachoeira, you’d better reserve a hotel months in advance. Should you miss this unforgettable celebration, try to make the Festa de Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, which is held around the middle of November and features the washing of the steps of the Capela de Ajuda as well as plenty of traditional samba-de-roda music and dancing.

Accommodations and Food in Cachoeira

Hands down, the most comfortable and atmospheric (and really quite affordable) place to stay in town is the Pousada Convento do Carmo (Praça da Aclamação, tel. 75/3425-1716, R$90–140 d), with 26 guest rooms that are distributed among the town’s 18th-century Carmelite convent. Ceilings are cathedral-high, dark wood is in abundance, and the plain decor is bereft of worldly goods. Slightly more hedonistic are the outdoor pool and an elegant restaurant. It serves a mean maniçoba, a heady local stew invented by slaves, the main ingredients of which include sun-dried beef and pork as well as stewed manioc leaves that must be boiled for three days beforehand to expel their natural toxins. For inexpensive and appetizing home-cooked Bahian fare, head to Beira-Rio (Rua Manuel Paulo Filho 19, tel. 75/3425-5050, 9 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, R$10–20), a simple place whose outdoor tables and chairs overlook the river. Also on the Praça de Aclamação, Galeria Pouso da Palavra is a welcoming little café-gallery founded by a local poet. It sells CDs, artwork, and delicious desserts and snacks, which you can eat in the pretty back garden.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.


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