After Salvador and Recife, Fortaleza is the largest and most important of the Northeast capitals. However, unlike the other two metropolises, practically nothing remains of Fortaleza’s colonial past. In fact, the city’s signature skyline is crammed with multistoried office and apartment buildings, not to mention mega tourist hotels. While distinctly lacking in charm, these high-rises lend the city an aura of modernity and dynamism that is unique in this part of the Northeast, and which spills over into the vibrant cultural scene and intense nightlife.
Fortaleza’s saving graces—and modus operandi—are the photogenic urban beaches around which much of its social life revolves. The city’s are both idyllic and urbane, especially Praia do Futuro, which mingles sweeping white sands and clean blue waters with a string of sophisticated superbarracas where you can surf the web (or the waves), get a massage or a manicure, and feast on fresh lobster.
Fortaleza itself was founded in 1600 by the Portuguese, who showed little interest in the area until the Dutch arrived on the scene in 1637 and constructed a formidable five-pointed fortress overlooking the sea. For a few years, the Dutch managed to stave off the Portuguese. However, they were no match for the fierce Tabajara Indians who repeatedly attacked them. By 1654, the Portuguese had retaken the fortress. They rechristened it Fortaleza Nossa Senhora de Assunção, which became the name of the small village that grew up around it.
For a long time, Fortaleza’s geographic isolation, coupled with frequent droughts and Indian attacks, kept it from developing into anything more than a colonial outpost. It was only in the 1820s, when Brazilian ports opened up to international commerce, that Fortaleza became a major shipping center from which Ceará’s cotton and beef were transported to Europe. In particular, wealth from the cotton trade led to the creation of an enlightened elite with progressive ideas.
Inspired by Baron Haussman’s Paris, in the mid-late 1800s Fortaleza underwent a major overhaul, gaining wide avenues, grand palaces, public gardens and cafés (only a few of which remain). In 1884, the state government passed legislation abolishing slavery—four years before the rest of Brazil—and, around the same time, Cearenses were at also at the forefront of the battle for a republican Brazil. More recently, following the end of the military regime in 1985, Fortaleza was the first municipal government in Brazil to elect a woman as mayor (and a leftist one—from the Workers’ Party—at that).
During much of the 20th century, Ceará struggled with misery, primarily due to the harsh conditions in the drought-ridden Sertão. Waves of poor migrants from the interior flooded Fortaleza. Often unable to find work in the capital, many continued on to Rio and São Paulo. Meanwhile, in recent years, the city and coastal areas have flourished as a result of new industries and a thriving tourist trade, coupled with enlightened state governments who have made significant headway in diminishing poverty through efficient education and health programs.
The airport and rodoviária are both in the southern suburb of Fátima. Transportation to Centro or the beaches is easy. Flights from most major Brazilian cities arrive at Aeroporto Internacional Pinto Martins (Av. Senador Carlos Jereissati 3000, tel. 85/3477-1200). Long-distance buses arrive at the Rodoviária João Tomé (Av. Borges de Melo 1630, Fátima, tel. 85/3256-2100). There are numerous daily buses to Natal (8 hours) and Recife (12 hours), and one a day to Salvador (22 hours), Rio (48 hours), and São Paulo (52 hours).
Taxis from either the airport or rodoviária will cost R$25–35 to downtown. You can also flag down an executivo bus that follows a circuitous route from the airport, via the rodoviária, through Centro and the beaches of Iracema and Meireles.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition