Simple Rusticity in Coastal Trancoso, Brazil
Published: April 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
In Brazil, near a village green lined with brightly painted cottages, T+L found coconut juice and caipirinhas, daily sun and nightly capoeira, and everyone’s-a-fisherman fashion.
The first time I arrived in Trancoso, with my wife and three friends, we took the wrong road. Actually, it was sort of the right road, but it seemed entirely wrong at the time. Piloting our rental car through the dimming twilight, we turned off the highway at a sign marked Trancoso, whereupon the asphalt gave way to a rough dirt track. Whereupon a chunk of our muffler fell off. Whereupon it started to rain. Violently. Tracing the contours of a steep ravine, the road became a mud-slicked luge run, interrupted by potholes that could swallow a Volkswagen. Thick streams of red clay cascaded down the hill. For a moment we thought we’d mistaken a riverbed for the road, except that every so often we’d pass someone pushing a bicycle along the shoulder. “Trancoso?” we shouted over the roar of our engine. “Sim, sim,” they all replied, grinning and pointing dead ahead. “I guess this is why Naomi Campbell takes the helicopter,” our friend Laura said between bumps.
After 45 minutes of sloshing through a deluge of mud, at one point crossing a gully on a bridge of two-by-fours, then making a final wheel-spinning push uphill, we emerged, pioneer-like, in a clifftop village of single-story houses fringed with tamarind and cashew trees. The rain had finally stopped, and paper lanterns hanging from the branches were now being set alight. On the town green—which was just that, five acres of unkempt grass—a few dozen people were out for an evening stroll, sharing the green with three lazily grazing horses.
“Jesus,” Alan murmured. “We found Brigadoon.”
Despite the complete absence of signage, we managed to find our hotel (there are only a few proper streets), where we recounted our misadventure to the desk clerk. “So,” she replied. “Why didn’t you take the paved road?”
The inland highway we’d turned off would have taken us straight into Trancoso. It was completed in 2000, but many residents, presumably with no mufflers to lose, prefer the old coastal route, car-gulping crevasses and all. Which gives you an idea of what kind of place Trancoso is, and what sort of people wind up here.
“Trancoso is where rich people from São Paulo go to pretend they’re poor,” jokes Eduardo Garcia, a painter from Rio de Janeiro. He’s right: in the past few years this historic Bahian village has become a retreat for wealthy Paulistas, who find in Trancoso’s simple rusticity a bizarro inversion of their own fashion-mad metropolis—a sort of antediluvian Rua Oscar Freire, an H.Stern diamond in the rough.
But that’s not why you want to go. You want to go to Trancoso because it is one of the strangest and most singularly beautiful places in Brazil. We fell hard for the town on that first visit, and ever since have found it impossible to shake from our heads, like some disturbingly vivid dream: Were we all on drugs?Did it really look like that?Last fall I returned to Trancoso—via the dirt road, of course—to find it all magically and improbably intact.
Twelve miles north of here, near Porto Seguro, Pedro Álvares Cabral’s fleet came ashore in April 1500, marking Europe’s first encounter with Brazil. Today this portion of southern Bahia is known as the Costa do Descobrimento, or Discovery Coast. (Given the preponderance of fio dental—dental floss—bikinis, Uncovery Coast might be an apter name.) Along the shore runs an epic stretch of golden beach, much of it backed by nothing more than coconut palms and dendê trees and towering red-clay cliffs. Flying the length of the Discovery Coast in a helicopter takes 18 minutes; driving the same distance can take four hours, on unsealed roads that meander around tidal rivers, mangrove swamps, papaya plantations, and vast nature preserves.
The coast has been rediscovered again and again since Cabral’s time. Porto Seguro is now a Brazilian spring-break bastion, as its main drag, Passarela do Álcool (Catwalk of Alcohol), attests. Nearby Arraial d’Ajuda is a popular resort town. Tucked off the road to Trancoso is the luxury residential development Terravista, home to Brazil’s best golf course and a Club Med.
Amid these familiar holiday magnets, Trancoso has always stood apart. Electricity came only in 1982, the first public school a few years later. For most of its existence—from its founding by Jesuits in the 16th century to its embrace as a hippie Eden in the 1970’s—the village was as primitive as it gets. Until quite recently, barter, not cash, was the preferred means of exchange. According to legend, a large swath of one of the town’s beaches, Praia dos Nativos, was sold to a wily Brazilian playboy in exchange for a transistor radio and a set of dentures.
The town is as remarkable for what it lacks (stoplights and well-functioning ATM’s) as it is for what it has (that stunning beach). But it is the Quadrado—the grassy square at the heart of the village—that makes Trancoso unique. At one end stands the chalk-white Igreja de São João Batista, the second-oldest church in Brazil, built by Portuguese settlers in 1586. Its defiantly plain façade—broken by a door, a window, and a wooden cross—is a fitting image for this place of uncomplicated pleasures. Behind the church, a 1,200-foot cliff provides a dramatic mirante (vista) of miles of beach and the translucent Atlantic.
The Quadrado itself is used mainly for impromptu barefoot soccer games, though the players have to contend with the odd horse at half-field. Sixty squat houses, painted in brilliant hues from lime-green to lavender, frame the square. In accordance with local laws, each is built from mud and clay, with plank doors, shuttered windows, and a palm-frond roof. Traditionally, none of the houses had numbers—locals knew them simply as “the pink one” or “the orange one.” Now most have been converted into artisans’ workshops, boutiques, and restaurants whose tables spill out onto the green, under the shade of gnarled trees laden with mangoes and almonds and jackfruit.
My friends and I could never decide which was more stirring: the view of the Quadrado at night, illuminated by lanterns and moonlight and echoing with bossa nova and clinking glasses; or the same sight at midday, when the sun turns the rainbow façades to neon and the bushes buzz with hummingbirds (beija-flor, or “flower-kissers,” to Brazilians). In the heat of the afternoon, when most visitors are down at the beach, many of the shops are closed, leaving the Quadrado to the horses, the hippies who lay out handmade jewelry on blankets on the lawn, and Raimundo the coconut vendor, who sets up beside the church. With his machete he’ll slice off the top of the fruit, then pour the sweet juice through a cooler of ice and back into the coconut for you to drink. When the sun starts to descend, the beachgoers trickle back and the shops and restaurants throw open their wooden shutters. (Hours of operation are officially 4 p.m. to midnight, but depend on the proprietors’ moods, which are predictably unpredictable.)
As you read this, Trancoso is jumping. For three weeks in late December and early January, São Paulo society descends on the Quadrado, transforming the village into one big holiday bacchanal. (It helps that Christmas and New Year’s usher in Brazilian summer.) Lines for restaurants snake around the corner, and parking requires some patience—this in a town where few locals own cars.
Then, just as suddenly, influx turns exodus. For the rest of the year, Trancoso can seem all but deserted. Weekenders and honeymooners pass through during the long off-season, but not many. When we visited in March the hotels were only a quarter full, and when I returned last fall I was one of maybe 10 foreigners in town. In the curious ebb and flow of Trancoso, one month it’s um-cha-um-cha beats at a jam-packed beach bar, and the next it’s the gentle chirrup-chirrup of lizards on an empty Quadrado. At quieter times like those, one wonders what it must have been like a generation ago.
Rhapsodies about hippie-dropout meccas make me skeptical; one dude’s far-out fantasy is another’s dysfunctional cesspool. Still, imagine Trancoso in the early 1970’s, when the first nonnatives—hippies and other urban refugees from Brazil and elsewhere—stumbled upon this remote Pataxó Indian village, where money was fish and fish were plentiful. The newcomers were called biribandos, a Pataxó term for “outsiders.” By most accounts, they fit in well with the villagers—even helping to restore the town church, which had languished in disrepair.
Many original biribandos remain here, and are known mainly by their first names: Lia, Calé, Leila, Calá. (That several of the ragtag escapees came from São Paulo families with prominent surnames is perhaps not unrelated.) A new generation of hippies manqué has followed in their footsteps: guys in untrimmed beards pushing strollers around the square, sun-drenched women with middle parts and beaded bikinis, teenage longhairs noodling on the berimbau or grooving on the cuíca, the Bahian percussion instrument that emits a squeak like a puppy whose tail was just stepped on. One can always make out the tang of ganja smoke in the breezes wafting across the Quadrado. This may explain why one biribando is presently collecting insect wings in the hope of building a spaceship.
After the hippies came other free spirits: painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians. The actress Sonia Braga visited frequently in the 1980’s, as did the tropicália singer Gal Costa. Her former summer house on Praia dos Nativos is now a Relais & Châteaux resort, Pousada Estrela d’Água (with the best bar on the beach). Elba Ramalho, the high priestess of forró music, owned a local club called Bar Bossa, where she often took the stage.
Since the turn of the millennium, another breed of biribando has arrived, landing private jets at the Terravista airstrip and flying choppers into town. The new wave uses not fish or dentures but actual money—a lot of it—to scoop up beachfront villas and rustic pieds-à-terre. Naomi, Eddie Vedder, and Gisele have joined the Quadrado promenade. Sig Bergamin, a Brazilian interior designer with an international clientele, and Olivier Baussan, founder of L’Occitane, both own property nearby. With them came outposts of fabulous Brazilian boutiques like Lenny and Richards.
Like Goa and Ibiza before it, Trancoso would seem to be at the tipping point between high freak and high fashion, hippies and hipsters. Yet despite recent incursions, Trancoso is curiously glamour-resistant—high-end shops are usually dead-empty, and besides, nobody wears heels on the Quadrado. Here the dominant pretension is the lack thereof. “Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the rich from the nonrich,” notes André, a Paulista who moved here in 2006. “Back home they shop at Daslu [the swank São Paulo department store], but when they come to Trancoso they all dress like fishermen.” Ostentation just won’t cut it here. Two years ago a nightclub opened near the Quadrado, complete with a velvet rope and goons holding clipboards. Suffice it to say this didn’t go over well. “Everyone in line is wearing sandals, and here’s this huge guy in a tie saying, ‘Not on the list!’ ” André recalls with a laugh. The club closed within months.
From the first morning of that first visit, our crew fell into an easy routine taking us back and forth between the beach and the Quadrado. Trancoso’s languorous rhythms nudge travelers to adjust their goals accordingly. Our daily activities roster: (1) count bindi marks; (2) count plastic surgery marks; (3) frolic in the surf at Estrela d’Água and work up an appetite for ceviche and grilled octopus; (4) walk up the hill and buy another coconut from Raimundo; (5) see how off-tempo the hippie drumming combo on the Quadrado gets the more the players smoke; (6) marvel at Professor Diney’s hyperathletic capoeira troupe and wish we had abs; (7) forget about abs and order more passion-fruit caipirinhas; (8) look at that moon; (9) look at those stars; (10) look for more Havaianas.
The Havaianas became something of an obsession. We had 14 orders for Brazil’s beloved flip-flops from friends back home. We realized that the farther we strayed from the Quadrado, the more the prices dropped, until we found the Supermercado Nogueira, in Trancoso’s dusty commercial ghetto on the edge of town. Here was the mother lode: among the diapers and canned hearts of palm we found dozens of Havaianas at only $6 a pair (a fourth of the cost on the Quadrado). We schemed to start up our own sandal-importing business, with a sideline in hearts of palm.
One day we felt ambitious and resolved to do some exploring out of town. Various sources had told us about a gorgeous stretch of sand called Praia do Espelho (Mirror Beach) and a tiny beachfront restaurant called Sylvinha’s.
What they didn’t tell us, at least not adamantly enough, was that getting there could nearly ruin you. The drive to Espelho made the dirt road into Trancoso seem like the Epcot monorail. First we crossed a vast prairie: the Vale dos Búfalos. All this land, and the herd of charcoal-gray buffalo grazing on it, is owned by one man. That man is crazy to be living out there. Soon, the road devolves into a pockmarked torture course. For an hour we shuddered along in second gear, wondering how much Avis could charge us for “normal” wear and tear. Then, rounding one hairpin turn, we passed an eight-inch tarantula crossing the road. At that point we just floored it.
Any meal would taste good after such a journey. But if ever there was a lunch worth enduring 18 miles of involuntary chiropractic, Sylvinha’s was it. Maria Sylvia Esteves Calazans Luz came from São Paulo to Trancoso in 1974 at the age of 32. She was soon cooking elaborate meals for guests at her beachfront cottage on the Praia do Espelho. Today her “restaurant”—two picnic tables on a whimsically decorated veranda overlooking the sea—is open only for lunch, and only by reservation.
By the time our stomachs settled from the drive, we were famished. Out came Sylvinha’s tantalizing creations, a tropical fusion of Bahian, Indian, and Southeast Asian cuisines: peixe olho de boi, sea bass delicately stewed in orange-soy broth; vegetables stir-fried with fish sauce, honey, and ginger; tart mango and passion-fruit chutneys. Assisting in the kitchen was Sylvinha’s little goddaughter, Carlota, who carried out cups of cinnamon-laced coffee before wandering off to climb a cashew tree. We, meanwhile, took turns napping in the hammock on the lawn, lulled by Caetano Veloso songs and a soft ocean breeze.
Espelho is one of Bahia’s loveliest beaches, a vivid collage of blue water, creamy yellow sand, red cliffs, and lush green forest. Driftwood and coconuts wash up with the tide. Rivers and streams emerge from nowhere to snake into the sea. Strolling for miles that afternoon we encountered only two other souls, and hardly any visible development besides Sylvinha’s cottage and a few neighboring beach shacks.
And so when I returned to Espelho by myself last October, it was with some trepidation: Would it be the same?What if a water park had sprung up on the shore?Or a Sandals resort, or an Osklen superstore?I’d scored a booking at Sylvinha’s for lunch, but for all I knew her cottage had become a condo, and the road to Espelho a four-lane expressway.
Yet the road was as awful as ever—arguably even worse. As I rounded that final hairpin turn (no tarantula this time) and bounced down the pitted track to the coast, it was clear my anxieties had been misplaced. The beach was empty but for the husks of coconuts. Sylvinha’s veranda still looked like a hippie wonderland, festooned with turquoise pillows and seashell art. Nothing had changed. Except Carlota was perched a few branches higher in her cashew tree.
Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.
When to Go
March and April—Brazil’s autumn—are the best time to visit Bahia’s Discovery Coast, for clear skies, warm temperatures, and small crowds.
Getting There and Around
Fly to São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, or, better yet, Salvador (American Airlines now has daily service from Miami), then on to Porto Seguro. Be advised: Trancoso has few functioning ATM’s, so bring all the Brazilian cash you’ll need or withdraw it at the airport on your way in. Rent a car at the airport—it’s an hour to Trancoso—or hire a driver ($113) through Mangue Alto Turismo (55-73/9147-3882; manguealto.com.br). Owner Henrique Costa speaks fluent English and knows the region well. Consider booking your entire trip—domestic flights, ground transport, and lodgings—with São Paulo–based travel outfitter Matueté (866/709-5952 or 55-11/3071-4515; matuete.com). Cofounder Bobby Betenson is featured on T+L’s 2008 A-List. Safety note: Women should be careful about walking alone on the beach or away from town.
Where to Stay
Songbird Gal Costa’s vacation house—designed by architect Ricardo Salem—became a hotel in 1998. Now a member of Relais & Châteaux, the 28-room beachfront resort retains a winningly informal vibe and friendly service. The tiered swimming pool and fine beach bar are reason enough to stay here, but the Quadrado is a long walk uphill; you may want to take taxis into town. Estrada do Arraial, Trancoso; 55-73/3668-1030; estreladagua.com.br; suites from $494.
Great Value Etnia means “ethnicity,” and the stylish rooms (Moroccan, Goan, Japanese, African tribal) in this eight-villa resort underline the theme. Excellent breakfasts are served beside the swimming pool. 25 Av. Principal, Trancoso; 55-73/3668-1137; etniabrasil.com.br; villas from $250, including breakfast.
Six of the nine guest cottages at this brand-new boutique hotel—pronounced oo-SHOO-ahh—are scattered around a garden shaded by towering jackfruit trees; the three best rooms face the square. (Yes, one of those candy-colored façades can be yours.) Warm, rustic elements meet sleek Midcentury Brazilian furniture and fully outfitted kitchens. Take breakfast on your veranda or by the pool, flop into a hammock, and play out your biribando fantasy. On the Quadrado, Trancoso; 55-73/3668-2166; uxua.com.br; doubles from $554, including breakfast.
Flávio Marelim, a former restaurateur from Rio, and Nana Salles, a fashion-business veteran, found this quiet stretch of coastline an hour south of Trancoso in 2000 and built their dream house here. Two years later they began taking paying guests at two bungalows they designed. Word spread beyond Brazil; reservation requests poured in. One smitten billionaire booked the entire property for 2 1/2 years. After he left last summer the resort reopened with two more rooms. Both owners are exuberant hosts, and Marelim is an exceptional cook. Most of the produce—including papaya and cashews—is organically grown here, and the seafood is caught just offshore. There’s no phone, cell phone, Internet, or satellite-TV service, and nothing to do after dinner but lie in a hammock and watch the moon. Praia da Ponta de Camarão, Caraíva; 55-73/9979-6269; e-mail: flanana@.vol.com.br; bungalows from $741, including meals.
Portuguese architect Ana Catarina designed her own remote resort three hours south of Trancoso near a village that was without electricity until two years ago. The 57-acre coconut plantation had mostly mangroves and empty farmland as neighbors. “I felt uncomfortable building here,” Catarina says, “so I tried to make the architecture blend into the landscape.” She has planted 30,000 shrubs and trees to offset her development. Catarina manages the hotel herself—nine freestanding bungalows with ocean views—and grows the produce on-site. Guests can take guided wildlife tours, visit the Barra Velha Indian Reserve or take a boat to the coral reef for snorkeling and diving. Fazenda Riacho Grande, Corumbau; 55-73/3668-5172; tauana.com; bungalows from $572, including meals.
Where to Eat
After a lunch of fresh ceviche at this beachside hotel bar, take to the daybeds overlooking the surf. In the main dining room try a subtle moqueca, paired with piquant pirão (a sauce of tomato, puréed fish, garlic, and olive oil). Pousada Estrela d’Água, Estrada do Arraial, Trancoso; 55-73/3668-1030; lunch for two $75.
This Quadrado fixture has French doors, paddle fans, and a vine-draped courtyard. Chef Sandra Marques—a São Paulo émigré—excels at fish dishes like salmon in leek sauce with black rice. On the Quadrado, Trancoso; 55-73/3668-1122; dinner for two $40.
With blinding-white furniture and a turquoise pool, this chic boîte is straight out of South Beach. The bar serves 50-plus varieties of cachaça, and the seafood-focused menu is reliable—but it’s the panoramic clifftop views you come for. On the Quadrado, Trancoso; 55-73/3668-1193; dinner for two $85.
Praia do Espelho; 55-73/9985-4157 (reservations essential); lunch for two $53.
Where to Shop
João Calazans, a.k.a. Calá, was an original Trancoso biribando. His ceramics, shown at his studio on the Quadrado, are among the best in town. Trancoso; 55-73/3668-1112; ceramicatrancoso.com.br.
Run by the Pousada Etnia, this shop has Osklen bikinis and swim trunks; colorful tops and dresses from Rio’s Cantão label; and a good selection of hats and handbags. On the Quadrado, Trancoso; 55-73/3668-1669; etniabrasil.com.br.
This woodwork and furniture shop, founded by Roberto Maya, will arrange for shipping (and has an even broader selection online). On the Quadrado, Trancoso; 55-73/3668-1023; marcenariatrancoso.com.br.