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.