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Simple Rusticity in Coastal Trancoso, Brazil

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Photo: Anders Overgaard

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.

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