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Simple Rusticity in Coastal Trancoso, Brazil

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Photo: Anders Overgaard

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.

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