Bahia and beyond (The Guardian)

As destinations go, it was hard to get to, and even harder to leave. “Why aren’t there any donkeys working on a Sunday morning!?” I demanded, dragging half a ton of glossy black Rimowa luggage through the sand towards a ramshackle rowboat.

There aren’t any cabs in Caraiva. And there aren’t any roads. In fact, reports of electricity coming to the town seven years ago may have been exaggerated too. My first night in a beachfront villa at Casa da Praia – one of only a handful of mini tropical resort-style pousadas in the town – was spent candlelit after the power went down. And when it rains, it washes away most contact with the outside world. But herein lies the appeal of one of Bahia’s most remote, and resolutely most beautiful, coastal stretches.

“You must go further south to Caraiva,” recommended a Brazilian friend when I told her of my plans to visit the chi-chi Bahian resort of Trancoso. “It’s paradise.” So I did. After a day’s long haul on Air France followed by three hours of short hop flights via Belo Horizonte, one aborted landing at Porto Seguro due to a flooded runway and then one successful one, a bumpy-as-hell two hour 65km 4×4 drive, a canoe and then a donkey pulling a cart with the word “taxi” painted on it, I arrived. It had taken a full 24 hours, but I’d made it.

Caraiva is, by all accounts, what Trancoso was 20 years ago, before the road was built south of the airport and Diane von Furstenberg and Terry Richardson started holidaying there. There are just a handful of pousadas, and when you walk along the beach, with its sand the colour of crystallised caramel and its feisty but warm Atlantic surf, there’s little sign of civilisation at all. Most journeys are undertaken by fishing boat, and all of the homes are built on a stretch of sand cut off from the rest of Bahia by the mouth of the river. There’s a small square with a tiny white church, and a pizzeria with a terrace at the riverside where the canoes are moored, and not much else. During the day, butterflies dance around you as you make your way through the lanes, and at night, fireflies take their place and flash like a hundred tiny stars.

A uniquely slow and precious pace of life thrives in Caraiva. The Pataxó Hãhãhãe Indians – one of seven tribes in Bahia, along with the Baenã, Kamakã, Tupinambá, Kariri-Sapuyá and Gueren  - still live here untroubled, a 6km horse ride away in the Caramuru-Paraguaçu Reserve, with sloths dozing in huge numbers in the forests around them. There are over 54,000 Indians who live in the Reserve, created by the then Indian Protection Service in 1926. On the way to Caraiva you’ll pass a handful of tiny stalls at the roadside with the locals selling simple tube-shaped lampshades and other Pataxo handicraft. The tribe welcomes visitors to see how they live and to try their hand at archery, making feather headdresses and to dine Pataxo-style, on freshly caught fish baked in leaves. Visits are easily arranged via your pousada or tour operator… this part of the world isn’t entirely without commercial smarts.

There’s a touch of the throwback tie-dye to this town. If Trancoso was Bahia’s 1970s drop-out idyll, then this is where the hippy bed and breakfast owners who didn’t want to invest in wine lists and sushi chefs came when the fashion crowd invaded. It’s somewhere that’s been repeatedly discovered by more intrepid travellers from the bigger cities who decided to sell up and live the good life. Which isn’t to say that the place is awash with gap year kids waxing lyrical about American Spirit organic tobacco: there are as many retired couples on long weekends from Sao Paulo here as there are students with summer jobs. There’s a level of sophistication that belies the remoteness. The pousadas in Caraiva are all simply furnished and functional, although you might want to bring your own mosquito net. Most consist of detached chalets, dotted around a well-kept garden. Expect the basics and you won’t be disappointed – there’s air conditioning and hot water and the bed linen is inoffensive, but there are no designer, boutique flourishes and if you want mood lighting, then reach for a candle. You’ll certainly eat very well though. Lunching every day at Casa da Praia, I became hooked on the vegetarian version of the feijoada – a black bean stew – and sizzling plates of fresh fish and king prawns. And of course the cuchaça-heavy caipirinha, which the Brazilians ignore in favour of a vodka-based alternative, but which, to sun-starved European tastebuds at least, is a muddled lime blast of feel-good seaside fun in a glass.

A trip to nearby Espelho beach is a must, to visit Silvinha, who has been living in the same candy-coloured house for 16 years. She has three tables on her porch, you have to reserve via your pousada (everyone on the coast knows her and has her number, but here it is anyway: +55 73 9985 4157) and most afternoons she cooks a set £24-a-head lunch. It varies from day to day, with no menu as such, but there’s always fish (on my visit, with soy, ginger and orange) and there’s always an array of colourful bowls filled with tropical veggies and sauces, dished up from bubbling saucepans and steaming pots in the kitchen of her house, visible from the porch through streams of beads and embroidered fabrics. As someone said to me before I went, “you can taste the love”. Approaching from what must be one of the most beautiful beaches in South America – its surface shimmering like white lasers dancing on tin foil – you can understand why Silvinha has never wanted to leave, and why it’s a place of pilgrimage for locals and travellers who have heard about it via word of mouth. “I don’t want many people to know about this place,” she says. “I don’t want to run a business.”

Although a bus thunders along the dirt track a couple of times a day, stopping just short of the river, Caraiva remains profoundly cut off from the outside world, and no one is likely to want to lay down asphalt or build bridges any day soon. Each November the guest houses repair the winter’s damage and unfurl the hammocks for what counts as a busy summer in this part of the world. You might have to carry your own case back to the canoe if the donkeys are still asleep, but it’s a small price to pay to get access to this much unspoilt beauty and perfect solitude.

Essentials

Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315, www.journeylatinamericaco.uk) offer six nights in Caraiva and three nights in Rio de Janeiro from £2,363, including all flights, hotels, transfers and breakfasts.

Air France (who recently began partnering with GOL, which offers regular internal flights to Porto Seguro for Caraiva) has flights from London to Rio de Janeiro via Paris from £542 return (0845 050 5871, www.airfrance.co.uk).

Pousada Casa da Praia (+55 73 3274 6833, www.casasdapraiacaraiva.com.br) has rooms from £35 p/night.

For more information visit http://www.caraiva.com.br.

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