Introducing Brazil’s “Happiness Capital”: Salvador de Bahia

Those postcards of the women in hooped skirts and colorful head scarves, men madly drumming and shaking exotic instruments, and a million smiling, dancing people- that’s Salvador! Color, sound and life turned all the way up. We had dreamed of visiting Brazil’s Northeast since we arrived, known for being a world away from the South, and the time had finally come.

Constant dancing and drumbeats, decadent architecture and bright colorful buildings, spicy seafood, and voodoo: Welcome to the Afro-Brazilian capital of Brazil, Salvador de Bahia. Rio de Janeiro may boast the iconic beach-side samba lifestyle, but Salvador is where the vibrant African roots of Brazil shine through.

Salvador de Bahia: Brazil's Happiness Capital

From the moment we landed and stepped off the plane into the humid evening air, we knew we weren’t in Rio anymore. We walked out to where the bus would pick us up and take us to the city, just as several taxi drivers approached us on foot and tried to convince us to go with them. “Only R50 per person!”. Well, the bus was R3 and we’re backpackers, so these guys should have seen they were fighting a losing battle, but they badgered on as we politely nodded and told them we would take the bus, and the Brazilians around us did the same. One especially persistent driver dropped his price to R30.

We had been in Salvador a good fifteen minutes, and by twenty we got our first only-in-Salvador experience. This new guy, clearly illegally soliciting passengers from the bus lane, struck a chord in the taxi driver who had latched on to us, and he was not having it. In the middle of the bus line, the two went at it, half-joking, half-yelling, as the first one scolded him for cutting all the other drivers waiting in line to get customers. So the driver in the bus lane began yelling out cheaper and cheaper prices at the Brazilians next to us, defiantly looking at the infuriated driver who couldn’t believe his blatant disrespect of the rules. They said no, we said no, and we stood awkwardly in the middle of their banter. Finally, the bus lane driver got back in his car, slammed the door, and rolled down his window as he turned the car on. The other driver, pleased to have one, began up with us again. “R25! No lower!”.

Still a no. As we smiled at each other, knowing that people had warned us about these type of borderline-harassment sales strategies in Salvador, another taxi driver pulled up in the bus lane and stuck his head out the window, joining the others in trying to get our business. We continued with politely nodding no, waiting for the bus to arrive.

Salvador-de-Bahia-Brazil-Happiness-Capital1---The-Borderless-Project

“I’ll take you, all for of you, for free!”, yelled the rule-breaker from the bus lane, smirking at the other driver. “It’s on my way home, and now I just want to steal them from you!” Because we’ve long been told that the rule to survival is that nothing in life is free, we just looked to the Brazilians for their reaction. “Vamos?!”, the guy said, and began putting his and his wife’s things in the trunk as the other driver went ballistic.

We exchanged questionable looks, but with one motion from the Brazilians to get in, we abandoned all gut instinct and followed their lead. If they were doing it, we might as well too. Our driver sped out of the bus lane, laughing and pounding fists with the Brazilian in the front as the other driver yelled after us. We won!

The thought of riding the packed city bus with our giant bags and no seat for that duration was a far cry from the ride we ended up with. Our driver, who’d been running on almost empty the whole way, swung into a gas station and we quickly huddled to decide we wanted to leave him with a wad of cash. He’d said we were on his way home, but still- it was too good to take for free.

We grinned as we rode along, letting the two in front chat and still surprised by the fact that we were now cruising along the highway in a free taxi.

The driver turned out to be hilarious, and quite kind as well, and joked with everyone the whole ride while sharing stories and asking about Rio. Completely unaware that our destination was over an hour from the airport, we didn’t understand just how great a deal we had gotten until the end.

Barra-Salvador-Brazil---The-Borderless-Project

Once we arrived to our seaside steal of a hostel in Barra (Che Legarto), we left him with our tip and ducked under the street lights into our home for the next few days. Exhausted, we called it a day, knowing that tomorrow we’d wake up to the wild ocean right outside our door and it would be the first thing on our mind.

We got up and out of the room to tell someone, to see people closing shutters and doors and frantically mopping up everywhere. From the giant glass windows in the front we could see out to the ocean we had dreamed of: it was something out of a shipwreck novel. Palm trees swayed dangerously, water from the sea crashed onto the highest rocks, and where the dark grey skies and sea met at the horizon was nothing but a wall of water.

Morning came, and before we could rise and shine to the beautiful Bahian beaches outside, something else got us up- Giant cracking and pounding sounds from outside our window. Before having time to check, the wooden shutters began swinging open as a downpour of water fell in. Lightning lit up the room, and thunder boomed louder and louder overheard. Within minutes, the floor was partially flooded.

And thus began our week of visiting the “Happiness Capital”, the colorful city, vibrant Bahia, our tropical paradise getaway in one of the craziest storms we’ve seen. And how, somehow, all of that still shone through.

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Even in the dark, the buildings brightened up the streets. We couldn’t believe that it was actually like this in real life. The main square seemed to be the place we’d seen all of the photos of, so we got our fill and headed to leave to return in the day. A local man saw us and came up with a huge smile- he had the wish ribbons tied all over the city, and wanted to offer us both one as part of his new “project”. Project people ourselves, we gave in. But immediately after the wish ribbon was on, we blinked and suddenly multiple necklaces were on each of our necks. And then more bracelets on our wrists. And then he was asking for R20, and without flinching Henry pulled it out as I came to. What was happening?! We, our saavy Peruvian Henry especially, never fell for this kind of thing! I started to say something as he handed over the money. Then the man asked to “hold” R20 more- he just wanted to show him something.

Pelourinho---Salvador-de-Bahia-Brazil-Happiness-Capital---The-Borderless-Project

Somehow, Henry snapped out of it, we looked at each other, then down at the cluster of rasta-colored jewelry that we had no interest in, and began trying to push it all back towards the man and walk away. He told us keep it, keep it, it’s for your families! And then bolted with the money. Yes, we know. After all our training, we fell for the ultimate tourist trap. How could we?! Henry swears the man hypnotized us, and highly warns against looking anyone with wish bracelets in the eye. After ripping off all of the bad karma jewelry, we looked around and suddenly became aware of these guys everywhere, lurking in the darkening streets and pestering anyone to pass by. Then we noticed something even more telling…how incredibly easy it was to spot the other travelers who had been duped, by the matching necklaces and bright wrist ribbons. We had been tagged for the rest of the poachers- gullible tourists available for the taking.

Frustrated and realizing that we should heed everyone’s warnings that Pelourinho would get sketchier by the minute once the sun was down, we headed back towards the beach. We needed to indulge in some cheap street food after that.

Rio Vermelho, known for being the nightlife hub of Salvador, is also known for having the greatest of Salvador’s typical street food: Acaraje. Acaraje shows the African influence in Brazilian food, something that makes you feel that you could just as easily be on the streets of Africa as Brazil. Women in traditional hooped skirts dresses fry dough made of black eyed peas and stuff the inside with pastes of okra and palm oil, shrimp, spices and chopped salsa to top it off. It’s incredible, cheap, and as our taxi driver told us our first night, the best thing to do in Salvador is enjoy one with a nice cold beer.

After hours of sideways rain and terrifying thunder, the rain settled at a drizzle and we made a run for it. Our morning of being trapped inside had lead to a lot of research, and we were ready to make do with what we had. First stop: The tourist favorite, iconic streets of Pelourinho. The historic center, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pelourinho is full of brightly colored buildings with colonial-style facades, set amongst decadent churches atop cobble-stoned roads. Pelourinho, which is a Portuguese word, refers to the post that used to stand in the main square to which slaves would often be tied and publicly beaten. While it’s obviously part of a darker side of Salvador’s history, as the largest past slave port in all of South America it is impressive how hard Salvador works to not forget it’s history- It would be impossible to overlook the many African influences and relics from the days of slavery.

Acaraje---Salvador-de-Bahia-Brazil-Happiness-Capital---The-Borderless-Project

And he was right. We ate our incredible Acaraje from Acaraje de Cira, and our bitter experience from a few hours before melted away. As you explore Rio Vermelho, you’ll pass plenty of these stands, and walk past bars with live music spilling out. It’s a great place for a night out- especially for backpackers on a budget like us. Fulfilled that we’d made do with what we could in the weather, we rode back in the rain and enjoyed the view.

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