Brazil’s tropical playground is an area known as the northeast that encompasses nine states that between them cover an area larger than the UK, Germany, France and Italy combined.

The northeast, all of which is located in the Tropics, is a paradise for travellers in search of perfect beaches, equally perfect weather and dramatic landscapes, all touched by culture, history, culinary delights and folklore. It is also the closest part of Brazil to Europe, closer — thanks to direct flights — than even the Caribbean.

The development of the northeast has been rapid for tourism, and investment in the past two decades has resulted in greatly improved access to the region by both air and road. The accommodation now ranges from modern deluxe resort properties and brand hotels, through luxury privately owned boutique hotels and pousadas, all the way to a simple hammock slung on the veranda of a fisherman’s hut.

There is a lot to see and experience in Brazil’s northeast. Beautiful tropical beaches are a given, and spread over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the south of Bahia to the north of Ceará by way of Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte.

Along the coast, visitors will come across beautifully preserved colonial towns and cities – many of them UNESCO World Heritage sites – that have developed and grown since the first Europeans landed in Brazil and Bahia in 1500. Towns such as Porto Seguro, Salvador, Marechal Deodoro, Olinda, Recife, João Pessoa (located close to the easternmost point of the Americas), Natal, Fortaleza, and São Luís.

The northeast is also synonymous with exotic flavours and vibrant colours. Music, dance, folklore, religion and regional culinary pleasures all abound, with as many different delicacies on offer as there are states and accents.

The region has some of Brazil’s most dramatic scenery that includes the Chapada Diamantina in the interior of Bahia; the São Francisco River, which cuts across the states of Bahia, Pernambuco, Alagoas and Sergipe; the picture postcard beauty of Jericoacoara Beach in Ceará; Piauí’s Serra da Capivara, the oldest archaeological site in the Americas; the Valley of the Dinosaurs in Paraíba, with its clearly visible dinosaur tracks; and the breathtaking Lençóis Maranhenses of Maranhão, a great desert spread like an immense bed sheet which rolls back inland from the Atlantic coast for nearly 30 miles (50km) and is dotted with thousands of crystal clear lakes. There is also the archipelagos of Fernando de Noronha, an ecological reserve belonging to the state of Pernambuco, and Abrolhos, off the southern tip of Bahia, that are considered among the best dive sites in the world.

Four cities in the northeast were chosen to host games during the 2014 World Cup. They were Salvador, Recife, Natal and Fortaleza. In all 21 of the 64 World Cup games were played in the Northeast with Salvador’s Fonte Nova seeing some of the tournament’s highest scoring games including the Netherlands 5-1 defeat of Spain.


Salvador and the state of Bahia are the European birthplace of Brazil, and also the region where Brazil’s links to Africa are most prominent. Today Salvador is the fifth largest metropolitan area in Brazil, with a population of over 4.8 million, and the ninth most populous city in Latin America. Bahia, by itself, is the size of France.

Europeans first landed in Brazil on 23 April 1500 at a spot close to what today is the town of Porto Seguro in the south of Bahia. They were the first Europeans to land in Brazil and were greeted by the native Amerindians.

In 1549 the city of Salvador was founded by the Portuguese around a triangular peninsula that separates the Bay of All Saints (Baia de Todos os Santos) from the Atlantic. It was the first colonial capital of Brazil, and is one of the oldest cities in the New World. It retained its position as capital until 1763 when the title transferred to Rio de Janeiro.

For many years Salvador was the most important seaport in the southern hemisphere and a major centre for the sugar industry and the slave trade. It is the slave trade that has given Bahia and Salvador its African flavour. Over 80% of the current population of the city is estimated to be able trace its ancestry back to Africa. No surprise, therefore, that those African influences can be found in the region’s cuisine, music, dance, dress, arts and crafts, and even religion.

From Candomblé to the typical dress of the Baianas, from Capoeira to the musical group, Olodum, the African touch is there to be explored and appreciated. Two famous visitors to embrace the African touch are Paul Simon and Michael Jackson. The samba reggae of the bloco afro Olodum features on the tracks and videos for Simon’s The Obvious Child and Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us.

For an introduction to the spirit of Bahia you can do no better than read any of the novels written by Bahia’s own Jorge Amado. They include “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”, “Captains of the Sand”, “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon”, and “Tieta”.

The historical centre of Salvador contains an abundance of buildings and churches that date from the 17th to the 19th century. At its heart is the Pelourinho where colonial mansions and churches have been restored to their former glory. The entire area is considered to be a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Away from Salvador popular tourist destinations along the coast to the south include Porto Seguro, Arraial d’Ajuda, Trancoso, Itacaré, Itaparica and Morro de São Paulo. To the north is Praia do Forte and Costa do Sauípe, to name just a few.

No less spectacular are the national parks of the interior, most notably the Chapada Diamantina that offers many trails through spectacular unspoilt scenery. The village of Lençóis, 250 miles (400 km) inland from Salvador, is considered the best base for trekkers interested in exploring the natural beauty of the Chapada.

Pernambuco’s Reef

In Portuguese the word “recife” means “reef”, and it is the reefs that sit off the coast of Pernambuco that have helped make its beaches so special, the reefs breaking up the waves rolling in off the Southern Atlantic Ocean. This includes the beaches of Recife itself, including the popular Praia de Boa Viagem.

Recife and neighbouring Olinda boast a fine collection of colonial buildings and churches dating from the 16th and 17th century. Olinda, one of Brazil’s best-preserved colonial centres, is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Olinda’s carnival celebrations, along with those of Recife, are amongst Brazil’s most popular and are driven by the region’s signature frevo beat.

Like Salvador, Recife grew and was influenced by its residential mix of Portuguese settlers, Amerindians and African slaves. The city also reflects the influence of the Dutch settlers who invaded and controlled Recife and Olinda from 1630 to 1654. During this period the city was considered one of the world’s most cosmopolitan and housed Brazil’s first Jewish community and as a result the first synagogue in the Americas was built and can still be visited.

Close to Recife are some of the most popular beach resorts in Brazil. 50 miles (83 kms) to the south is Porto de Galinhas where it is possible to visit the reef and swim in natural tidal pools teaming with exotic tropical fish. The village of Porto de Galinhas has character and charm that is reflected in its many bars and restaurants.

Other popular areas along the coast of Pernambuco include Tamandaré, Itamaracá and, for surfers, Maracaípe. Inland the main attraction is Caruaru, famous for the region’s ceramic figures, and Novo Jerusalem where the Passion of Christ is performed each Easter week.

One of Pernambuco’s most famous destinations is actually located in the Atlantic Ocean, 220 miles (354 km) off the Brazilian coast. It is an unspoilt archipelago known as Fernando de Noronha. The main island, which makes up 91% of the total landmass, is just six miles long and 2 miles wide and has a population of 2,000. As well as its outstanding beaches and laidback lifestyle, Fernando de Noronha offers the best diving in Brazil. The diversity of the different species of sea life and the unique accumulation of dolphins lead UNESCO to declare the islands a World Heritage Site in 2001.


Natal was founded on Christmas Day 1599 and first christened Santiago, it was later renamed ‘Natal’, which is Portuguese for Christmas. It was also briefly called New Amsterdam after the Dutch occupied it in 1633. The city’s most famous landmark is the star-shaped Forte dos Reis Magos (Three Kings Fort), while city’s most popular beach, with a wide variety of hotels, bars, and restaurants, is Ponta Negra.

The city became a major US and Allied base during Word War II, and was used as the major hub for shipping supplies from the US across the Atlantic to Africa and up into Europe, or other areas of conflict. Many ex-servicemen have fond memories of their time in Natal.

Many of the attractions of Natal are outside the city. 50 miles to the south is Pipa. Pipa is a laidback, relaxed beach resort that is also an ecological reserve. It is made up of a number of attractive beaches, including Praia de Amor, which is known for its dolphins. Also popular is the more peaceful Tibau de Sul.

Between Pipa and Natal is what is known as Barreira do Inferno, Brazil’s space centre and rocket launch pad.

Attractions to the north of Natal include the famous giant sand dunes at Praia do Genipabu that attract visitors who explore and play amongst the massive dunes in beach buggies.


With a coastline of over 350 miles  (570 km) of mostly-unspoilt sandy beaches Ceará, and especially the coastal region close to Fortaleza, have been a popular holiday destination for Brazilians for a number of years.

Fortaleza is the seventh most populous metropolitan area in Brazil with over 3.6 million inhabitants. It is the closest of the major Brazilian cities to Europe, and flight time between Lisbon and Fortaleza is just seven hours. To understand the size of Brazil, that is not much longer than the flight time between Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil and Fortaleza.

Two of the most popular destinations in Ceará for European visitors are Canoa Quebrada and Jericoacoara. Canoa Quebrada, located 113 miles (182 km) east of Fortaleza, was once a sleepy fishing village, but is now better known for its bohemian lifestyle and laidback bar and restaurant scene. Buggy tours are a popular option and take visitors along the relatively deserted beaches to hidden away bars and giant dunes backed by red sandstone cliffs.

A trip to Jericoacoara is an adventure in its own right as the village is not accessible by normal vehicles, at least not the final part across the dunes where buggies and 4×4 vehicles have to be used. The village, located over 186 miles (300 km) west of Fortaleza, is basically a few sand streets lined by simple houses. Accommodation is either truly rustic or sophisticated charm, and the same is true of the bars and restaurants.


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Christopher Pickard – Brazil the Guide – Critical Divide
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