Exploring Brazil’s coastal towns by bus

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by Jane B. Hanrahan, Woodbridge, VA

Brasília, Copacabana Beach, Amazonia, Iguazú Falls: these Brazilian attractions I had enjoyed in past years. However, when I arrived in Fortaleza in November ’03, I chose to explore a central section of Brazil’s coast instead of specific points of interest.

Slicing southward on a map from Fortaleza to Salvador cuts off a triangle that juts easterly into the Atlantic. On that segment of land with about a thousand miles of coastline, I spent over two months zigzagging southward via ônibus (local bus).

I found a wide assortment of fascinating places in this area which covers less than a fourth of Brazil’s total coast and stretches from French Guiana to Uruguay.

Cultural diversity

Fortaleza, the starting city on my southward venture, attracts travelers to its many hotels along broad, clean beaches. Its two million inhabitants, however, should also take pride in their city’s cultural attractions.

Not eagerly, I abandoned my beachfront pool deck to visit the Centro Dragão do Mar de Arte e Cultura. Although this pleasing complex includes theaters, a large library and a contemporary art gallery, its Museum of Cearense Culture captivated me. On two levels connected by ramps, the display of life in Ceará, Fortaleza’s state, should lure visitors from the beach. (In the cattle-raising section, don’t ignore the small windows that lead to surprising settings.)

This city moves. In just one issue of O Povo, a Fortaleza daily, activities listed included sessions on the study of jazz, a free culinary series on local foods, an international theatrical competition and the biennial “World Cup” of motorcyclists. I saw in the same issue that the admission price for each of 20 productions of an international dance festival was a kilo of nonperishable food for local distribution.

Entertainment bars cluster in the Rua dos Tabajaras area of Iracema Beach, known as the bohemian center of Fortaleza in the 1920s. Each night of the week, a different club offers musical specials.

Fortaleza dining

From this beach, the British built the Metallic Bridge, actually a long pier, that served as the city’s port in the early 1900s. Partially reconstructed, it offers a broad panorama of the city’s beaches.

With a view of this “bridge,” a 2-story restaurant juts into the ocean. Sobre o Mar, a cloth-napkin place with glass walls and numerous plants, served me a fish fillet with some 10 good-sized shrimp in its sauce. With a half bottle of wine and some coconut ice cream, the check totaled less than $20.

On the seafront porch of casual Capitão do Mar (Av. Beira Mar 956), I enjoyed grilled bream with capers and mushrooms. My two fillets with a mound of mustard-flavored potatoes and a plate of rice cost about $8. To that I added cartola, a warm dessert of bananas baked under mozzarella cheese and topped with cinnamon-sugar.

Dune day trip

In Fortaleza’s spacious, modern rodoviária (bus station), I boarded a bus for a beach town my guidebook describes as “a village with streets of sand.” Most of our 3-hour bus trip from Fortaleza to Aracati took us along groves of cashew trees with their red-pepper-shaped fruits hanging like Christmas ornaments.

From Aracati, my taxi wound nine miles toward the sand dunes of Canoa Quebrada, and, yes, its side streets are ruts in the sand. (Its few major lanes have cobblestone bases albeit covered with shifting sand.)

Actually, this hamlet rests on sand dunes. Buggies — 4-wheeled open vehicles, each with a roof and windshield — take visitors on day trips along the beaches. The driver/guides who own the buggies have organized, offering set fares and security rules.

“This is our first rain in two months,” my driver commented as we stood under a thatched beach shelter one morning with other buggy riders, all of whom decided to return immediately to Canoa Quebrada. With his cell phone and my camera stowed safely in the tiny glove compartment, we continued down the beach in the wind-driven rain.

Eventually the sun found us, brightening colored cliffs and golden dunes. There were no buildings, no people and no other buggies, just little white birds darting here and there. We saw a few beached jangadas, fishing boats that look more like rafts with single sails.

At Ponto Grosso, 30 miles down the beach, we sat under palm trees for a feast of grilled lobsters — small but good — with rice and beer ($7).

Canoa Quebrada amenities
Canoa Quebrada has one long street, commonly called Broadway, lined with cafés, bars and shops. For leisurely meals, Lua Grill on Broadway is open only for dinner. On the beach, Restaurante Bom Motivo, with several large dining areas inside and out, offers only lunch. My shrimp dishes at both places were well worth their cost, about $8.

Although Canoa Quebrada has no bank, no supermarket and no gas station, it has a large assortment of pousadas, room or chalet accommodations that usually include breakfast. I would gladly have extended my week at Pousada Chataletta (phone 55 88 421 7200 or e-mail chataletta@
yahoo.com.br). Although a block from the beach, my air-conditioned chalet had a sea view from its porch hammock, and its tiled bathroom had a hot shower — not a common item here. Newly developed, the nicely landscaped property has a good-sized pool and the village’s only gym equipment.

City of Dunes

After compact Canoa Quebrada, Natal’s widely spaced attractions presented a challenge. With a population about the same as the city of Baltimore, this city promotes itself as “Cidade das Dunas,” or “City of Dunes.” Natal not only has beach dunes; it winds around three sides of Parque das Dunas, 4,376 acres of sand hills.

Although the road on the coastal side of the park has some isolated deluxe hotels, most of the tourist accommodations, as well as restaurants and bars, are some nine miles south of the city’s center at Ponta Negra. This large community has a broad beach backed by residential areas that become the city’s southern arm.

Meio Beach, north of the park, has an offshore reef against which the surf explodes to fall into calm pools. A half hour’s brisk walk from my hotel there took me to Forte dos Reis Magos, a star-shaped fortress the Portuguese built in 1598. Occupied by the Dutch during the early 1600s, the refurbished structure gives an idea of military life at the time, although it displays no relics. It sits impressively at the end of a long, narrow spit of land that requires visitors to walk some 200 yards.

In the older part of the city, a theater built a year after the fort has become an attractive center for artistic productions.

All my wanderings gave me the impression that Natal’s greatest attraction is its extensive beach, which lures thousands on weekends and holidays. Many of these visitors take a buggy day trip that begins with the vehicle’s being transported on a raft across a river before climbing the dunes at Genipabu. Natal’s buggy organization has over 150 owner/drivers eager for passengers.

Seascapes and forests

In contrast to the dull browns of the drought-stricken area north of Natal, the live greens of sugarcane fields and coconut groves brightened the road south on my journey to Baía Formosa, built on cliffs above a bay.

Except for a few fishermen, almost every working person in the beach town of Canoa Quebrada deals in some way with tourism. Although Baía Formosa, founded over 400 years ago, welcomes visitors pleasantly, it has made no great changes to accommodate them. Its 7,800 residents continue village life in compact one-story homes along quiet cobblestone streets.

Amidst the little tile-roofed cottages, a couple of small pousadas cater to backpackers and salesmen. Chalemar (Via Costeira; phone 84 244 2222 or e-mail chalemar@chalemar.com.br), a resort built adjacent to the town, has chalets at different cliffside levels for open views. My antique-brick chalet, actually a room with bath and porch, looked down to the surf and around to the bay. The resort’s restaurant served me a superb fish fillet cooked in coconut milk with shrimp for about $6.

In addition to its spectacular setting, Baía Formosa takes pride in its Mata Estrela, 5,038 acres of protected tropical forest that once covered some 166,000 acres. A buggy, just like the buggies on the northern beaches, bounced me over sand roads through dense greenery. At Lake Coca, one of the reserve’s 30 lakes, my guide explained the lake’s name: “Seepage from plant roots gives its water that brownish color — just like Coca-Cola.”

An inland beach city

“There is no bus that goes from Baía Formosa to João Pessoa. You have to change.”

The other two men at the soft-drink stand in town agreed. They explained (in Portuguese) where I should leave the first bus at a specific rural intersection and wait for the second. Nobody had any idea of schedules. Then one suggested, “Severino could help you.”

Not eager to stand on the sunny corner of a sugarcane field for unknown hours, I followed their directions to their friend. Severino drove me to João Pessoa in his new VW — 80 miles hotel-to-hotel — for $25. As we first saw the city, which spreads along the top of a broad hill, its buildings profiled against the sky seemed like a mirage.

With a palm-edged lake and many green plazas in its business district, this city of over half a million has a small-town atmosphere. A number of impressive churches from the 1500s attracts photographers. However, most of the city’s visitors never even see the main part of João Pessoa.

Hotels and restaurants are concentrated along the beaches. I took a city bus about five miles to Tambaú, a beach area that’s part of the municipality and observes city rules which restrict building heights. For miles up and down the coast, umbrellas dot the sand and plastic tables cluster under trees. There are no sand tracks here, but some sections of the well-paved coast road prohibit cars at specific times for bicyclists.

Back in the city center, where I chose to stay, I joined people sitting at tables at what looked like a huge, old bandstand under big trees in a plaza. While a guitarist sang, I enjoyed chicken in herb sauce, sliced tomatoes and a tall beer for just under $3 — including a cover charge! A map check later identified the building as Pavilhão do Chá, Tea Pavilion.

Information references, rather than rates, accompany my hotel suggestions because many Brazilian hotel tariffs were unrealistically, and probably temporarily, low. For example, my small, immaculate room with TV, air-conditioning and private bath at the Guarany Hotel (Rua Almeida Barreto, 181, or visit www.bomguia.com.br/guarany) cost less than $11 a night, with breakfast. Although it lacked a closet, drawers and frills, it provided a pleasant home. (The current single-room rate listed online is approximately $22.)

History and hills

Olinda, a city UNESCO has designated as part of its Cultural Patrimony of Humanity, dates its foundation to 1537, almost a hundred years before its adjacent major port, Recife. Its historic center perches on hills that turn some sidewalks into stairways.

An official city publication suggests tourists visit 17 churches, four bicas (water sources) and a convent. To that it adds four museums, a fort, a lighthouse, a palace and more. However, a knowledgeable guide can make the visit more rewarding. The city of Olinda educates and provides, free of charge, guides who wear yellow shirts with the city’s logo. (Yes, they appreciate tips.)

Since I had previously taken an agency tour of the city, this visit I had time to appreciate the historic flavor of the town with its cobblestone lanes and period houses. I climbed hills to churches and rested in shady plazas. From one side of the old city, really more like a village, I looked down past palms to the Atlantic. About five blocks away I viewed Recife, a city of one and a half million.

My best city vista was from my room and balcony at Pousada do Amparo (fax 81 3429 6889 or visit www.pousadadoamparo.com.br). This hostelry in two joined houses of the 1700s has only 12 guest rooms of various sizes and shapes. Furniture and art fit the period. One of its three terraces has a pool, and the dining area opens to the gardens. Although the “Guia Quatro Rodas,” my bible during this trip, gives this posada acclaim for its “charm and special attention,” its breakfasts also deserve praise. In my six mornings, I eventually sampled most of the amazing array of delicacies offered.

In spite of overwhelming breakfasts, I managed to lunch at Oficina do Sabor (Rua do Amparo, 335), probably the most expensive restaurant in historic Olinda. On a shady balcony with a view of Recife in the distance, I enjoyed a 3-course meal with gourmet touches. With my 10 grilled, 3-bite shrimp and mango rice, I had two glasses of wine. The total, including a delightful eggplant appetizer, fresh-strawberry sorbet and gratuity, was under $24.

Many artists live along the narrow lanes and sell their works from their studios. Displays of quality crafts and paintings tempted even this nonshopper.

Riverside antiquity

In nearly 500 years since its first settlement in 1535, the town of Penedo (in the state of Alagoas) has not yet grown to 60,000 people. Not to be confused with Penedo in the state of Rio de Janeiro, this riverside community maintains its colonial atmosphere.

The São Francisco River, not spanned here by any bridge, bends around two sides of this town of red-tile roofs and church steeples. A broad cobblestone area above the river has neat little artisan shops and outdoor cafés. Edging the river, a landscaped area includes an inviting playground and sports courts.

The only major building adjacent to the river, Restaurante Oratorio has a deck looking across the water to the green shore. If my snack of bolinhos (deep-fried cheese balls) was any indication, a major meal there should be quite nice.

Restaurante Forte da Rocheira (Rua da Rocheira), part of a stone fortress built in 1637, opens to a tranquil view down through palms to the river. My lunch order brought a shrimp bowl large enough to satisfy four people. About the diameter of a quarter, the countless shellfish had been cooked in coconut milk with bits of tomato, onion and pepper. With two side dishes, beer and gratuity, the total came to almost $10.

The city’s tallest building, Hotel São Francisco (Av. Floriano Peixoto, 237; e-mail hsf@hotelsaofrancisco. tur.br), has six stories of river-view accommodations recently modernized, as well as two large pools. My room’s contemporary white-and-beige decor blended nicely with the original parquet floor. When demand permits, the hotel offers river excursions on its catamaran.

Although Brazilians flock to Penedo early in January for a religious celebration that includes many river activities, this quiet little city sees few international travelers. Whatever one’s nationality, a visitor should include Casa do Penedo (Rua João Pessoa, 126) in the itinerary. This museum in a colonial residence displays the city’s history in a meaningful and pleasurable manner.

Seaside tranquility

My bus from Aracajú to Conde was, by far, the most luxurious of my trip. In its two levels, a hostess served coffee. The bus didn’t deviate into Conde and its bus station but dropped me at an intersection “where there are always taxis.” When the bus deposited me and my suitcase on the dirt shoulder, there were no cars, let alone taxis. Eventually, I climbed into the cab of a big, yellow, road-construction truck that took me to a warehouse where the manager phoned for a taxi.

Once into the small town of Conde, we drove five miles to the beach at Sítio do Conde, then two more miles on sand past coconut palms and three horses to Coco Beach (Praia dos Artistas; e-mail cocobeach@cocobeach.ch), a small resort that thrives in isolation.

Recently built and nicely landscaped, it has a pool, a volleyball court, a bar and restaurant for its 22 rooms and bungalows. From my bed I could watch light from the morning sun silhouette palms on the dunes before the red ball emerged from the Atlantic.

Most guests drive here from other parts of Brazil, then spend their days on sand roads to see river mouths, mangrove swamps and other beaches. I chose not to leave the comforts that the Swiss-trained management provided, especially the sea-view pool nestled among the dunes. Next time at Coco Beach, I’ll go exploring.

A nice way to travel

My bus venture ended in Salvador, a city so full of history and atmosphere that it requires separate treatment. Its white-gowned baiana women and its agile capoeira men introduce visitors to a world different from any other Brazilian city.

Nor does space permit Mosoró, where most of the country’s cashew nuts are processed. Maceió and its tile-faced buildings, as well as Aracajú at the mouth of the Sergipe River, aren’t included here either. (For the island of Itaparica, also in my itinerary, see page 46 in the November ’03 issue of ITN.)

After 13 intercity buses — and one VW — I would still like to visit countless other beaches, historic cities, charming towns and ecological preserves in this triangle of Brazil.

By ônibus?

Of course!

To give readers an idea of bus fares, the author checked the current fare from Aracajú to Salvador — a total of 209 miles. The regular bus costs 30 reales (near $11); executive service is R43 ($15). That averages about $5 per 100 miles or $7.50 for executive bus service.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Jane B. Hanrahan, Woodbridge, VA

Brasília, Copacabana Beach, Amazonia, Iguazú Falls: these Brazilian attractions I had enjoyed in past years. However, when I arrived in Fortaleza in November ’03, I chose to explore a central section of Brazil’s coast instead of specific points of interest.

Slicing southward on a map from Fortaleza to Salvador cuts off a triangle that juts easterly into the Atlantic. On that segment of land with about a thousand miles of coastline, I spent over two months zigzagging southward via ônibus (local bus).

I found a wide assortment of fascinating places in this area which covers less than a fourth of Brazil’s total coast and stretches from French Guiana to Uruguay.

Cultural diversity

Fortaleza, the starting city on my southward venture, attracts travelers to its many hotels along broad, clean beaches. Its two million inhabitants, however, should also take pride in their city’s cultural attractions.

Not eagerly, I abandoned my beachfront pool deck to visit the Centro Dragão do Mar de Arte e Cultura. Although this pleasing complex includes theaters, a large library and a contemporary art gallery, its Museum of Cearense Culture captivated me. On two levels connected by ramps, the display of life in Ceará, Fortaleza’s state, should lure visitors from the beach. (In the cattle-raising section, don’t ignore the small windows that lead to surprising settings.)

This city moves. In just one issue of O Povo, a Fortaleza daily, activities listed included sessions on the study of jazz, a free culinary series on local foods, an international theatrical competition and the biennial “World Cup” of motorcyclists. I saw in the same issue that the admission price for each of 20 productions of an international dance festival was a kilo of nonperishable food for local distribution.

Entertainment bars cluster in the Rua dos Tabajaras area of Iracema Beach, known as the bohemian center of Fortaleza in the 1920s. Each night of the week, a different club offers musical specials.

Fortaleza dining

From this beach, the British built the Metallic Bridge, actually a long pier, that served as the city’s port in the early 1900s. Partially reconstructed, it offers a broad panorama of the city’s beaches.

With a view of this “bridge,” a 2-story restaurant juts into the ocean. Sobre o Mar, a cloth-napkin place with glass walls and numerous plants, served me a fish fillet with some 10 good-sized shrimp in its sauce. With a half bottle of wine and some coconut ice cream, the check totaled less than $20.

On the seafront porch of casual Capitão do Mar (Av. Beira Mar 956), I enjoyed grilled bream with capers and mushrooms. My two fillets with a mound of mustard-flavored potatoes and a plate of rice cost about $8. To that I added cartola, a warm dessert of bananas baked under mozzarella cheese and topped with cinnamon-sugar.

Dune day trip

In Fortaleza’s spacious, modern rodoviária (bus station), I boarded a bus for a beach town my guidebook describes as “a village with streets of sand.” Most of our 3-hour bus trip from Fortaleza to Aracati took us along groves of cashew trees with their red-pepper-shaped fruits hanging like Christmas ornaments.

From Aracati, my taxi wound nine miles toward the sand dunes of Canoa Quebrada, and, yes, its side streets are ruts in the sand. (Its few major lanes have cobblestone bases albeit covered with shifting sand.)

Actually, this hamlet rests on sand dunes. Buggies — 4-wheeled open vehicles, each with a roof and windshield — take visitors on day trips along the beaches. The driver/guides who own the buggies have organized, offering set fares and security rules.

“This is our first rain in two months,” my driver commented as we stood under a thatched beach shelter one morning with other buggy riders, all of whom decided to return immediately to Canoa Quebrada. With his cell phone and my camera stowed safely in the tiny glove compartment, we continued down the beach in the wind-driven rain.

Eventually the sun found us, brightening colored cliffs and golden dunes. There were no buildings, no people and no other buggies, just little white birds darting here and there. We saw a few beached jangadas, fishing boats that look more like rafts with single sails.

At Ponto Grosso, 30 miles down the beach, we sat under palm trees for a feast of grilled lobsters — small but good — with rice and beer ($7).

Canoa Quebrada amenities
Canoa Quebrada has one long street, commonly called Broadway, lined with cafés, bars and shops. For leisurely meals, Lua Grill on Broadway is open only for dinner. On the beach, Restaurante Bom Motivo, with several large dining areas inside and out, offers only lunch. My shrimp dishes at both places were well worth their cost, about $8.

Although Canoa Quebrada has no bank, no supermarket and no gas station, it has a large assortment of pousadas, room or chalet accommodations that usually include breakfast. I would gladly have extended my week at Pousada Chataletta (phone 55 88 421 7200 or e-mail chataletta@
yahoo.com.br). Although a block from the beach, my air-conditioned chalet had a sea view from its porch hammock, and its tiled bathroom had a hot shower — not a common item here. Newly developed, the nicely landscaped property has a good-sized pool and the village’s only gym equipment.

City of Dunes

After compact Canoa Quebrada, Natal’s widely spaced attractions presented a challenge. With a population about the same as the city of Baltimore, this city promotes itself as “Cidade das Dunas,” or “City of Dunes.” Natal not only has beach dunes; it winds around three sides of Parque das Dunas, 4,376 acres of sand hills.

Although the road on the coastal side of the park has some isolated deluxe hotels, most of the tourist accommodations, as well as restaurants and bars, are some nine miles south of the city’s center at Ponta Negra. This large community has a broad beach backed by residential areas that become the city’s southern arm.

Meio Beach, north of the park, has an offshore reef against which the surf explodes to fall into calm pools. A half hour’s brisk walk from my hotel there took me to Forte dos Reis Magos, a star-shaped fortress the Portuguese built in 1598. Occupied by the Dutch during the early 1600s, the refurbished structure gives an idea of military life at the time, although it displays no relics. It sits impressively at the end of a long, narrow spit of land that requires visitors to walk some 200 yards.

In the older part of the city, a theater built a year after the fort has become an attractive center for artistic productions.

All my wanderings gave me the impression that Natal’s greatest attraction is its extensive beach, which lures thousands on weekends and holidays. Many of these visitors take a buggy day trip that begins with the vehicle’s being transported on a raft across a river before climbing the dunes at Genipabu. Natal’s buggy organization has over 150 owner/drivers eager for passengers.

Seascapes and forests

In contrast to the dull browns of the drought-stricken area north of Natal, the live greens of sugarcane fields and coconut groves brightened the road south on my journey to Baía Formosa, built on cliffs above a bay.

Except for a few fishermen, almost every working person in the beach town of Canoa Quebrada deals in some way with tourism. Although Baía Formosa, founded over 400 years ago, welcomes visitors pleasantly, it has made no great changes to accommodate them. Its 7,800 residents continue village life in compact one-story homes along quiet cobblestone streets.

Amidst the little tile-roofed cottages, a couple of small pousadas cater to backpackers and salesmen. Chalemar (Via Costeira; phone 84 244 2222 or e-mail chalemar@chalemar.com.br), a resort built adjacent to the town, has chalets at different cliffside levels for open views. My antique-brick chalet, actually a room with bath and porch, looked down to the surf and around to the bay. The resort’s restaurant served me a superb fish fillet cooked in coconut milk with shrimp for about $6.

In addition to its spectacular setting, Baía Formosa takes pride in its Mata Estrela, 5,038 acres of protected tropical forest that once covered some 166,000 acres. A buggy, just like the buggies on the northern beaches, bounced me over sand roads through dense greenery. At Lake Coca, one of the reserve’s 30 lakes, my guide explained the lake’s name: “Seepage from plant roots gives its water that brownish color — just like Coca-Cola.”

An inland beach city

“There is no bus that goes from Baía Formosa to João Pessoa. You have to change.”

The other two men at the soft-drink stand in town agreed. They explained (in Portuguese) where I should leave the first bus at a specific rural intersection and wait for the second. Nobody had any idea of schedules. Then one suggested, “Severino could help you.”

Not eager to stand on the sunny corner of a sugarcane field for unknown hours, I followed their directions to their friend. Severino drove me to João Pessoa in his new VW — 80 miles hotel-to-hotel — for $25. As we first saw the city, which spreads along the top of a broad hill, its buildings profiled against the sky seemed like a mirage.

With a palm-edged lake and many green plazas in its business district, this city of over half a million has a small-town atmosphere. A number of impressive churches from the 1500s attracts photographers. However, most of the city’s visitors never even see the main part of João Pessoa.

Hotels and restaurants are concentrated along the beaches. I took a city bus about five miles to Tambaú, a beach area that’s part of the municipality and observes city rules which restrict building heights. For miles up and down the coast, umbrellas dot the sand and plastic tables cluster under trees. There are no sand tracks here, but some sections of the well-paved coast road prohibit cars at specific times for bicyclists.

Back in the city center, where I chose to stay, I joined people sitting at tables at what looked like a huge, old bandstand under big trees in a plaza. While a guitarist sang, I enjoyed chicken in herb sauce, sliced tomatoes and a tall beer for just under $3 — including a cover charge! A map check later identified the building as Pavilhão do Chá, Tea Pavilion.

Information references, rather than rates, accompany my hotel suggestions because many Brazilian hotel tariffs were unrealistically, and probably temporarily, low. For example, my small, immaculate room with TV, air-conditioning and private bath at the Guarany Hotel (Rua Almeida Barreto, 181, or visit www.bomguia.com.br/guarany) cost less than $11 a night, with breakfast. Although it lacked a closet, drawers and frills, it provided a pleasant home. (The current single-room rate listed online is approximately $22.)

History and hills

Olinda, a city UNESCO has designated as part of its Cultural Patrimony of Humanity, dates its foundation to 1537, almost a hundred years before its adjacent major port, Recife. Its historic center perches on hills that turn some sidewalks into stairways.

An official city publication suggests tourists visit 17 churches, four bicas (water sources) and a convent. To that it adds four museums, a fort, a lighthouse, a palace and more. However, a knowledgeable guide can make the visit more rewarding. The city of Olinda educates and provides, free of charge, guides who wear yellow shirts with the city’s logo. (Yes, they appreciate tips.)

Since I had previously taken an agency tour of the city, this visit I had time to appreciate the historic flavor of the town with its cobblestone lanes and period houses. I climbed hills to churches and rested in shady plazas. From one side of the old city, really more like a village, I looked down past palms to the Atlantic. About five blocks away I viewed Recife, a city of one and a half million.

My best city vista was from my room and balcony at Pousada do Amparo (fax 81 3429 6889 or visit www.pousadadoamparo.com.br). This hostelry in two joined houses of the 1700s has only 12 guest rooms of various sizes and shapes. Furniture and art fit the period. One of its three terraces has a pool, and the dining area opens to the gardens. Although the “Guia Quatro Rodas,” my bible during this trip, gives this posada acclaim for its “charm and special attention,” its breakfasts also deserve praise. In my six mornings, I eventually sampled most of the amazing array of delicacies offered.

In spite of overwhelming breakfasts, I managed to lunch at Oficina do Sabor (Rua do Amparo, 335), probably the most expensive restaurant in historic Olinda. On a shady balcony with a view of Recife in the distance, I enjoyed a 3-course meal with gourmet touches. With my 10 grilled, 3-bite shrimp and mango rice, I had two glasses of wine. The total, including a delightful eggplant appetizer, fresh-strawberry sorbet and gratuity, was under $24.

Many artists live along the narrow lanes and sell their works from their studios. Displays of quality crafts and paintings tempted even this nonshopper.

Riverside antiquity

In nearly 500 years since its first settlement in 1535, the town of Penedo (in the state of Alagoas) has not yet grown to 60,000 people. Not to be confused with Penedo in the state of Rio de Janeiro, this riverside community maintains its colonial atmosphere.

The São Francisco River, not spanned here by any bridge, bends around two sides of this town of red-tile roofs and church steeples. A broad cobblestone area above the river has neat little artisan shops and outdoor cafés. Edging the river, a landscaped area includes an inviting playground and sports courts.

The only major building adjacent to the river, Restaurante Oratorio has a deck looking across the water to the green shore. If my snack of bolinhos (deep-fried cheese balls) was any indication, a major meal there should be quite nice.

Restaurante Forte da Rocheira (Rua da Rocheira), part of a stone fortress built in 1637, opens to a tranquil view down through palms to the river. My lunch order brought a shrimp bowl large enough to satisfy four people. About the diameter of a quarter, the countless shellfish had been cooked in coconut milk with bits of tomato, onion and pepper. With two side dishes, beer and gratuity, the total came to almost $10.

The city’s tallest building, Hotel São Francisco (Av. Floriano Peixoto, 237; e-mail hsf@hotelsaofrancisco. tur.br), has six stories of river-view accommodations recently modernized, as well as two large pools. My room’s contemporary white-and-beige decor blended nicely with the original parquet floor. When demand permits, the hotel offers river excursions on its catamaran.

Although Brazilians flock to Penedo early in January for a religious celebration that includes many river activities, this quiet little city sees few international travelers. Whatever one’s nationality, a visitor should include Casa do Penedo (Rua João Pessoa, 126) in the itinerary. This museum in a colonial residence displays the city’s history in a meaningful and pleasurable manner.

Seaside tranquility

My bus from Aracajú to Conde was, by far, the most luxurious of my trip. In its two levels, a hostess served coffee. The bus didn’t deviate into Conde and its bus station but dropped me at an intersection “where there are always taxis.” When the bus deposited me and my suitcase on the dirt shoulder, there were no cars, let alone taxis. Eventually, I climbed into the cab of a big, yellow, road-construction truck that took me to a warehouse where the manager phoned for a taxi.

Once into the small town of Conde, we drove five miles to the beach at Sítio do Conde, then two more miles on sand past coconut palms and three horses to Coco Beach (Praia dos Artistas; e-mail cocobeach@cocobeach.ch), a small resort that thrives in isolation.

Recently built and nicely landscaped, it has a pool, a volleyball court, a bar and restaurant for its 22 rooms and bungalows. From my bed I could watch light from the morning sun silhouette palms on the dunes before the red ball emerged from the Atlantic.

Most guests drive here from other parts of Brazil, then spend their days on sand roads to see river mouths, mangrove swamps and other beaches. I chose not to leave the comforts that the Swiss-trained management provided, especially the sea-view pool nestled among the dunes. Next time at Coco Beach, I’ll go exploring.

A nice way to travel

My bus venture ended in Salvador, a city so full of history and atmosphere that it requires separate treatment. Its white-gowned baiana women and its agile capoeira men introduce visitors to a world different from any other Brazilian city.

Nor does space permit Mosoró, where most of the country’s cashew nuts are processed. Maceió and its tile-faced buildings, as well as Aracajú at the mouth of the Sergipe River, aren’t included here either. (For the island of Itaparica, also in my itinerary, see page 46 in the November ’03 issue of ITN.)

After 13 intercity buses — and one VW — I would still like to visit countless other beaches, historic cities, charming towns and ecological preserves in this triangle of Brazil.

By ônibus?

Of course!

To give readers an idea of bus fares, the author checked the current fare from Aracajú to Salvador — a total of 209 miles. The regular bus costs 30 reales (near $11); executive service is R43 ($15). That averages about $5 per 100 miles or $7.50 for executive bus service.