Soul Of America






Boa Viagem Beach scene in Recife



Well-Kept Secret on Brazil’s Northeastern Coast

by Jeanette Valentine, SoulOfAmerica

photos by Calvin Young, SoulOfAmerica

   I’m reclining on Boa Viagem Beach in Recife when a buffed, chocolate-skinned Brazilian approaches me and lowers himself on his haunches.  He mummers with a warm familiarity that makes me think he knows me.

   But I remember that I am 6,000 miles from home and realize that the lyrical words flowing from his full lips are Portuguese.  Only when he opens a royal blue cooler packed with plump shrimp does it register that he’s trying to sell me shellfish.

   I chuckle at the sly sales tactic, recognizing that he is an integral part of an idyllic beach scene playing out before me: Wide, orange umbrellas are shielding young and old from a sun already blistering hot by 10 am. Shouts from children splashing in turquoise waves ring out, and a flock of kites rides the breeze.

   The heavy African drumbeats of samba blare from an aqua-colored ice-cream cart pushed by an old man in a Panama hat.  A smiling brunette kneeling on a beach towel slathers oil on the already slick biceps of her novio (boyfriend).

   This is Pernambuco, a coastal state in northeast Brazil that barely makes the radar of the savviest of travelers.  While Rio and Sao Paulo grab the international spotlight, few know that a thousand miles north lie a region that offers the best of Brazil with a cultural flavor all its own.

   During a seven-day tour, I visit the cities of Recife, Olinda and Ipojuca and learn how northeast Brazil differs from the south: the cuisine relies more heavily on fresh seafood, the regional dances are borne of a unique mix of ethnicities, the African influences are more pronounced and the beaches are more beautiful.

   Getting to Pernambuco has gotten easier for travelers from the United States. American Airlines is the first major U.S. carrier to fly directly to Recife, offering daily flights from Miami. Here’s why you should go:

Palacio do Campo das Princesas


   Hugging the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, the city lays claim to many charms that make it an ideal getaway for fun-seeking, cultured travelers: a historic district provides glimpses into a colorful past rivers, canals and islands earn it the moniker “The Venice of Brazil" museums and churches abound; the warm, crystal waters and powder white sands of Boa Viagem (Good Voyage) Beach draws an eclectic crowd of sun-worshipers and the city’s gastronomy scene attracts some of the best chefs in the world (for us non-foodies, that means the food is slamming).

   When I stroll down Rua do Bom Jesus (the Street of the Good Jesus) in Old Recife, I am transported in time. The city was founded when settlers from the Netherlands wrested control of the area from the Portuguese in 1630.

   The Dutch influence is evident in the street’s colorful, narrow buildings with gabled roofs, tall windows and iron balconies.  Narrow and cobble-stoned, the street looks much as it did centuries ago. That’s, of course, if you overlook the chic new restaurants and trendy bars that are breathing new life into the historic neighborhood.

   Rua do Bom Jesus is home to Embaixada dos Bonecos Gigantes (The Embassy of Giant Puppets), which reminds me of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Wax Museum. It showcases gargantuan puppet costumes in the likenesses of folk heroes, celebrities and politicians.  Carnival revelers don the outfits, transforming themselves into dancing giants who tower above the throngs in the streets.

Famous figures at Embaixada dos Bonecos Gigantes

   I sidle up to a super-sized version of U.S. President Barack Obama for a photo opportunity.  He’s rubbing shoulders with former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva standing next to Nelson Mandela. Michael Jackson looks on from across the room.

   Walk further down the Rua do Bom Jesus, and you’ll find Sinagoga Kahal Zur Israel, the second synagogue built in the Americas.  Several blocks away is the Catedral de Sao Pedro dos Clerigos and Patio de Sao Pedro (St. Peter’s Church of the Clerics and St. Peter’s Square). The church is a majestic structure of Gothic architecture.

   In the summer, live bands play in the square as locals gyrate to Forro or Frevo, northeastern dances of European and African origins. Chris Brown would be hard-pressed to imitate the lightening-fast, undulating moves. Also performed on the square is the music and dance of Maracatu, directly inspired by ceremonial rituals once performed by enslaved Africans.

   Maracatu is embodied by the image of a fanciful soldier of African descent whose head is covered by what looks like thick, multi-colored tinseled dreadlocks with bangs. I see the likeness everywhere – fashioned into dolls, made into statues, emblazoned on t-shirts, crafted into giant puppets, even meticulously painted across the front of an entire house.

Solano Trindade monument
Afrocentricty can be found throughout Recife.

   Just off the Patio de Sao Pedro is a statue of Solano Trindade, a 20th-century intellectual of African descent whose career resembles that of Paul Robeson. Trindade was a poet, playwright, painter, filmmaker and actor.

   In downtown Recife, the civil rights movement is evoked in Joaquim Nabuco Square.  A Brazilian who fought fiercely to overturn slavery in the 1800s, Nabuco is hailed as the Martin Luther King, Jr. of Brazil.  The square contains a life-sized statue of the abolitionist.

   Another way of seeing the city’s many statues is by water.  One afternoon, we take a catamaran ride up the Capibaribe River, which meanders through the northern third of the city.  As our craft skims the still water, we take in some of the city’s attractions from a different perspective. Among the sites, we pass the Sculpture Park of Francisco Brennand, the Old Grand Hotel and the steep-roofed buildings of pale blue, green, yellow and peach, that look like transplants from Amsterdam.

Casa da Cultura, Recife
   One of my favorite places in the city is Casa da Cultura (The House of Culture), a former prison converted into a center for the creation and selling of arts and crafts.  More than 150 stores fill spaces that once confined convicted felons.  A shopaholic’s dream, the center offers beautiful fabrics, elegant clothes, unique jewelry, fine lace, woodwork, ceramics, dolls, food products…the list goes on and on.  Despite its history, the building’s ivory interior is bright, airy and welcoming.

   For a respite from sight-seeing, head to Praca da Republica (The Republic Square). Surrounding an impressive fountain, the square is an oasis of manicured lawns, clustered shade trees and lush vegetation.  It is bordered by the Hall of Justice, Santa Isabel Theater and The Princesses’ Field Palace.

   And what better way to end the day than with a cocktail?

   Vacationing in Brazil without tasting a Caipirinha is like visiting Japan and passing on the Sake or journeying to Jamaica and skipping the rum.  Even a tea-totaler like me can’t resist a sip of the mildly sour, highly intoxicating concoction.  It’s smooth and refreshing, but in a way that packs a punch.

Carvalheira Distillery barrels
   We are fortunate enough to visit Carvalheira, a factory that distills sugar cane juice to make cachaca, the primary ingredient of Brazil’s national beverage. A guide takes us on a tour that features a stroll through rows of the 2,000 oak barrels in which the cachaca is aged. As a highlight, we’re given product samples in paper cups before learning the process by which it’s made.

   My trip coincides with the national holiday “Dias das Criancas” (Day of the Children), during which the country lavishes gifts upon the young ones, ala Christmas. Consequently, the museums that I’d heard so much about are closed. A few of the more intriguing ones to check out would include:

•    The Abolition Museum (Museu da Abolição), displaying objects from the slavery era of the 18th and 19th centuries
•    The Museum of the Man of the Northeastern (Museu do Homem do Nordeste), celebrating the culture of Pernambuco
•    The Modern Art Museum (MAMAM), featuring work by Brazilian and International artists, such as Rodin and Baskiat and
•    The Richard Brennand Institute, resembling a medieval castle and containing artifacts from the days of Dutch rule.


Lobster sculpture on Recife's riverfront


   A highlight of my stay was being able to dine at some of the best restaurants in the city.  Briefly, here’s where we dined and where we stayed.

Av. Antonio de Góes, 62
Pina - Recife/PE

Brazil is known for a dish called Moqueca, and Bargaco serves more than half a dozen varieties. The sleek, upscale restaurant specializes in this stew, usually made with fish or shrimp, vegetables, coconut milk and African palm oil. The rich, complex taste reminds me of a gumbo brimming with seafood.

Boi Preto Grill
Avenida Boa Viagem, 97

Antigo - Recife/PE

Meat lovers will think they’re in heaven in this “churriscaria,” a type of restaurant whose name translates to “barbecue” in Portuguese. A trip to the lavish buffet is followed by an endless parade of waiters offering skewers of every meat imaginable steak, pork chops, sausage, chicken, duck. And the boisterous atmosphere reflects the exuberance of Brazilians. The high-ceilinged, brightly lit dining room is noisy with conversation and laughter and most diners are grinning from ear to ear.


Custom lights vendor in a Recife night time market

Ostreiro Frutas Do Mar
Av. Conselheiro Aguiar, 826

Boa Viagem - Recife/PE

55-81- 3466-2063

Spacious and informal, Ostreiro specializes in the kind of seafood that transforms non-fish eaters like me into passionate consumers of “Frutas do Mar,” or “Fruits of the Sea.”  My cod salad is exquisite, and the dishes I sample from my fellow diners, including the monquecas are also delicious.  Alas, I’ve never had a fondness for oysters.  I pass on the many variations offered, even though the mollusk gives the restaurant its name.  An added bonus are flat-screen televisions playing videos of the most popular Brazilian vocalists, including a Frank Sinatra-smooth Cauby Peixoto.

Restaurante Leite
Praca Joaquim Nabuco, 147
Santo Antonio - Recife/PE

I want to shimmy into a form-fitting, black velvet evening gown and don a diamond tiara when I walk into Leite, a white table-clothed restaurant.  Though most diners wear jeans and t-shirts, the atmosphere is one of old-school elegance, complete with a dapper gentleman tinkling the ivories of a baby grand.  The theme of sophistication is carried forward in the meals, like the Duck Confit in a Port Wine Sauce with Potato Gratin, served on gold-rimmed bone white china. 



Parraxaxá (two locations)
Boa Viagem
Rua Baltazar Pereira, 32

Casa Forte 
Av. 17 de Agosto, 807


The folksy dining area of Parraxaxa provides a cultural education about North East Brazil.  The brick walls, wooden tables, clay pottery and large fireplace hearth are typical of a historic home.  Wait staff are decked out in the military uniform of the folk hero Lampiao, known as the Robin Hood of Brazil. Parraxaxa serves a hefty buffet of traditional North East Brazilian cuisine, including goat stew, corned beef, a variety of seafood dishes, munguza (hominy) and cassava chips.  Outside, hollowed egg shells posted on sticks are said to ward off evil spirits.

Internacional Palace Hotel
Av. Boa Viagem, 3722
Boa  Viagem - Recife/PE

Internacional Palace Hotel is one block from Boa Viagem Beach, and the views from its East-facing windows are breath-taking. A staid black, marbled lobby belies the hipness of the rooms with their white décor and mod furniture. The large patio off the main dining room offers a quiet place to sip a café after breakfast at the expansive buffet.




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