Soul Of America





Beach scenery at Porto de Galhinas



Where Sand and Surf Rank a Cut Above the Rest

by Jeanette Valentine of SoulOfAmerica

photos by Calvin Young,

   You notice the water first – a blue so piercing that only PhotoShop could approximate its intensity.  Farther from shore, the color shifts to a luminous aqua marine.  And while the sun is brilliant, blindingly so, a cool ocean breeze tames the heat.  The scene is familiar.  I’ve seen these iconic images before:  towering palms, white sands and tufts of clouds overhead.

    Yet I feel a sense of reverence here.  In a country known for beautiful beaches, Porto de Galinhas is the most beautiful of all.  Sao Paulo-based Travel and Tourism Magazine has named it “Brazil’s Best Beach” for 11 consecutive years.

    Like most of Pernambuco, Porto de Galinhas is a secret treasure.  It is located about 40 miles south of Recife in the city of Ipojuca, which boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in Brazil.  The population swells by half a million tourists each year, primarily from other parts of the country, Europe and Canada.  Travelers from the United States make up only about 10 percent of the tourist trade, and that’s a pity.


The world-famous reef at Porto de Galhinas

    Porto de Galinhas offers the ultimate tropical beach experience, complete with an attraction unique to its marine biology:  tide pools.  Coral reefs line the coast, and at low tide, they form natural pockets of shallow, crystal clear water.   To visit the pools, we don swimwear and board jagandas, narrow boats with wooden benches and brightly colored sails.  A strapping young jangadeiro is at the helm, and we’re soon gliding out to sea.  

    Within 10 minutes, we disembark gingerly onto the uneven, slippery surface of a coral reef.  I wear flip-flops that live up to their name, slipping off my feet several times as I plod along.  Our jangadeiro firmly takes my arm to help keep me upright. 

    I marvel that I’m in the middle of the ocean, seemingly walking on water.  I step down into the warmth of a pool, about three feet deep, and join a crowd feeding lunch (nuggets provided by the jangadeiros) to the fish swimming around our legs.  We laugh and splash around for about half an hour.

    A visit to the reef is a nice complement to time lazing on the beach.  And similar outings are available nearby. 

    At one point in our trip, I find myself perched on top of the back seat of a speeding dune buggy.  My right hand is in a death grip on the cross bar as my left tries to keep a baseball cap from flying off my head.  We’re zooming down a sandy road toward our next adventure, a visit to a seahorse preservation sanctuary. 

    When the road runs out, we jump from the buggies and trek through thick vegetation to a beach at low tide.  Fringed by palm trees, this bay leads to the Maracaipe River just a few miles south of Porto de Galinhas.  A queue of jagandas float just off shore like taxis lined up at the airport.  


Jagandas plying the reef waters


    I’m itching to climb aboard, and I go plopping into the ankle-high water before another brawny jangadeiro politely takes my arm to help me aboard.  He ensures we’re all seated, then stands near the rear and uses a long pole to launch us from shore.  His strong, clean strokes propel us to the other side of the bay.

    After helping us onto the sand, this jack-of-all-trades grabs a huge jar and dons a snorkeling mask.  He disappears beneath the murky water for several minutes, then re-surfaces with the jar full of water.  We look inside, and there are the seahorses, creatures we’d only seen before in aquariums and on the Internet.

    Later that day, my group explores the main district of Ipojuca.  An outdoor mall right on the beach features nice restaurants and shops selling the usual touristy merchandise, including clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, handcrafts and surf boards. 

    And chickens are everywhere.

    Not live feathered fowl, but images and art.  Porto de Galinhas means “Port of the Chickens,” a moniker that harkens back to the slave trade.  After slavery was abolished in Brazil, some slave traders continued importing Africans and hid them aboard the ships that typically brought chickens into the local port. 

    Today, chicken statues decorate public spaces, t-shirts feature chicken cartons, and the gift shops brim with ceramic chickens.  Even some of the phone booths are made in the image of a chicken.  It’s a fanciful mascot, albeit one with a dark past.


Decorative chicken statue in Porto de Galhinas


    My 48 hours in Ipojuca fly by.  I spend my last night in Brazil doing what Brazilians love most – burning up the dance floor.  The place is Santeria Bar Latino, a popular night club packed with several hundred partiers. 

    A live band is jamming Forro, its heavily syncopated Latin rhythm reminding me of salsa with a much faster beat.  The young and beautiful are paired up and twirling around like contestants on “Dancing with the Stars.”  If you don’t know the steps, you can pay a Forro instructor to give you a lesson on the spot.

    We head back to the hotel at 2 a.m.  After grabbing a few hours of sleep, I drag myself out of bed in hopes of catching what’s been described as an indescribable sunrise.  But by the time I jog down to the private beach of our resort, Pontal de Ocapora, the sun’s orange glow is already warming the sky.  It’s 4:45 a.m.

    I am completely alone, standing at the water’s edge as frothy waves lap my pink manicured toes.   In this solitude, I’m reminded of a Portuguese word that has no literal translation in any other language - saudage.  Its closest meaning in English is “to long for” or “to miss very much.”  But saudage is a yearning so acute that it touches the deepest part of your soul. 


Jeanette observing tropical fish on the reef


    I know that it’s the perfect description of how I’ll feel about Brazil once I’ve left its sun-kissed shores.

    The restaurants and hotels (pousadas) to consider when planning a visit to Porto de Galinhas include:

Hotel Armacao
We dine at Hotel Armacao one evening, partaking in an extensive buffet of traditional Brazilian food.  Too bad we weren’t able to see this beach resort in the daytime. From all accounts, it’s a something-for-everyone property, offering luxury accommodations, three swimming pools for adults, two for children, a health club and two on-site convention center. 

Restaurante Marangantu
Rua das Piscinas Naturais, s/nº Lojas 10 e 12
Galeria Verde Mar
Porto de Galinhas - Ipojuca PE
Phone: 55-81-3552-2321 or 55-81-9303-1080

This breezy new restaurant sits on a second floor that overlooks Porto de Galinhas beach.   The prime location affords magnificent views of sand and surf.  With the rattan décor and the strong sun shining through large windows, I felt as if I was in a treehouse.  As one would expect, the Brazilian cuisine was superb – I had a shrimp salad – but I was most impressed by the Strawberry Daiquiri.  It was sweet, refreshing and topped with the classic miniature umbrella.

One of many exciting tropical drinks served at Marangatu


Pontal de Ocapora
Pontal do Cupe, Acesso Km 3.5 PE 09
Porto de Galinhas, Ipojuca PE
Phone: 55-81-3552-0088

Traveling the road to Pontal De Ocapora is like journeying toward your own personal villa estate. The grounds are as vast as they are secluded, an oasis of lush vegetation amid a forest of palm trees.  Not another structure is in sight.  The 170-room resort sits on a private beach, and verdant foliage and tropical flowers surround the thatched-roof buildings.  I felt as if I was walking through a well-manicured jungle on the pathway to my room.  Red hibiscus petals strewn in the shape of a heart on top of the white bedspread of my bed is a surprisingly delightful touch.

Solar Porto de Galinhas, Best Western
Rodovia PE-09
Km 07, Porto de Galinhas, Ipojuca/PE
Phone: 55-81-3552-000

We indulge in yet another buffet here, but the highlight of this hotel is the evening floor show.  Held outside under the stars, the performance features two lively clowns, one of whom engages in non-stop banter with the audience.  In a spectacular homage to the culture, a high-spirited dance troupe show us the best in Brazilian dance – including Forro, Frevo, Xaxado and the Coco Dance – donning the appropriate traditional dress with each change in routine.  Near the end, the brave among us take to the floor and learn to dance the Ciranda, a variation of the Electric Slide with everyone holding hands in a circle.

Mura Alto, Pernambuco (five miles north of Porto de Galinhas)

Marulhos Suites Resort
Gleba 6B – Praia de Muro Alto

Guests staying at this lavish resort can swim in their own private ocean, or so it seems.  That’s because a high wall of coral reef running parallel to shore creates a natural pool just off the beach.  The resort itself contains 120 modern studios (375 square feet) and suites (almost 600 square feet).  The latter are fully equipped condos, some of which include marble kitchen counters, leather sofas and flat screen TVs. The property is great for families, sporting a brightly colored playground and a children’s recreation director.


Nannai Beach Resort room

Nannai Beach Resort
Rodovia PE-09
Km 3, Ipojuca/PE
Phone: 55-81-3552-0100

Honeymooners will revel in this exclusive resort known for its romantic atmosphere.  From the cool, teak-inspired, open-air lobby to the rolling grounds studded with palm trees to the private beach featuring natural tide pools, the Nannai exudes tropical indulgence and tranquility.  Each bungalow sits in the midst of its own private garden and swimming pool.  The two-story master bungalow even features a whirlpool in the living room.  And the restaurant, which features a covered veranda and ocean view, serves the very best in regional cuisine.

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