Salvador is in the northeastern region of Brazil and is the capital of the state of Bahia. Salvador is also the third largest city in Brazil and a port that has become a popular vacation destination for Brazilians. During the transatlantic slave trade, millions of Africans were shipped to Brazil to work on sugar plantations, many of whom were sent to Bahia. Roughly forty percent of all African people who were enslaved in the Americas were sent to Brazil and most of those passed through Salvador. In fact, the city had the first slave market in the Americas from 1558 and didn’t end until 1888. Which makes Brazil the last country in the world to abolish slavery. To date, Brazil has the highest population of black people outside of Africa. It was incredible to witness the preservation and celebration of African culture in Salvador.
It’s impossible to visit Salvador and not learn about the cities’ dark and tragic history, but modern-day Salvador is a beautiful and joyful city filled with examples of black cultural excellence at every turn. As you walk around the city, the fragrant smells of fried acaraje wafting through the air, the occasional beats of samba pulsing by, it doesn’t take long to see the proof behind the statement.
But in addition to the Afro-Brazilian heartbeat that echoes throughout the city, Salvador is also branded as one of the biggest party cities in the world due to its frequent street festivals, open-air performances, and the world’s largest Carnival.
Salvador’s culture stems from a combination of a mixture of African tribes, Portuguese, and indigenous Brazilian customs and traditions. Combined the rich culture makes Salvador one of the most unique and dynamic cities in Brazil, if not in all of Latin America.
Want to read more about our adventures in Brazil?
- Check out this LGBT Surf Camp in Brazil – it’s the stuff of Blue Crush dreams.
- Headed to Sao Paulo? You need to read my extra gay Sao Paulo guide.
- You have to visit this remote part of Jalapao Brazil before everyone else does.
Explore the Pelourinho
One of the best ways to begin any visit to Salvador is by wandering the gorgeous cobblestone streets of the Pelourinho, otherwise known as the Historic Center. Pelourinho is the heart of the Old Town, which dates back to the Portuguese colonial days. Unfortunately, the area got its name from the whipping post at the center of the city that was used for punishing enslaved people. In Portuguese, Pelourinho means pillory, or a wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, in which an offender was imprisoned and exposed to public abuse.
Today, as you wander among the pastel-colored colonial homes, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. But it’s not as historically accurate as you may think. It was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985 which spurred the then conservative governor Antonio Carlos Magalhães to invest in a $100 million restoration in the 1990s. The restoration resulted in the removal of over 4000 mainly Afro-Brazilian residents and the conversion of a once-vital neighborhood into a pastel-hued tourist attraction.
I follow that sentence up with this rather tongue in cheek notion – you couldn’t find a more Instagramable area in the city. Like most gentrified areas, the Pelourinho is gorgeous and covered in beautiful old buildings, incredible street art, walkable cobblestone pathways, picturesque cafes, and tons of colonial-era architecture.
Enjoy Your First Acarajé
Acarajé is a traditional Bahian dish that is a deep-fried carby bread-like substance made from mashed black-eyed peas cooked in palm oil. They are typically filled with shrimp and veggies and they’re super delicious and very affordable. But what does this have to do with social justice? Acarajé were first made by women who were enslaved in Salvador but were of Yoruba heritage.
It became an important part of the economic emancipation of black people in Salvador in the 19th century. You’ll find them all over Salvador today in various restaurants and stands around the city. They’re typically served by Baianas, or Afro-Brazilian women, dressed in traditional clothing. They wear white skirts over a large cotton under gown and a ‘panos da costa’ which is a piece of rectangular cloth, usually white or in two colors worn on the shoulders. These women will also be wearing distinctive head wraps, beaded necklaces, and trinkets. They set up Tabuleiros to sell their wares all over the city.
Make the trip to Igreja do Nosso Senhor do Bonfim
Nosso Senhor do Bonfim Church is not only famous in Salvador but in all of Brazil. It’s the famous site of an annual pilgrimage. The church is the juncture between Afro-Brazilian Candomblé and Catholicism. You see when African people were enslaved in Brazil they were not allowed to worship their own gods. Instead, they disguised their gods as Catholic saints and continued with their traditions fooling the Portuguese into believing they had converted. Candomblé is still widely practiced around Brazil and in many African countries.
Each year, nearly a million people make the pilgrimage to Bonfim to wash the steps in one of the largest festivals of Salvador. Inside the church, I did not take photos because there was an active service happening but the faithful hang plastic body parts from the ceilings to pray for recovery. Outside they tie a fita or colorful ribbon to the fence with three knots to bring luck and wishes. I think there’s something beautiful about seeing the physical representation of humanities hopes and dreams for the future.
Experience Candomblè at a Terreiro
While we were eating we watched a woman dressed in traditional Afro-Brazilian skirts fall to the ground while singing and chanting. Seismic convulsions went through her body as a chorus of hypnotic drummers played and the scents of intense perfumes wafting through the air. We were witnessing this young woman become possessed with the spirit of Xango, God of Fire.
Candomblè, is a religion that mixes Catholicism and the worship of African deities. The origins of Candomblè come from African enslaved people who were not allowed to pray to their own gods, it was forbidden by the Portuguese. They pretended that they were praying to Catholic saints but really were praying to the orixá, their gods. Each saint became a stand-in for their own gods. Brazil didn’t officially grant freedoms of religion until 1978 where it was initially passed in Bahia and then passed federally. It was a very controversial decision and throughout the 70s and 80s Candomblé worshippers were beaten and arrested for their religious beliefs.
Over time many Candomblé worshippers have formed separatist societies as they slowly gain acceptance in mainstream Brazil. I was lucky enough to be able to visit one of them, called terreiros, with my guides Ricardo and Marcelo form MH Tour. It’s like a village within the city, with a combination of houses for regular people and houses for the orixá [the Candomblé gods], community spaces, and sacred grounds
We were there for Mae Stella de Oxossi’s birthday. She is the first black woman and first iyalorixá (orixá priestess) to be inducted into the Bahia Academy of Letters. Basically, she’s the matriarch of Candomblè religion in the area. We visited on her birthday celebration but also to pay respects and grant offering to the god Xango on her behalf.
I can’t lie – I was a little nervous to witness such a sacred action. I didn’t want to intrude on the believers but I also wanted to be a part of the experience. When we first arrived we took a detailed tour of the community and learned about the different aspects of the Candomblé religion.
They believe that everything we are now is represented through the experiences of our ancestors. We represent our ancestors through our physical bodies. They live through us. There is no death, there is only life but it is not reincarnation, it’s a symbol of their heritage. The ancestor spirits are called Egun which is what you become when you die. The orixá is a god that represents energy from nature. Every believer has their own orixá that determine how you behave and who is guiding you. They are presented like the elements but every natural thing like a tree or the ocean has orixá.
Before the ceremony, I was asked to wear a traditional dress over the top of my black jeans. Only people wearing light colors were allowed inside Xango’s house for the ritual. People must wear conservative clothing with no shorts or skirts above the ankles while visiting. The traditional clothing is derived from the African country of Benin but it was seen all around Salvador.
As we entered the tiny house with between 60 and 80 other people all dressed in light colors they began to play rhythmic drums while singing and praying in the Yoruba language of Benin.
The room was packed tighter than the A train at rush hour. People were pushing their way to the front to take on the spirit and grant offerings of yellow flowers, statues of roosters, money, and food to Xango through the elders
My body was completely pressed against those around me on both sides. To the point that I was forced to sway to the rhythm of the crowd as we clapped and stomped our feet to the beat of the drums. As I approached the front of the crowd I followed what everyone else in the room was doing. I laid face down on the carpet and touched my forehead to the offering area. Before waiting for the elders to gesture me up. I then kneeled and kissed the hands of the old women and then took the hand of the men while offering my gifts to Xango.
Outside the drumming and dancing continued with a celebratory spirit. Where I witnessed more people take on the possession of their orixá as the food was offered to the orixá for a blessing. Each food represents each god after blessing it was distributed to the people. Together we ate our blessed and heavily spiced chicken, beans, and rice and discussed the various Candomblé ceremonies and festivals.
You can experience Candomblè at one of the many Terreiros around Salvador as part of a tour or on your own. Keep in mind, they will not charge a formal fee to enter but there is an expectation of a donation but one of the best times to visit is one of the many Candomblè festivals.
Learn the Artistic and Political Contributions of Olodum
Olodum is an internationally acclaimed Afro-Brazilian cultural group that aims to combat racism, provide opportunities for marginalized youth, and fight for civil rights for Afro-Brazilians. However, the group is most well known for developing the signature sounds found in samba reggae. The Olodum drummers have gained international fame when they were featured in Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. The video was even filmed in the streets of Salvador and became a rallying cry for Afro-Brazilian victims of police brutality and miscarriages of justice.
Unfortunately, there were no concerts on during our time in Salvador, but if you can, stop by Casa do Olodum and listen for the beats of the Olodum street performers in the Pelhourino.
Brazilian moqueca dates back to the colonial period when Afro- Brazilians added their traditional seasonings to the fish sold in markets by the Portugues. It’s a stew usually made with onions, coconut milk, palm oil, garlic, coriander and your choice of shrimp or fish. I opted for the shrimp variety and could not get enough of the tasty sweet and tangy flavor. It’s served on a terracotta dish and comes with rice.
Take a Capoeira Class [or watch a performance]
I’m not gonna lie to you – Capoeira blew my mind. The best way to explain it is just to show you.
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art, that is based on a combination of dance, acrobatics, and music. It’s based on a religious dance and combat skill from Angola but slowly morphed into Brazilian Capoeira in the 16th century. It’s performed with the wrists close together because the majority of the time the enslaved people lived with their hands bound. Originally it was performed without music, but drums and singing were added to the tradition to hide its true intentions from the Portuguese slave traders. Enslaved people were not allowed to learn any fighting techniques or self-defense skills so they disguised it as a dance to preserve their heritage from the Portugues.
The history is fascinating but what is even cooler is that the tradition is still preserved today. You can participate in group classes or private lessons if you’d like to experience it first hand. If group participation isn’t your jam – that’s fine. You’ll see street performances of Capoeira all over Salvador or you can book tickets to a more formal performance that incorporates elements of Candomblè dance traditions.
Check Out The Salvador Street Art
Street art in Brazil has been and always will be a political issue. Artists have always used street art to make a statement, sometimes that statement is to beautify an area and other times it’s to spread a political message. João Doria the mayor of Sao Paulo decided to have thousands of murals around the city painted over with grey paint overnight. His argument was that the murals made Sao Paulo seem lower class and he wanted visitors to have a more dignified view of Brazil. Which is interesting considering the street art in the cities of Brazil is now internationally renowned as a tourist attraction. In fact, many cities around the world are actively encouraging street artists because their murals tend to attract Instagram hungry millennial travelers. [Like me, PS: Follow me #NoShame] Not to mention the fact that some of the world’s most famous street artists, like Mag Magrela, Kobra and Os Gemeos are Brazilians.
But in Salvador, street art is an especially political message. While I personally felt safe during my time in Salvador, I cannot ignore the fact that Salvador has Brazil’s third-largest number of female homicides and has the fifth worst female homicide rate worldwide. According to Grupo Gay da Bahia, a Brazillian LGBTQ nonprofit, 445 LGBT people were murdered in hate violence in Salvador in 2017. With statistics like that, it’s undeniable that Salvador has an issue with the patriarchal oppression of women and queer people. One street artist, a gender nonconforming lesbian named Talitha Andrade has set out to change that. After the political assassination of activist Marielle Franco and the Brazil’s massive 2013 protests where Congress was occupied, Andrade created her now iconic image of a woman in protest. Her woman wears a ski mask in nod to the female protestors who hid their identities behind ski masks during the occupation. Her work can be found all over Salvador but her studio is located at Forte do Barbalho. Locating her studio at the Forte is another strong political message. It’s served as a military stronghold for the city since 1638 and is a symbol of patriarchal paramilitary government oppression, especially because it was home to a torture center for political prisoners during the 1970s when Brazil was a military dictatorship. Learn more about Andrade here:
Enjoy the works and by all means – take and pose for photos, but keep in mind, that not all street art in Salvador is designed as a pretty backdrop for your Instagram photos.