Brazil’s 8000km of coastline isn’t short of tropical, palm-fringed paradise. But the best bit is surely Trancoso, in Bahia, Brazil’s northeastern coastal state.
The hippies tripped into town here back in the Seventies, mingling with local fishermen, and chilling under the trees around the town square, known as the Quadrado. Now, this hippy escape has grown up, with a merry string of relaxed and unpretentious pousadas and boutique hotels, restaurants, and cafes.
So what makes it better than anywhere else? Well, there’s an idyllic tropical beach. A thriving local community. Plentiful fresh seafood. Friendly people… we could go on. But what’s extra special, is that Trancoso has grown with its tourism. Incomers have blended with the community, used local tradesmen to restore, build and decorate, and put money in where it works best.
For example, Uxua Casa Hotel & Spa, a sublime boutique hotel, owned by ex-Diesel Creative Director Wilbert Das, has put the local capoeira teacher, Diney, on its payroll. Now most of the community takes lessons, and gets together for performances of this mesmerising martial-arts inspired dance.
When Diney is not teaching locals, Uxua guests get the benefit of his expert dance and music tuition. In fact, Wilbert’s entire Uxua project is born out of his desire to share and inspire – from employing a weaver to make stunning rugs, to producing one-off furniture pieces with local craftsmen, and creating an ‘art house’ where visiting artists make Trancoso-influenced pieces, which they then leave behind as payment.
Another philanthropist inspired by Trancoso is Reinold Geiger, boss of the L'Occitane cosmetics empire, who has a villa here and built a music school and Sydney-opera-house-esque concert hall for the community. This means you see young Brazilians playing a mix of Bach and Coldplay on violins and cellos outside bars at night. There’s always music in Trancoso – someone singing, drumming, strumming. This mix of philanthropy and integrated involvement is an everyday reality in Trancoso, and it’s a successful and enchanting mix; happy and celebrative. Trancoso seems to bring the best out in people.
There are no big faceless resorts within Trancoso. By coming together, local hoteliers, artisans, shop-keepers, fishermen and musicians have kept the big boys at bay to protect what they know is special - their pure, low-level take on tourism.
At Trancoso’s heart is that picture-perfect grassy Quadrado – a car-free focal point for community and visitors, where locals play footie, horses mooch about, and visitors sip cocktails in bars under the trees. It’s tipped with a white-washed church straight from the pages of a child’s story book, and framed with 50-odd UNESCO-protected multicoloured one-storey homes, cafes, pousadas, shops, bars, and of course, Uxua – a very special hotel.
But what of the food? Those 1970’s hippies have left their mark. Arriving with bellbottoms stuffed with brown rice and quiche-recipes, their healthy eating habits have fused with traditional fish-based Bahian cuisine and it’s a happy pairing. So, while you’re here enjoying paradise, this is what to eat:
Guests at Uxua Casa Hotel can sign up for lessons in how to make this Bahian fish stew with chef Bernardo Silva – or anyone can pitch up at the restaurant and order a bowl. The celebrated dish is made with whatever white fish has been caught that day, plus fat prawns, garlic, coconut cream, chilli, sweet peppers, parsley and coriander. Brazilians cook with palm oil – it’s the local oil (olives don’t grow well in a tropical climate), and the taste can take a bit of getting used to for Europeans.
Traditional accompaniments are rice – sometimes infused with coconut, and farofa (made with cooked plantain and spiced cooked manioc flour), which becomes a crunchy sprinkle that’s served with any Brazilian meal that has a sauce. Also look out for pirão, a dhal-like accompaniment, made by taking sauce from the simmering moqueca and stirring in manioc flour on the heat to create a thick, creamy side-dish.
Tapioca pancakes are a Brazilian staple, and can be stuffed with whatever you like. A Brazilian favourite is simply cured meat and cheese but look out for Tapioca da Elma, the most adventurous of the three food stands just outside the quadrado. Elma offers substantial fillings, including a pancake overflowing with meat, tomatoes, herbs, and pineapple chutney.
Coconut juice & ceviche
Uxua Beach Bar’s freshly prepared lunches are the best, made from whatever the fishermen have brought in. Ceviche and fish tacos are simple and delicious. Always have a fresh coconut juice, too. It’s the most refreshing option, straw directly in fruit, with the natural cooling flesh and shell to keep the drink icy.
Caipirinhas on the Quadrado
The Brazilian national cocktail, containing cachaça (sugarcane-juice spirit), crushed fresh lime, sugar and ice, is served at every Quadrado bar. Do a tour starting from one side and work your way around – then see if you can stand up.
A flat white
Yes, you read that right. Flat white. Aussie boy meets Trancoso girl, they marry and set up The Coffee Bar, just off the Quadrado. This young couple know what’s what, and serve a selection of inexpensive Bahian food, smoothies, cakes, and caipirinha-induced-hangover busters, such as acai juice, excellent bacon, egg, and homemade relish toasties – and decent flat whites.
South American steak
A long-standing restaurant up a side alley off the Quadrado, Capim Santo has wooden tables surrounded by giant tropical greenery, and a guitar player strumming sweetly on the side. The menu is a mix of Brazilian and European. Brazil enjoys a succulent South American grilled steak as much as the rest of the continent – have one here accompanied by rich Parmesan risotto, and you won’t need to eat for another 12 hours.
A weighty lunch
Food by the kilo may not inspire confidence, but don’t fear, Rabanete is the place to be on the quadrado at lunchtime (it doesn’t open for dinner). For about £15 per kilo, the buffet changes daily and might include octopus, slow-cooked pork, fish and meat stews, sides – all traditional Bahian fare. There’s also a dedicated room for puds, also sold by the kilo.
When the hippies first pitched up here back in the 1970s, they brought a taste of their high-fibre, healthy diet. The large cakes you’ll find at pousadas, cafes and on hotel breakfast and tea tables in Trancoso, are a nod to this. They tend to be a variety of coconut, carrot, or fruits, and will often be made using manioc flour.
Cheesy breakfast balls
You can’t come to Brazil without eating pão de queijo; they’re everywhere. Ideally served warm for breakfast, these pool-ball sized bread puffs are crisp on the outside, and deliciously soft and cheesy within. Harmless, right? But once you’ve had one, it’s hard to stop.
Time your trip to coincide with one of Trancoso’s festivals and you’ll find sellers rolling into the quadrado with handcarts of beer, juice and capeta (little devil). Capeta is a heady mix of vodka, ground guarana powder (from the Amazon guarana berry, a strong natural caffeine-like stimulant, and the base of a popular Brazilian soft drink, also called Guarana), condensed milk, cinnamon and honey, and a little chocolate. It tastes like alcoholic milkshake and will aid the up-all-night vibe.
HOW TO DO IT
Written by Sophie Pither