Arraial d’Ajuda: When Sarah Met Paradise

It was two days before Easter and as I explored Arraial d’Ajuda, I noticed signs of the upcoming holiday. The altars of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, the historical church, were covered in a purple cloth. This is a tradition where the altars are covered in cloth on Good Friday and then revealed again the evening before Easter. Arraial d’Ajuda’s old town is full of restaurants and shops spilling out onto the sidewalks. There are both fancy stores and a self-proclaimed hippie market. In fact, there is even an Asian store full of stereotypical Asian goods for sale. Its old town is touristy and expensive. It is also dangerous – for the waistline. Here is where I first noticed the cake sellers. In most old towns in Brazil there are cake sellers with a cart full of delicious cakes and sweets. There are at least 20 different options each more mouthwatering than the next. And they are often at every corner! There is no escape!

Arraial d’Ajuda is known for two things; its beach and its proximity to Porto Seguro. Porto Seguro, where I planned to go next, is where the original Portuguese colony was founded and is therefore the beginning of modern Brazil. Arraial d’Ajuda is just a short ferry ride away (less than an hour from city center to city center), so it is an easy day trip from Porto Seguro. But it is worth staying a few nights in Arraial d’Ajuda.

Praia do Mucugê is the main beach and was different from the other beaches I had been to in Bahia – this one was commercialized. There were cabanas, restaurants, chairs, and umbrellas. People selling corn, jewelry, bathing suits, sarongs (called cangas), coconuts, ice cream, seafood, drinks, and even hammocks. Anything and everything you could ever want at a beach, you could find for sale at Praia do Mucugê.

I sat down at a table – they were free! – and relaxed. The ocean is calm as there are rocks further out that prevent the waves from coming close to the shore. It was as if the ocean fed into a swimming pool – a natural swimming pool. I decided to swim out to the waves, but it was much harder than expected! It was so shallow that I had to climb over the rocks like a crab to maximize buoyancy. I stayed out there watching the waves crash in front of me – I was in the ocean, but yet not.

As cheesy as it may sound, going for long walks on the beach is one of my favorite things to do. However, my long walks usually last hours. I left my things at a restaurant and started off. At first, the hotels and restaurants crowded the beach making it hard to navigate. I walked past the neighboring beach Praia da Pitinga, which has waves. Then I saw it in the distance. The most beautiful beach I have ever seen. Called Praia de Taípe, its dramatic red cliffs covered by a green, leafy jungle rise from the soft white sand. There was no commercialization – in fact, it was almost empty save the few paragliders. I walked towards it drawn to its beauty and uniqueness. I walked to the beginning of the cliffs and discovered a river, so I went for a swim. I wanted to stay longer and keep exploring, but the restaurant where I left my belongings closes at 6PM. It was like meeting a handsome stranger, but leaving without getting his name. I knew I would have to return the next day. I raced back to the restaurant – the staff was beginning to worry I had forgotten as I was gone for such a long walk.

That night my hostel had a Brazilian barbeque. I have always been a fan of hostels as they are great places to meet other travelers and the staff are often invaluable resources. Some hostels can be magical – where everyone gets along and hangs out together. Where it becomes more like home than a hostel. This hostel was one of those places. That night, we feasted. Brazilian barbeques are the best because the meat is endless and perfectly salted. We were constantly replenished with more meat – in addition to salad and garlic bread. Micah, an American working at the hostel, served as our bartender and brought us out caipirinha after caipirinha each with a different exotic mixture of fruits that don’t exist in the United States. We spent the night playing cards, listening to music, and talking in a mix of Portuguese and English. By the end of the night, we were lifelong friends.

Micah and I had chatted about my new favorite beach and the next day he joined me on my walk there. He had been to the beach before and told me about a free, natural mud spa area on the beach called Lagoa Azul. We headed straight for the beach and walked past the furthest point I had been the day before. We went swimming and chatted about travel, learning Portuguese, and our plans. Suddenly it was 3:30PM and we had barely explored the beach and were starving. Micah left and I went to a restaurant at Praia da Pitanga, the next beach over, and waited hours for some rubbery calamari. By the time I finished, it was 4:45PM and the woman at the restaurant advised against walking alone to Taípe. So I sadly turned around, having had a wonderful day but very little time at my new favorite place.

Walking through the town, I again passed Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, the church, and saw that its attendees were overflowing into the plaza listening to Easter Mass. I could see the uncovered altars. I discovered a tiny museum called Museum on the Recife de Fora in Porto Seguro, which is about the reef in Porto Seguro. I didn’t know that there was a reef and looked forward to visiting it in a few days. I had dinner at Aipim, a fancy and chic restaurant recommended by the hostel owner. They had a “hippie chic” menu. I followed up a fancy meal with a slice of cake from my favorite corner cake man! As I said, it is dangerous for the waistline.

On my last day in Arraial d’Ajuda, I had planned to go once more to Praia de Taípe before catching an afternoon ferry to Porto Seguro. Third time is the charm and this was my last chance to fully explore the beach. Emiliano, another guest at the hostel, asked to join me. He had also been to Praia de Taípe before and offered to take me to Lagoa Azul (the natural mud spa). We arrived at the main beach, Praia do Mucugê, and bought coconuts. I have always wanted to drink a coconut at the beach, so I was pleased. We found another coconut stand along the beach to open them.

We arrived at paradise and started to explore. These red cliffs are full of crevices marbled in color. I was running around fascinated with the color, the texture, the beauty of it all. We wandered into the Lagoa Azul and found the mud spa. There is a puddle of water and when that water mixes with the dry mud above it, it becomes a white mud good for your skin. I could tell that this area was special. There was no one around – it was both very natural and very unnatural looking. These beautiful colors of red, orange, and white surrounded us and contrasted with the deep green jungle and sapphire ocean. I covered myself in white mud and then stood around waiting for it to dry. Which was comical. I turned around so the sun could bake the mud and then finally jumped into the ocean. Next, we hiked to the top of a cliff for a view of the beach. I was like a real Brazilian hiking in my Havaianas flip flops. We watched the paragliders in the distance soar over the beach and saw the endless red cliffs in front of us. How could I ever walk to the end? Celebrating our hike and our environment, we had a caipirinha at a random bar next to Lagoa Azul; it was another goal of mine to drink a caipirinha on the beach so I felt very accomplished. Afterwards, we continued and soon found a second river. It was calm, like a lake, and completely empty. This beach is right next to a popular beach and yet completely remote. By that point, I had spent more time than expected exploring Taípe and still had not walked the entire beach. We turned back.

Even though Porto Seguro is only one hour away, I didn’t want to leave Arraial d’Ajuda. Not only had I found the beautiful beach of Taípe, but also I had a new home of a hostel with friends from all over. Alas, I boarded the ferry and waved goodbye to another hidden gem.

Thoughts and Observations

Arraial d’Ajuda will always be one of my favorite places in Brazil because of the beach and my hostel, although my stay there will never be repeated. My hostel changed management a week after I left and so the magic is gone. However, the beach is still there and I hope it remains the undeveloped gem I discovered.

Like the other beach towns of Bahia, this town has a defined tourist section. However, this tourist section was much larger. The main tourist street presented an endless array of restaurants and fancy stores. It seemed to target both extremes of the spectrum – the fancy and the hippie. From a fancy restaurant with a hippie chic menu to a self-proclaimed hippie market, this town knows how to cater to both sides. The section of town outside of the tourist area seemed normal and full of live music, although the local section was harder to find here.

My time in Arraial d’Ajuda stands out to me not only for its beauty, but also for the friendships I made there. As I mentioned, my hostel possessed a magical atmosphere that turned everyone into close friends. I had a great time getting to know these people – people who live in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Three continents (including my own) represented in one hostel. The one language we all had in common was Portuguese. Incredible! The few days I spent in Arraial d’Ajuda had a huge impact on my language skills. For the first time, I was forced to speak about myself in Portuguese. Not just asking for directions or discussing where I am from. I had to talk about my job, why I was traveling, where I would go next. I had to joke. To me, being able to joke in another language is one of the first steps towards mastery. And because of the supportive, friendly atmosphere, I knew others had the patience for me to try. They would be willing to spend the time seeking clarification, waiting for me to find my words, and correcting me when the words I found were wrong. It felt so rewarding to see such a drastic difference in my skills in such a short period.

Of course, I was nowhere close to mastery. Going to the grocery store in Arraial d’Ajuda, I asked an employee for milk. Milk is one of the most basic words. The employee was a local and I wonder if she had interacted with many who did not count Portuguese as their first language. She had no idea what I was saying. I repeated myself. I kept repeating myself wondering what I was doing wrong and why didn’t she understand. Someone next to me – a Brazilian – stepped in and repeated the word for milk. To me, it sounded the same. To her, it made a world of difference and she suddenly knew exactly what I wanted. I was aghast. Later, I learned that I had missed a small nuisance in the word and corrected the mistake, but I wasn’t there yet.

I know going back to Arraial d’Ajuda wouldn’t be the same, but I would still return in a heartbeat.

Observations:

  1. It is always interesting to see how other countries stereotype other countries. In Arraial d’Ajuda, I got to see some examples of this. Apparently, sombreros and ponchos are closely associated with Mexico in Brazil as well, since the Mexican popsicle company here uses a man in a sombrero and poncho as its logo. Strangely enough, Mexican popsicles were popular in Brazil – I wasn’t aware that Mexico was known for its popsicles. Then, smushed between unassuming stores, an Asian temple sells all Asian-inspired goods from a huge wooden dragon to tiny silk shoes to stone statues. The wares surround a lily pond. The store itself was an exhibit and was treated as such with curious tourists wandering around fascinated by the goods.
  2. Papaya is an amazing fruit; there are lots of amazing fruits in Brazil that I never even looked for at home.
  3. The best way to improve a language is to befriend people who only speak that language – forcing you to practice discussing all sorts of topics.
  4. Most beach towns in Bahia are setup the same.
  5. Long walks can take you places that are meant to be discovered.

 


Note: Lagarto Manso hostel in Arraial d’Ajuda has changed management, but the managers now run a hostel in Caraíva.

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