What comes to mind when you think of "Brazil"? Perhaps Sugar Loaf Mountain and Rio de Janeiro; the Amazon rainforest, Iguaçu Falls, or Copacabana Beach?
Many of the country's best-known attractions are in the South but, when I visited in November, I chose to miss out on Rio and Southern Brazil. Instead, I spent three weeks in the Northeast – a region with powdery sands, the country's oldest city, and some of the best kitesurfing conditions in the world.
The largest city in Northeast Brazil, Salvador de Bahia is central to Brazilian history – some refer to it as "the birthplace of Brazil". When the Portuguese crossed the Atlantic and discovered Brazil in the 1500s, this is where they landed. Founded in 1549, Salvador was also the first major slave port in the Americas.
Set beside the blue waters of Todos os Santos bay, the city is home to Latin America's largest collection of colonial architecture. With pastel-coloured buildings, historic landmarks and an infectious culture of great music, good food and fun, it certainly feels like a special place.
I stayed at a hotel in Barra – a bay-front district and tourist hub that's famous for its beaches, restaurants and history. Barra has a relaxed, holiday vibe, and the sandy beaches of "Farol da Barra" and "Porto da Barra" are popular with locals and tourists alike.
Between these two beaches is Da Barra Lighthouse and the Nautical Museum, where I learnt more about Brazil's maritime history. A well-known sunset spot, it's also a great place to enjoy sweeping views of the bay. I climbed to the top of the lighthouse for the best vantage point.
Barra is a short taxi or bus ride from Salvador's historic centre – the Pelourinho. This UNESCO World Heritage site is staggeringly beautiful, with colonial buildings, elaborate churches and cobbled squares.
My first stop here was the Misericordia Museum, a former hospital, church and convent. As I explored its beautifully furnished rooms, admired important artworks and learnt about this building's history, my English-speaking guide (hard to come by in Bahia) brought each exhibit to life with stories, facts and enthusiasm.
Next to the Misericordia Museum is Elevador Lacerda. This restored art deco lift connects the Upper Town (where Misericordia Museum is) with the commercial area and port. Originally built in the early 1600s, it was used to transport goods from the dockside to the urban area above.
The Pelourinho has car-free cobbled streets and public squares, where you can often see live drum music and capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial arts). With beautiful architecture and alfresco cafes, Largo Terreiro de Jesus (Terreiro de Jesus square) is particularly good for this – I enjoyed a great afternoon here, sipping Skol (a popular lager brand in Brazil) and watching caiporera.
The triangle-shaped main square – Largo do Pelourinho – is Salvador's most photographed spot. A whipping post during the slave trade, it is now a tourist hotspot with colourful facades, great museums, and welcoming restaurants serving Brazilian specialities like "Feijado" (bean stew), tapioca and acai (a purple fruit, typically served pureed with oatmeal and banana).
Salvador has around 365 Catholic churches, and one of the most famous is São Francisco. A few minutes' walk from Largo do Pelourinho, São Francisco church and convent feature hand-painted Portuguese tiles, and an incredibly ornate interior that's festooned with sculpted woodwork, paintings and golden cherubs.
After three days in Salvador, I caught a flight (1hr 40) further north to Fortaleza, capital of Ceara state. With wind, waves and white sands, this part of the country is best known for its beaches, kitesurfing, and the town of Jericoacoara (also known as "Jeri").
Four hours' drive from Fortaleza airport, Jeri has no streetlights or tarmacked roads. Instead, the streets are made of sand, and are lit by the moon at night. I travelled here by 4x4 and dune buggy, as the last few miles are along the beach and unmarked tracks through the dunes.
A one-of-a-kind destination, Jeri bursts with life. Its sandy streets are lined with busy restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops and little stalls selling Brazil's national cocktail: the caipirinha (fresh lime, sugar and Cachaça).
Rising above the town is Pôr do Sol – a huge white sand dune that draws crowds of people each evening. An incredible spot for sunset, I loved sitting on the dune's super-soft sand while sipping a caipirinha and watching the sun sink into the Atlantic Ocean.
Watersports and buggy rides
While some come to Jeri simply for the magic of it, many are drawn here by the wind – from October to February, a strong cross-onshore breeze makes this one of best places in the world for kitesurfing, which was my main motivation for visiting. Windsurfing and surfing are popular too, as is horseriding, sand-boarding, kayaking and paddleboarding.
Another favourite activity of mine was touring the area by dune buggy. From a "frozen forest" to freshwater lagoons, there's lots to discover, but the journeys themselves are exhilarating enough – racing across the sand with the wind in your hair, and accelerating up the dunes is a huge amount of fun. When I took a buggy further north to Tatajuba Lagoon, it felt like a real adventure – at one point, we drove aboard a wooden raft and floated across a river to reach the other side.
An adventure to remember
Two completely contrasting settlements, Salvador and Jeri are both incredible destinations in their own right, and make a great combination for an exciting Northeast itinerary. From music, museums and culture, to beaches, watersports and buggy rides, my Brazilian adventure is one I'll never forget. And, while Southern Brazil is undeniably alluring, I'd encourage anyone to visit the Northeast as well.