“Smile, you are in Bahia," says the banner strung across the entrance of the airport. Come February 2008, the smiles are going to get wider, as Salvador de Bahia hosts the biggest street party in the world.

A carnival dancer

The roots of the distinction lie in history: Unlike the rest of Brazil, Salvador’s population is predominantly of African origin, the descendants of slaves brought over from the 15th century till the abolition of slavery in 1888 to work in the sugar cane plantations. According to some estimates, 1.3 million slaves passed through Bahia, double the number shipped to North America.

As in the US, African traditions have lent a unique character to Salvador. The senzales (slave compounds) and quilombos (communities of runaway slaves) have passed on their distinct heritage of music, food and culture. Through jazz and the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira, Salvador keeps alive its African origins and showcases them in events such as the one coming up in February.

None of that is apparent, though, during the drive from the airport to the city. We are struck, instead, by the resemblance with India: crowded streets, mad traffic, unworldly skyscrapers. The city’s affluent quarter is akin to South Mumbai or South Delhi with a Mediterranean twist: Pastel or bright coloured houses, expansive windows, high walls enclosing tennis courts, clubhouses and even whole lakes—very Paulo Coelho.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking most Brazilians live like this," our hosts warn us. But, on the beaches over the next few days, there is very little indication to the contrary—and we don’t mean by way of conspicuous wealth. The wide sandy swathes skimming the warm aquamarine Pacific were peopled only by women in bikinis—all so confident, whatever their body shape, that a one-piece can turn heads—and men in minuscule Speedos.

The thatched bars, called barracas, are always full, handing out coconut water, beer and cachaca—an alcoholic drink made with fermented sugar cane—to pump up the party volume, the music thumps away, good-natured vendors sell wraps and artefacts, the good times keep rolling. The spirit is addictive. Everyone smiles. The men flirt in an incomprehensible language, but we love it nonetheless.

Revellers enjoy Porto da Barra beach.

We see Salvador through Anderson’s eyes. His first stop is the main city centre, built on a hill of sorts and demarcated into the Cidade Alta (upper city) and Cidade Baixa (lower city). The lower level is dominated by the Mercado Modelo, a large old building dating back to 1550. A stairway leads to an underground chamber open to the sea. “This," the guide announces, “is where slaves would be chained to the walls. At high tide, many of them drowned."

Even without wanting to imagine it, it is impossible not to be shaken by the sadness that still lingers in the atmosphere, and the mood persists even when one emerges into the blazing sun. A scrumptious lunch of beans, rice and chicken at a roadside restaurant revives our moods considerably, and we are in a much more positive frame of mind when we decide to walk—rather than take the elevator—to the upper level. Through cobbled roads and narrow streets, we climb to the Cidade Alta, an hour-long trek made precious by little art stores and the blue Portuguese tiles lining the roads.

Pelourinho, as it is also known, is the heart of old Salvador and a Unesco World Heritage Site, and supposedly hosts the world’s largest conglomeration of Baroque architecture. For all that, it is a newcomer to the Carnaval circuit: Possibly because of the vulnerable state of the buildings, the steel bands give way to old-time marching bands and costumed kids here.

Drummers go it alone

To give us a taste of what’s to come, Anderson escorts us to a capoeira class. Dating back to the enslaved Africans of the 16th century, capoeira was a way to resist oppression, practise an indigenous art, protect an inherited culture and lift the spirits. The basic body movements are similar to salsa, but more energetic, with a lot of leg and hand movement and athletic flips, spins, cartwheels and handstands, all performed to drumbeats and cheers from fellow dancers. The two-hour session shows us exactly why the dance was all the rage in New York and, more recently and on a smaller scale, in Mumbai.

On another night, we go to see a Brazilian opera The Balé Folclórico da Bahia—a two-hour show combining capoeira, maculele (flashing blades and sticks) and samba with modern dance, classical ballet, singing and percussion.

Come February, the dancers and musicians will be out on the streets. Where will you be?


How to get there

There are no direct flights to Sao Paulo from India. Fly Emirates, Air France or British Airways from Mumbai and New Delhi. Fares around end-January will be higher because of the carnival rush; book asap for round-trip fares starting from Rs70,000 from New Delhi, and Rs96,000 from Mumbai. From Sao Paulo, fly to Salvador on TAM Airways. Return fares start from $285 (about Rs11,500). Emphasize to your travel agent that you wish to go to Salvador de Bahia, not San Salvador—capital of El Salvador.

Visas: From the Embassy of Brazil, 8, Aurangzeb Road, New Delhi-110011. www.brazilembassy.in. The visa fee is Rs1,000; papers take up to a week to process.

Where to stay

Encanto de Itapoan (www.bahia-online.net/encantodeitapoan; Tel: 55-71- 32853505) is a European-style hotel close to the beach; rooms cost upwards of Rs4,000 per night. Hotel Cocoon and Lounge (www.hotel-cocoon.com; Tel: 55-71-33688100) offers proximity to both the beach and the historic district. A Casa Das Portas Velhas (www.acasadasportasvelhas.com.br; Tel: 55-71- 33248400) is a boutique hotel in Largo da Palma frequented by the hip crowd.

Where to eat

Brazilians are big on non-vegetarian food and most restaurants serve meats and seafood. Food is cheap and the servings huge, so if you aren’t ravenous, one helping can serve two Indian appetites. For the best steaks, visit Largo do Mucambinho, (Tel: 51-71-33224112/33222814). Tucked away in Terreiro de Jesus, near the historic district of Salvador, is Axego serving authentic Brazilian food in a casual setting with jazz music playing in the background and menus changing every day (Tel: 51-71- 32427481). Sorriso da Dadá (Tel: 55-71-33219642) is a popular chain best known for its ‘moqueca’ and ‘bobó’.

In street food, try an ‘acarajé’, Salvador’s answer to the ‘vada pav’. This is a deep-fried ‘bread’ made with mashed beans in dendé oil (derived from a nut found on the dendé palm) and usually accompanied by shrimp, hot pepper sauce, ‘vatapá’ (a paste made from sundried shrimp, peanuts, cashews, coconut milk, and dendé), okra stew, and salad.

(Write to lounge@livemint.com)