Porto Seguro to Salvador, Brazil, by Bike, Bus, and Boat
On August 25, 2001, Mary Mahy and Andrew Hedges set off on a short adventure, bicycling up the coast of Brazil from Porto Seguro to Salvador, Bahia. When we were planning this trip, we really had no idea what to expect. Would there be good roads? How was the bus system? Are there cheap accommodations for travellers? Are the drivers in Brazil as crazy as people say?
In our preparations, we found precious little information on the Web or in books about the area south of Salvador and even less about bike travel there. This page documents our trip with the hope that others may follow in our footsteps (or should that be tire tracks?).
25 August 2001 - Salvador to Porto Seguro
After having poked around Salvador for a couple days--strolling the Pelourinho district, gazing at the harbor, pondering why someone would have a cornstalk growing from their balcony--we began our trip by taking an overnight bus from Salvador to Porto Seguro. The bus station [rodoviária] in Salvador is clean and modern, more like an airport than the bus stations we're used to in the U.S., and the price can't be beat.
We went with Aguia Branca buslines (as we would other times during our trip). They were exceedingly helpful, friendly, and professional. We were very impressed, though I'm sure the other bus companies operating out of Salvador are quite competent as well. Our bus left at 9:00 p.m. and arrived in Porto Seguro at 8:30 a.m. The cost was R$ 60 per person. Stowed in one of the big baggage compartments in the belly of the bus, our bikes travelled fine.
26 August 2001 - Porto Seguro to Belmonte
The bus station in Porto Seguro isn't quite as plush as the one in Salvador. In the midst of several onlookers, we proceeded to reorganize--pulling out bike gear and putting away the city gear. The toilet paper man at the bathroom there is a bit of a stickler, making sure you don't get too much of the flimsy, scratchy paper for your 50 centavos. We arrived at 8:30 a.m. and, after recovering from the overnight bus trip, were on the road by nine.
About 500 m from the station is the Cidade Alta [High City], the oldest settlement in Brazil. There are some ruins there as well as some old churches, houses, and a jail. We didn't spend much time here because we were both eager to start riding.
The ride from Porto Seguro wasn't so pleasant at first, lots of tour busses and beach traffic, but it thinned out after about 10 km. The beaches are beautiful along here and there are plenty of nice, cheap pousadas. There are a couple small towns along the way to Santa Cruz Cabralia, probably the result of increasing tourist trade. Santa Cruz itself is a pretty quiet town. Follow the signs to Belmonte which will lead you to the small ferry port. We were told by several people that there was no road and that this was how we had to get to Belmonte despite the fact the map shows the road going through. It's quite a short ferry ride, after which it's another 50 km to Belmonte.
The road to Belmonte is nice with little traffic and just a slight incline, but we battled a nasty head wind most of the way. (Head winds are best overcome by drafting off your strong boyfriend. -Mary) There are two small villages on the way to Belmonte, neither of which appeared to have many services for travellers. Both are very small and quite poor. All of the towns we encountered had cobblestone streets, which isn't so pleasant when you've been in the saddle all day.
We had been warned that Belmonte was not such a nice town, ugly and lacking tourist services. There are some cool, old buildings on the west edge of town, near where you catch the boat to Canavieiras. When we arrived in town, after being sent in the completely opposite direction by an old man on a bike, we found the hut from which the boat to Canavieiras leaves. Informed that they would not be leaving until the morning, we sat down to watch the sunset over a beer. There is a nice looking pousada right there called the Pousada Rio, but the proprietors were at church when we arrived. After waiting around a bit for them, we decided to see what else was available. We found the Pousada Monte Carmelo O Pão.
The Pousada Pão is run by a very nice couple, but it is difficult to recommend staying there. A short time after heading to bed, Mary woke up battling what she thought were mosquitos. Andrew wasn't being bothered by the little pests, so she sought relief in his sleep sack. In the morning, Mary noticed on Andrew what looked like Chicken Pox. In actuality, he had suffered upwards of 50 or 60 bed bug bites. Grossed out, but undaunted, we devoured a great breakfast of fruit, bread, and cakes, and headed off to catch our boat.
27 August 2001 - Belmonte to Una
Finding the launch area for the boats to Canavieiras is a bit tricky. From the main intersection of town, go west to the last street before you drop in the river, then north, to the last shack on the left. There isn't much there, just a little shack and some concrete steps descending into the water. The boats are 12' (4 m) open, metal skiffs with outboard motors and they only run at high tide [maré alta]. We had talked to the men there the night before, through very broken Portuguese explaining that we needed a boat to Canavieiras the next day. They told us our launch would be leaving anywhere between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. We showed up at 9:00 a.m. just as a boat was arriving and were on our way with little waiting.
The passage to Canavieiras was great fun. The first section, through the Rio Paçul, is all small canals in the mangrove swamps. It was easy to see why they can only run this section during high tide as it's quite narrow and shallow. Eventually, it opens up into the Canal do Peso, a wider body of water from which we caught occasional glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean. There were lots of nice birds to check out along the way as well as little pink crabs scurrying among the mangroves. Though it only cost us R$ 15 per person, it felt like a ride for which tourists would easily pay three times that. We were told it would be a two-and-a-half hour trip, but it only took us one.
Canavieiras was a pretty town despite the ubiquitous turkey vultures. (Vultures could easily be the state bird of Bahia they were so prevalent.) However, we knew we had some riding ahead of us in the heat of the day so we didn't linger. The ride from there to Una was nice at first, but became increasingly hilly as we approached the town. The last 20 km was up and down some fairly major hills and with the heat of mid-day we were really feeling it.
Having survived the hills into Una, we had a great meal at Restaurante Biera Rio, a small establishment with maybe eight tables. It's easy to find. As you approach town, just past the Texaco station, turn right--following the signs to Olivença--and it's right there on the left. Our Portuguese not up to the task of ordering, we just asked the woman for something with frango [chicken]. She brought out a fantastic lunch of fried chicken, rice & beans, and salad. We appreciated the meal enough to come back three hours later, much to our server's bemusement, for a peixe [fish] moqueca (a traditional and common Bahian dish) cooked in an amazing sauce, like a buttery curry.
We stayed that night at a very nice inn called the Pousada Caxiandó. (After the bed bug debacle at Pousada Pão, Mary was in charge of choosing our nests the rest of the trip. -Andrew) We paid just R$ 30 for a big, clean room with a double bed and private bath.
28 August 2001 - Una to Olivença
Our plan, after two solid days of riding, was to have an easy day of just 44 km and spend the afternoon on the beach in Olivença. However, the first 20 km out of Una proved more hilly than the road leading into it. On top of this, our morning was spent riding in the pouring rain. On top of that, Andrew got his first (and thankfully only) flat tire. We could have felt sorry for ourselves, but in the end chose to have good attitudes about it all.
The rain receded as the hills transitioned into oceanside riding for the last 25 km into Olivença. The town has many hotels and restaurants although it was quiet while we were there. Olivença appeared to be more of a seasonal destination than the other places we visited. We were only able to find a couple of open restaurants outside of our hotel.
Ahh, our hotel. We stayed in the Jubiabá Praia Hotel in Olivença. At R$ 80, it was several steps up from our previous nights' accommodations. While our room was quite small, the grounds were beautiful with a lovely pool, sand volleyball court, and great views of the ocean. It was nice to take an afternoon and rest a bit. We had laundry done, took a dip in the pool, and did some maintenance on our bikes as we looked forward to a long day ahead.
29 August 2001 - Olivença to Itacaré
This leg of the trip was the most fun and satisfying by far. Our longest ride at 85 km, we both felt spent and invigorated by the end of it.
It's a short ride from Olivença to Ilheus with the beach always in view. Ilheus is a small city with pretty old buildings and nice beaches. It's a bit hellish through the main part of the city on a gear-laden bike, however. There are no shoulders and some sections of road have high curbs that make it impossible to get out of the way of traffic. We had to stop there to replenish our cash supplies. A friendly woman helped us find El Centro [downtown]. The Banco de Brazil branch there is in the center of a narrow pedestrian mall among dozens of shops.
The first few kilometers out of town, the road (which itself was a bit tricky to find) was thick with trucks and busses and the shoulder, where it existed, was in quite poor shape. However, once we made the turn towards Serra Grande it was a different story. The traffic disappeared and soon thereafter there magically appeared a two meter wide bike path (not something we expected to encounter!).
All was well, beautiful actually, as we rode through a UNESCO preserve on flat roads through forest and along beaches for quite a while. We had decided to have lunch in the next town and were at this point eagerly counting down the kilometers. Just then, a pickup truck sped past; its cargo: a man wearing a wry smile and his bike. Our destination was called Serra Grande (meaning "big mountains") and we were about to find out why.
Despite its daunting appearance, the very steep, very long hill into Serra Grande was a fun challenge, especially knowing lunch was at the top. Halfway up was a scenic overlook--basically a little mud parking area with a man selling bananas and water from a little stand. What an incredible view! We could see up and down the beach for miles and the ocean was several amazing shades of blue and green.
We had another wonderful meal at the Moqueca Baiana Restaurante, apparently the only restaurant in town. We ordered by pointing to what the next table over was eating and feasted on a dreamy moqueca with excellent picante. The woman running the place was very sweet. We commented about the hill we'd just scaled to get there and she just laughed indicating we had a lot more to look forward to. We sat for 30 minutes to rest and digest before heading off again. After much water and a couple of chocolate bars, we were on our way.
From Serra Grande to Itacaré we passed over some of the hilliest terrain imaginable. The hills were usually no more than a kilometer in length, but they were incredibly steep and as soon as you were down one you were heading up the next. The roads were empty of traffic and again we were in a UNESCO preserve so the countryside was beautiful. Thankfully, the last 3 km into Itacaré was downhill and as traffic started picking up another bike path appeared to smooth our ride home.
Itacaré is a beautiful little town with a pretty harbor and cool old buildings. Tourism seems to be picking up there (tours operate from the waterfront and there are plenty of restaurants and pousadas, and even an Internet cafe), but it's definitely worth a visit. We wish we'd had more time to spend there. We had a beautiful dinner by candlelight at a restaurant (who's name we managed to miss) with wonderful atmosphere and even better food.
30 August 2001 - Itacaré to Morro de São Paulo
Upon arriving in Itacaré, we had immediately looked into bus and boat options to Camamu. There is no easy way to get from Itacaré northwards. It is possible to catch a boat across the river and continue up the beach to Barre Grande (from which point boats run to Camamu), but this would probably not be so easy with bikes and, feeling pressed for time, we opted for the bus.
We were on the 5:30 a.m. bus to Ubaitaba where we would connect to Camamu. The road to Ubaitaba was steep and muddy, the only dirt road we encountered on our route. It would be a really tough leg on a bike. In fact, it was pretty jostling on a bus! It had been raining all morning and still was when we reached Camamu so we decided to stay on until Nilo Peçanha.
We rode the last 30 km to Valença with plenty of time to catch a slow boat to Morro de São Paulo. Valença is a sadly touristy town where we immediately felt like targets as punks on bikes--having sized us up, correctly, as being on our way to the island--approached us with offers of costly passage. We ditched two of them by going for a beer and were soon approached by a sweet, skinny, little girl from whom we bought one small tin of shortbread cookies. Finding the slow boat is not hard. There's a big dock near the bridge that seemed to be always bustling. We stowed our bikes ahead of the freight at the bow, Mary pulled up some bench, and after an uneventful passage arrived in Morro de São Paulo.
A boat arriving in Morro de São Paulo is an event. As the boat rocks crazily next to the high cement mooring, dozens of locals, employed by the local tourism agency, help you unload and offer to carry your bags (or, in our case, bikes) up the steep cement causeway leading to the edge of El Centro. Our helper was a kind man with a lazy eye who happily told us all about the island in Portuguese. He was very patient as we looked into a few different options for Pousadas and boats back to Salvador. The system here is that whichever pousada you stay in pays the "finder" R$ 10 commission. They don't expect a tip unless they carry your bags, in which case R$ 1 or 2 seems appropriate. Let them help you! It's a good way to get oriented to the island.
31 August to 1 September 2001 - Morro de São Paulo
We stayed at the Pousada Natureza, run by a Brazilian woman and her German husband. It was a good choice for us because--being close to the dock--we didn't have to drag the bikes up and down the hills and across the sand to our pousada. For R$ 66 per night, we rented a cute, little, one-room chalet with a hammock out front and a nice view of the water. All that said, if we were to return, we would look into a pousada on 1st beach (the beaches are named, simply, 1st beach, 2nd beach, 3rd beach, and 4th beach). 1st beach seems to get very little through traffic, but is still close to both El Centro (where most of the restaurants are) and 2nd beach (where most of the beach activities go on).
Morro is quite overdeveloped, great for an exotic spring break, but I'm glad we were there in the off-season. Everything was open, but there were no crowds to speak of. We plain relaxed for two days, strolling on the beach, drinking cervejas on the beach, taking dips in the ocean and naps in the hammock, and even playing a little volleyball with the locals. We hiked around a bit on Saturday, climbing the hill to the lighthouse where we saw some nice views. We met up with a couple young Midwesterners and their local guide who led us down a somewhat sketchy trail to the old fort.
The highlight of our stay, however, was a Capoeira demonstration one evening put on by a local club. Capoeira is a form of martial arts developed by black slaves in Brazil starting about 500 years ago. We had seen a little of it at the Mercado Modelo (same page, translated into English) in Salvador, so when we heard from our volleyball buddies that a demonstration was happening later that afternoon we were excited to stop by. Quite a crowd gathered, clapping and singing as the athletes took their turns in the ring. It started with little ones, no more than seven or eight years old and eventually worked its way up to the prime fighters. The best of the group did back flips and one-armed handstands as they fought in this highly ritualized style. It was an amazing spectacle and something any visitor to Bahia should make a point to see.
2 September 2001 - Morro de São Paulo to Salvador
There are direct boats from Morro de São Paulo to Salvador. However this was not an option for us because the first one was to leave at 11:30 a.m., too late for us to have made our flight. Asking around we had been assured that the first slow boat to Valença would leave the island at 6:00 a.m. What none of the people we asked seemed to take into account, though, was that we were leaving on a Sunday. When we arrived at the dock at 5:45 a.m. and saw one local sleeping on a bench and no sign of our boat, we got a little nervous.
Around 7:00 a.m., the man who had helped us when we first arrived on the island happened by. He informed us that the first boat to leave that morning would be at 9:30 a.m., and then only if there were enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile. As we were discussing our options, a cabin cruiser came into the dock and five or six locals got off. Our friend asked how much it would cost for the man to make a return trip to Valença. The answer: R$ 120. Ouch! We decided it was better to pay the pirate's price than miss our flights. By now, there were two locals waiting. They each paid R$ 5 and we agreed to pay the rest when we arrived in Valença.
Safely deposited on the other side, we scooted off to the rodoviariá where we were just in time to jump on the next bus out to Bom Despacho. Ferries run quite often from Bom Despacho back to Salvador making the trip in about an hour and costing R$ 7.30 for a human on a bike. While waiting for the ferry, we met a friendly and generous man who was driving two Argentinian hotel owners back to Salvador. He offered to give us a ride to the airport on the other side in his VW microbus (which they still build in Brazil). The timing was all a bit tight, but we made it to the airport with just enough time to pack up our bikes for transit. Our journey concluded, we sunk into the airplane seats and toasted a successful adventure.
This was a wonderful bike tour that we would recommend highly. Consider carefully, though, the time of year in which you attempt it. We encountered quite a bit of rain and temperatures ranging from 18° C to 30° C. Luckily, we were prepared for it despite it being the driest time of year in Bahia.
Our only regret was that we did not have the time to more thoroughly enjoy the place. With another 2 or 3 days, we may have stayed a day in Itacaré, would certainly have worked harder to find a more direct route from Itacaré to Cammamu (perhaps via Barre Grande), and would have ridden the last 110 km from Valença to Bom Despacho.
We welcome questions about our trip or any better information related to this route. Feel free to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.