A visit to Salvador is a chance to step back in time, to stroll through a perfectly preserved city from the 16th and 17th centuries. It's a chance to experience Brazil's close connection to Africa -- to taste this connection in the food, hear it in the music, see it in the faces of the people. All of these elements -- architecture, food, and music -- mix together in Pelourinho, the restored colonial heart of the city of Salvador.
Beyond Salvador, a trip to Bahia is a chance to stock up on two of Brazil's greatest nonexportable products -- sand and sunshine. The beaches of Bahia are some of Brazil's most varied and beautiful. They come blessed by sunshine, lapped by a warm southern ocean, and infused with a laid-back spirit that is uniquely Bahian.
The Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci -- the one who later gave his name to a pair of continents -- was the first European to set eyes on the Baía de Todos os Santos, the beautiful bay around which Salvador now stands. He arrived in the service of the king of Portugal on November 1, 1501. By 1549, the new colony of Salvador was important enough that the Portuguese king had a royal governor and a small army to protect it from the French and Dutch.
The wealth of the new colony was not in silver or gold, but something almost as lucrative: sugar. Sugar cane thrived in the Northeast. As plantations grew, the Portuguese planters found themselves starved for labor, and so plunged headfirst into the slave trade. By the mid-19th century close to five million slaves had been taken from Africa to Brazil.
The wealth earned by that trade is evident in the grand mansions and golden churches in Pelourinho. The legacy of the slave trade is also reflected in the population. Modern Salvador is a city of two million, and approximately 80% of its people are of Afro-Brazilian descent.
This heritage has had an enormous influence on Salvador's culture, food, religion, and especially its music. Even in a country as musical as Brazil, Bahia stands out. A new term has been coined to describe Bahia's Afro-Brazilian blend of upbeat dance music: axé, from the Yorubá word for energy. Over the past 2 decades, groups such as Olodum and Timbalada have blended complex African drumming rhythms with reggae melodies, while adding some social activism to the mix.
Capoeira, the balletic mix of martial arts and dance, is now seen on almost every Salvador street corner. The African religious practice of Candomblé is also emerging from generations in the shadows.
This past 20 years has seen the resurrection of Salvador's Pelourinho neighborhood. Derelict until as recently as the '80s, Pelourinho -- the 16th-century heart of what was once the richest city on the Atlantic coast -- has been painstakingly brought back to its former glory.
And then there's Carnaval. Over a million people now come out to dance and revel their way through the city's streets. Salvador may soon claim to hold the biggest street party in the world.