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Brazil's first capital city, Salvador serves simultaneously as the repository of the country's historical heritage and the source of much that is new and vibrant in its culture. Nothing symbolizes this dual role better than Pelourinho. The historic core of Salvador, Pelourinho is a perfectly preserved urban gem from the 16th and 17th centuries, the capital of one of the grandest and richest colonial dominions in the Americas. Pelourinho today has a wealth of richly decorated baroque churches, tiny squares, and fine old colonial mansions. By day, one could wander its cobblestone streets for hours.

At night, Pelourinho assumes its cultural role. Bahia has long been the cultural wellspring of Brazil, the source of what's new in music. Since its revitalization in the '80s, Pelourinho has established itself as one of Salvador's main stages. Unfortunately, the new state government has cut much of the funding for cultural events, and the wonderful programming that kept Pelourinho hopping almost any night of the week has disappeared. Individual bars and restaurants have stepped in to fill the gap, however, and now schedule their own entertainment and events. Check with the Bahiatursa office in Pelourinho for upcoming concerts or shows.

Outside the old city are several good museums, great arts and crafts, and the glittering Baía de Todos os Santos, the bay that attracted the Portuguese to Salvador in the first place. Beyond the bay, warm Atlantic Ocean beaches stretch unbroken from the Farol de Barra lighthouse some 80km (50 miles) up the coast to Praia do Forte.

A Visit to Pelourinho

Make your first stop the Bahiatursa office, located at Rua das Laranjeiras (tel. 071/3321-2133) to pick up maps.

In 1985 the historic core of colonial Salvador was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site by the United Nations. It's well merited. One could spend years getting to know the history of the churches, squares, and colorful colonial mansions in this old part of the city. What follows is but a brief introduction.

Start a tour of Pelourinho in the main square, called the Terreiro de Jesus. Dominating the west end of the square is the 17th-century Catedral Basílica. Flanking the cathedral is the neoclassical Antiga Faculdade de Medicina, now home to the excellent Afro-Brazilian Museum. Also on the north side of the square is the smaller baroque Igreja São Pedro dos Clerigos (Mon-Fri 1-5pm). Facing the cathedral at the far end of the terreiro is the Igreja de Ordem Terceiro de São Domingos de Gusmão. Built between 1713 and 1734, this baroque church suffered through an 1870s renovation that destroyed most of its fine interior painting and tile work. On the south side of this church there's a wide cobblestone street with a tall cross in the middle. This is the Praça Anchieta. The saint on the cross is São Francisco de Xavier, patron saint of Salvador. At the far end of this little praça stand two of the most impressive churches in the city. The large two-towered one on the right is the Igreja de São Francisco; the central element is the surrounding Convento de São Francisco. Next to it is the Igreja de Ordem Terceira de São Francisco, immediately recognizable by its ornately carved sandstone facade. Inside (open Mon-Fri 8am-noon and 1-5pm) is a small green cloister, around the outside of which is some fine blue Portuguese tile.

Back at the Terreiro de Jesus, the two streets on either side of the Church of São Pedro (Rua Joao de Deus and Rua Alfredo de Brito) both run downhill to the Largo Pelourinho. This small, steeply sloping triangular square gets its name from the whipping post that used to stand at the top end. This was where slaves and criminals were flogged. The smaller building at the top of the square, now the Casa de Jorge Amado, used to serve as the city's slave market. Looking downhill, on the right-hand side of the largo you'll find the blue and creamy yellow Nossa Senora do Rosário dos Pretos (Mon-Fri 7:30am-6pm, Sat-Sun 7:30am-noon). Literally translated as Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks, the high baroque structure was erected over the course of the 18th century by and for the African slaves who represented the backbone of Salvador's sugar economy. Today, much of the congregation is still of African descent; new paintings inside show the Passion of Christ with an all-black Holy Family, and drums have largely taken the place of the organ in church services (the Tues 5:30pm Mass is particularly well attended). At the far end of the square is the tiny Praça de Reggae. At the lowest point of the Largo Pelourinho a narrow street leads steeply uphill to a trio of old baroque churches, the Igreja de Carmo, the Igreja de Ordem Terceiro de Carmo, and the Igreja do Santissimo Santo do Passo. Only the Ordem Terceiro is open, and the views back over the city are only okay, so it's likely better to retrace your steps and explore one of the other delights of Pelourinho, its hidden interior courtyards. There are four of them: the Praça de Arte, Cultura e Memoria; the Praça Tereza Batista; the Praça Pedro Arcanjo; and the Praça Quincas Berro d'Agua. Their entrances branch off the little streets between the Largo Pelourinho and the Terreiro de Jesus. During the day they contain cafes and artisan booths and museums. At night, nearly every one features a band.

Consider a Freelance Guide

In Pelourinho freelance tour guides armed with ID badges will approach you and try to sell you on a tour of the old town. Some are indeed accredited tour guides; others just have fake IDs. It's nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other, nor is it really that critical; many of the independent guides are excellent. Prices are negotiable, depending on the size of the group, length of tour, time of year, time of the day, and your interests (churches, culture, architecture, museums, and so on). Typically you can expect to pay R$50 to R$75 for a 4-hour tour with two people. It's not a bad idea to test your prospective guide before engaging him. Ask him to give you a quick spiel on whatever sight is close at hand. If he seems to know his stuff and you can understand his English, go ahead and hire him. If you want to make sure you're hiring an accredited guide, stop by the Singtur (guide association) office, Praça José Anchieta 12, second floor, Pelourinho (tel. 071/3322-1017).

The Spectacle of Lavagem do Bonfim

One of the most impressive demonstrations of faith (Catholic and Candomblé) takes place every year on the third Thursday of January on the steps of N.S. do Bonfim. Beloved because he offers protection even to non-Catholics, N.S. do Bonfim is associated by Candomblé followers with Oxalá, the supreme ruler and one of the most important Orixás (deities). On the day of the Lavagem, hundreds of women in their best Bahian outfits (hoop skirts, white turbans, lovely white lace blouses, and colorful jewelry) parade 8km (5 miles) from the N.S. Conceção de Praia church in the lower city out to the N.S. do Bonfim. They carry jugs of perfumed water, and are serenaded on the way by the music of the Sons of Gandhi bloco. Vendors sell food and drinks, and thousands of spectators follow along. At the church, the barefoot Baianas go about scrubbing the steps with brooms. The Catholic Church does not approve of this event and keeps its doors shut on this day. Once the actual washing is completed, the party in front of the church lasts well into the night with music, capoeira, and plenty of food and drink.

Ups & Downs -- The quickest way to move between Pelourinho and the Cidade Baixa (lower city) is via the Lacerda elevator, which takes you from the Praça Tomé de Sousa to the Praça Visconde de Cairu, across from the Mercado Modelo. You can also use the Plano Inclinado do Pilar, a funicular railway farther down the Rua Direita de Santo Antônio, past the Carmo convent. Restored in 2006, the plano inclinado drops you at the Mercado do Ouro. And at R$.10 a ride you don't have to worry about blowing your transportation budget.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.