Why Joao Pessoa?
Joao Pessoa (Portuguese for John Person) is a city of 1 million people and capital of the tiny northeastern state of Paraiba. The city was founded by the Portuguese in 1585 as one of the oldest cities in Brazil. It has gone through a few different names throughout its long history, but it is currently named for Joao Pessoa Cavalcanti, a governor of the region from 1928-1930, a very tumultuous time in Brazilian history. Joao Pessoa (the person) is in the history books for saying nego (I deny) in response to potentially supporting a candidate in the 1930 presidential election. Because the city name is weird, many people shorten it to Jampa which is a take on Sao Paulo’s nickname Sampa.
I picked the city for 3 reasons: 1. It is close to Recife, my previous destination 2. It has a beach and 3. It contains the easternmost point in all of the Americas and I like visiting extreme geographic points.
The timing of my visit worked out so that I would spend 2 days and 1 night, New Year’s Eve. As a result, hotel prices were sky high. I ended up paying 45 Euros/night which is 3x more than anywhere else on entire trip. I was told that the typical room rate for my hotel was about 20-25 Euros.
When discussing my trip with friends at IESE, I learned that my Brazilian classmate Bruno is from Joao Pessoa and was going to be in town along with his wife Isly. I reached out to Bruno and we agreed to meet up. He also helped me plan my trip.
December 31, 2020: Around Joao Pessoa
I woke up in Recife and headed to the long-distance bus terminal to catch my bus north to Joao Pessoa. The terminal was unexpectedly large and clean- buses in Brazil are clearly big business and used by the masses. I booked my ticket on the spot for about 30 reais ($6). The bus itself had super comfy seats, phone charging ports and a lot of recline. This was far more comfortable than almost any plane seat.
The ride north was supposed to take 90 minutes, but actually took about 2.5 hours. This was partially due to the poor quality of roads leaving Recife.
About halfway in, just before reaching the state border between Pernambuco and Paraiba, the bus stopped. To my left on the other side of the road, a car hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian, a middle-aged man, was very dead. His shirt was soaked in blood, legs were twisted in an unnatural way and head half decapitated.
This was a very sad sight and the image of this man still haunts me. In the moment, the only thing I could think was “2020 is not over”.
Once in Jampa, I got picked up by Bruno at the bus station. It was so nice to see a friendly face in such a faraway place. We first drove to the Portuguese city center, located five kilometers inland.
When the Portuguese founded the city, they had intended for the nearby Paraiba do Norte River to be the port. However, when the city expanded in the 20th century, the port was moved to a bay closer to the ocean so that more boats could fit. Additionally, people preferred to live near the beach. These two forces caused the traditional city center to lose power. It still has some commerce, but the money and business is all near the coast. In terms of architecture, the city center has a few nice old Portuguese buildings but is nothing like Olinda or even Belem.
We then drove to the coast to my hotel so I could check in and get rid of my bag. To my surprise, it was located just one block from the beach!! Unlike the high-rise jungle of Boa Vista in Recife, the beachfront here in Jampa is not overdeveloped and appears to have a really inviting atmosphere. Bruno explained that this is due to smart urban planning by the city government. According to the zoning plan, the block next to the beach can only be 2 stories high. Then 6 for the next block. Then 10….etc. High rises must therefore be at least 5 blocks from the beach. The result is a calm, almost small-town beachfront feel. The height restrictions had a few other effects. They gave more people beach views and helped with wind circulation in town. Apparently, beach skyscrapers prevent ocean breezes from going inland and contribute to the urban heat island effect.
In addition to getting to hang out with a friend, a benefit of driving around with Bruno was getting a true local’s perspective. Only someone like Bruno could explain the significance of the ice cream man who screams at everyone or the house of the corrupt real estate developer who purchased the lot across the street and keeps it empty so he can see the ocean. Only Bruno could explain me the projects being pushed by the city’s new mayor and the timeline of the opening of city’s new beach bars and resorts. Unlike my home of Southern California where projects take decades to implement due to environmental review and legal challenges, the mayor here has been able to implement changes quickly. Many roads around town were being torn up and redesigned.
Next, we got lunch at a famous restaurant called Mangai that serves northeast Brazilian food. This is the original location, but there are now 7 locations all around Brazil. There is an a la carte menu, but the move is the buffet.
Brazilians are obsessed with buffets. I would estimate that between 10-20% of all restaurants nationally are buffets. There are two types of buffets in Brazil, all-you-can-eat and pay-by-kilo. Both are extremely popular. Mangai was a pay-by-kilo buffet. After taking a lap, you stop by a cashier who weighs your plate (the plate is subtracted out) and adds it to your customer total. You can take as many spins as you like. When leaving the buffet, you will stop by a different cashier who will total the weights and give you the bill.
Northeastern Brazilian food is completely different from the food I had in the Amazon (north Brazil). A few of the most “local” dishes were baiao de dois (black eyed peas mixed with rice), carne de sol (sundried beef that is a cross between a steak and beef jerky) and for dessert, cartola (Portuguese for top hat) a fried banana topped with melted cheese, sugar, cinnamon. The result is a hot gooey mess of deliciousness.
The buffet had at least 100 different dishes to try. This is not an exaggeration, I have never seen such an outrageous buffet at a restaurant.
We drove south to the Cabo Branco lighthouse. The lighthouse is known as the tip of the “horn” of Brazil. That said, the land doesn’t come to any dramatic point here so it’s not that cool of a place. The government is in the process of making this spot into a big tourist attraction by rearranging the roads and issuing development permits. Right now, there isn’t much beside the mediocre lighthouse, a metal marker, and a few tourist stalls.
However, Cabo Branco is not the easternmost point of the Americas! That title belongs to Praia do Seixas, 2 kilometers south. We went there too. The beach here, dotted with restaurants, had a chill friendly vibe. At the south end at the border with someone’s property, the was a small sign mentioning that this is the easternmost point in the Americas. The sign could definitely be improved. I find it strange that the government is promoting Cabo Branco when Prais do Seixas is the important location.
For our next stop, we drove to the Cabadelo, the small town north of Joao Pessoa where Bruno’s family lives. Along the way we picked up Bruno’s wife Isly who was in my Business Spanish class at the start of IESE. Cabadelo is a sprawling city on a long peninsula jutting north of Joao Pessoa. We first visited a beach full of bars at the north end of the peninsula. Unfortunately, everything was closed at 3pm due to a special COVID law that forced all restaurants and bars in Paraiba to close at 15:00 on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (my luck). The beach was still very nice.
We also visited a Portuguese fort and a marker for the start of one of Brazil’s longest highways.
Finally, we headed south to Praia do Jacare (Crocodile Beach) on the west side of the peninsula The beachfront consists of a few touristy shops along a small kind of tacky boardwalk that remind me of the west coast of Florida in the United States. There were a lot of people here- way more than there should be for this quality of town. Additionally, a few sightseeing boats full of tourists cruised the bay.
Why was everyone here? To see the famed saxophone man. For the past 7,000+ straight days (no days off), this guy plays Raval’s Bolero on a saxophone while cruising along in a canoe at sunset. As he plays, he weaves between the boats. Saxaphone man is a regional legend and has a Guinness World Record for having played Bolero more times than anyone else. The spectacle is considered the region’s top tourist attraction and draws people all the way from Recife and Natal. Yes, it is tacky, but it is an authentically Brazilian experience and Praia do Jacare is undoubtedly a great place to see the sunset.
Bruno then dropped me off at my hotel, as he was off to spend the new year with his family (as is tradition in Brazil). After a quick stroll along the beach, I went back to my hotel. Luckily, the hotel restaurant was open despite the restrictions, so I got dinner there. With nothing else to do, I went to sleep at 20:30.
Miraculously, I woke up at 23:40 with just 20 minutes before the new year! I decided to do what Brazilians normally do: go to the beach. It is tradition to wear all white as it represents a pure new year. Additionally, you can wear other colors (usually on your underwear) for extra wishes. Red is for love and yellow is for wealth. I didn’t have anything white, red or yellow so I wore green which I decided would represent money since I need to find a job in 2021.
The beach was quiet. There were at most 200 people spread out in the area near me. I then waited until midnight at which point tons of homemade fireworks lit up the sky and the entire coast. Happy New Year!
Per tradition, I hopped over 7 (tiny) waves for good luck. In a normal year at this point, people would head to a club or rager on the beach, but since this was the COVID new year I headed home and went to bed.
January 1, 2020: Cabo Branco Beach Day
Today was my designated day to explore Joao Pessoa’s main asset: the beach. From my hotel I strolled to Cabo Branco along the perfect beach boardwalk. It was hot out but there were plenty of vendors selling acai, beers, and drinks to cool you down.
I got a late start, so I actually started my day with lunch. I purchased a kilo of shrimp with garlic and an acerola juice. Perfection!
I then took a dip in the water. It was as warm as a warm swimming pool. There was no “refreshing” sting of entering the water. In short, also perfection.
After my dip, I started to walk shirtless back along the beach back to the hotel. The beach was comfortably busy with beachgoers, vendors and even tourist boats. The place was alive!
It took me 20 minutes to walk back by which point I was sunburnt!
I took it easy the rest of the day until 3pm when the hotel kicked me out. I then got some work done until the sun started to set. At that point, I headed back down to the beach with my backpack. By now the boardwalk was packed with people. I do not know if this was because the state government closed everything else because of COVID or if this is just normal life here.
I picked up food from some street food vendors and wandered through the sea of tourists. Fado music was blasting everywhere. I couldn’t help but smile to see so much life and so much happiness.
At 10pm, Bruno picked me up and took me to the airport for my 2am flight to Rio de Janeiro and my next destination: Ilha Grande.
Joao Pessoa is a very nice place. The highlight is undoubtedly the beach, which is perfect. Additionally, despite being a big city, Joao Pessoa lacks both the big city bustle and the big city crime. Never once did I feel unsafe – even when walking around at night with all my belongings.
If in a hurry, you could easily see everything in Joao Pessoa in 1 day. However, the second day was nice to fully enjoy the beach and the vibe.