I heard that Northeast Brazil was the best part of the country to visit in late December. While much of the country is rainy, the Northeast was dry and sunny. From Belem, the cheapest and easiest direct flight to the Northeast was to Recife.
Recife is Brazil’s 5th largest city with an urban population of 4 million. It is a major business center, especially in the logistics space. Recife, and its twin city Olinda, are known all over Brazil for having one of the largest and wildest Carnivals in the entire country.
Day 1: Recife’s City Center
My flight landed from Belem around 11:00 and I took an Uber to my hostel. The ride took 30 minutes but it cost a measly 17 reals (3.40 USD). My hostel was located in Boa Vista, a beachy neighborhood full of high-rise apartment buildings. It reminded me of the beach cities of South Florida but denser. Much to my surprise, my hostel turned out to be a real professionally run bona fide backpacker hostel. After staying in very non-touristy accommodations, it was nice to be back in Backpackerland.
Crime is an issue in Brazil, especially in Recife. To protect against this, the hostel had a unique security system. When checking in, they took my picture. Every time I would buzz the hostel door, if the receptionist didn’t know me, he would look for my picture in the database before letting me in. Therefore, I didn’t actually have a key to the hostel. This way, nobody would be able to steal my key and then enter the hostel
After checking in, the reception suggested I tour the old city. He gave me a list of suggested attractions to visit and suggested I go now to ensure I have enough time. I immediately called an Uber.
The ride took about 20 minutes. As we got close to the city center, the Uber driver insisted we pull up the window if I was on my phone. He said that people will snatch it if I was not careful.
I got lunch at Restaurant Leite, the oldest restaurant in Brazil, founded in 1882. After getting the okay from a security guard and a temperature scan, I was let in to the surprisingly modern-looking place. Yes, it was white tablecloth, but the decor felt fresh. A pianist in a tuxedo provided the soundtrack. This place is sure worlds apart from outside! Leite is clearly a landmark because every other patron had their picture taken at the table by the waiter. I do not know if they are locals or from elsewhere in Brazil.
I ordered the 3-course executive lunch, which came with a risotto stew, pasta with shrimp and rabanada (a Brazilian French toast) doused in Port wine. Everything was top notch. The food was absolutely amazing.
The bill came out to 80 reais or 16 US dollars which included a 10% tip (in Brazil the 10% tip is normally included in the bill but you can ask to take it away). This got me thinking about how cheap Brazil is in late 2020. Yes, Latin America is generally a cheap place to visit, but this is next level. For comparison, I dined at Andre Carne de Res near Bogota, Colombia and an entrée was about 30 USD. Why is Brazil so much cheaper?
The main reason is currency devaluation. The current exchange rate is 5.2 reais to 1 US dollar. However, just one year ago, the rate was 3 reais to 1 US dollar. This has some effects domestically- especially regarding prices of imported goods, but the most relevant affect is that Brazilians wanting to travel abroad suddenly became 50% poorer. The flipside is that foreigners traveling to Brazil suddenly became 50% richer. Places catering to international tourists might be able to change their prices to reflect this new reality, but a restaurant like this one that clearly caters to a Brazilian crowd would lose a lot of customers if they doubled their prices- especially because inflation in Brazil was only 3% last year.
If you look further back, the real has been on a long decline against the dollar. In 2011, the exchange rate was 1.4 reais per 1 US dollar.
It was now time to explore the historic center of Recife.
Recife is located on a series of islands at the delta of two rivers. Recife and its twin city Olinda were founded in 1537 as one of the first Portuguese settlements in Brazil. The name comes from an ancient offshore petrified coral reef which helped create a calm natural harbor. The nearby land is ideal for growing sugar cane, which led to the city quickly becoming a key city. Because of the demands for sugar cane production, Recife became the very first established slave port in the Americas. African slaves were considered more desirable than indigenous slaves due to their experience working with sugar cane in Africa. A little known fact: 70% of all African slaves in the New World went to Brazil.
In 1630, Recife was captured by the Dutch East India Company who ruled the city for 24 years. During this period, Recife became the most cosmopolitan city in all of the Americas. The city was recaptured by the Portuguese in 1654. Beyond that time, not much else important happened except for steady growth causing Recife to maintain its importance for centuries.
I started my walk around Portuguese city center, located on one of the islands. The area is full of shops of all sorts with a healthy sprinkling of gorgeous Portuguese churches. In general, the buildings did not look well-maintained but in reality are probably perfectly functional due to their heavy use. The buildings maybe just need a coat of paint.
The city center was largely car-free due to both the narrowness of the streets and the healthy crowds of people walking around. The constant soundtrack of accordion-heavy fado music added to the ambiance.
While excited to soak in the awesome atmosphere, at the same time I was on extreme high alert for pickpockets. I only took my phone out for enough time to snap a picture and only in the more open areas. There are a lot of narrow alleys where I could see my phone getting snatched. Luckily, there was a zero percent chance of getting mugged or assaulted in this crowded setting. This is probably unfair stereotyping, but in high-risk situations such as these, I treat every man between the ages of 10-35 without a girlfriend/wife/kids or not wearing a work outfit or clearly working a threat. Before getting close to someone who could be a threat, I stare them down and, depending on the situation, walk away or place my hands on my pockets.
The music, the hustle and bustle and architecture made exploring the Recife city center quite thrilling. You never knew what you were going to see and the medium-dangerous-but-controllable pickpocketing factor ensured that my adrenaline/endorphin levels remained high.
I continued on to the oldest part of the city, which is located on a second island. Unlike the first island, this place was a ghost town. Partly, this is because there is no commerce here but also because most museums in Recife are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (the two days I am here). The only real groups of people congregated around a plaque marking the spot where Recife was founded.
I visited an empty half-occupied mall, a cultural center’s lobby and the Kahar Zur Synagogue, the oldest Jewish synagogue in all of the Americas. Jews came to Brazil during the Dutch reign. The Jewish community in Recife has existed ever since, but when the Portuguese recaptured the city in 1654, some fled to the Netherland’s other New World colony, New Amsterdam (now New York City) to become the first Jews in what is now the United States.
Unfortunately, almost everything was closed. The only museum open had giant dolls made in the likeness of Brazilian and international celebrities. Giant dolls are used in the Brazil-famous Carnival, although these particular dolls were just for show. It was very colorful and cheery.
I walked back over to the first island where I visited the civic center, with well-maintained Portuguese buildings is nearby in a quiet square. The city hall and the governing buildings of the State of Pernambuco are here. By the way, the flag of Pernambuco is one of the most interesting flags in the world.
Heading off the islands, I walked into neighborhood of Boa Vista, which functions as the modern business center of Recife. The neighborhood contained a number of tall buildings and the city’s new subway. By a long shot, Brazil has more weirdly-designed high rises than any other country. I ended my trip at a busy shopping mall where I recharged my SIM card- I was having some issues with my mobile provider, CLARO.
The sun was setting and time to head out of the city center before it gets quiet and where mugging can be an issue. The mall’s designated Uber stand was guarded by a squadron of police in full body armor with machine guns. I was for sure not going to get mugged, but I did get harassed by a homeless man. I was able to resolve the situation on my own. I cannot imagine having to live in a city where the police needed to walk around in body armor.
Back in Boa Vista, I had an unremarkable dinner and then grabbed some beers with some guys at the hostel.
Day 2: Olinda and the Rest of Recife:
Woke up and was surprised to see that the two guys I was chatting with last night were spooning each other in the bunk next to me! The way the bunks were aligned, my feet were basically touching theirs’. Yikes.
I usually always root for love and hooking up, but not when you are sleeping just inches from each other.
Needless to say, that got me out of the hostel quick.
I took an Uber to Olinda, a town just north of Recife.
Olinda is often described as Recife’s twin but functionally today is a suburb of Recife. Like Recife is an old Portuguese town founded in 1537. Unlike Recife, Olinda has retained it Portuguese charm and small town feel and for that is was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Olinda is exceedingly cute, quiet and impeccably maintained. Also unlike Recife, there are no crime or pickpocketing issues here.
The town is built on a hill with the center at the very top. The cathedral is here as well as 20 vendors selling tapioca. The vendors had identical matching stalls topped with identical yellow signs saying “Tapioca da [insert name of owner/chef]”. At 9am, the only one open was Tapioca da Maria.
Tapioca is one of Brazil’s most beloved dishes. It is just like a crepe but is thicker, stretchier and more gelatinous. Tapioca can be eaten solo but normally comes with sweet or savory topping. Popular options are strawberry/Nutella, shrimp, beef, or the traditional cheese/coconut.
The city looked just like Portugal. I wandered to monasteries and churches. My favorite one, the Mosteiro de Sao Bento had an altar of gold that in my opinion is the nicest I’ve seen in the new world.
Even though the town was beautiful town to wander, there were not that many attractions besides the churches. Predictably, Olinda is home to a large number of high-quality artists and artisans who sale their wares. There was also another giant doll museum. This one has real dolls used in the Carnival.
I got lunch at a restaurant with just a single dish: a huge steak, block of fried cheese and kilogram of garlicky mashed cassava. While certainly heart-attack inducing, it was super delicious.
Out of things to do in Olinda, I caught an Uber to the Officina Ceramica Francisco Brennard. Located on the outskirts of Recife, this compound functioned as the factory of a famous ceramist. The facility is huge and contains multiple buildings full of pieces, a conference center, a restaurant, and much more. Interestingly, Francisco’s brother Ricardo Brennard also has an artistic compound very close by. Unfortunately for some reason their hours are not coordinated and therefore the two museums are almost never open at the same time.
I then returned to the hostel and was pleased to learn that the two frisky roommates had indeed gotten a room. In their place was a Brazilian girl named Vitoria, an agriculture engineering student from about two hours inland. Fun fact: the interior of Northeastern Brazil is very dry- almost a desert. Vitoria was in Recife for New Year’s Eve. She said that there is very little to do where she is from, so she goes to Recife to have fun. We started talking about travel. It turns out that Vitoria studied abroad in Newfoundland, Canada. I can only imagine the shock of someone from a place that never drops below 20 degrees C going to a place that never gets above -10 in the winter.
One of my favorite parts of staying in hostels is meeting and chatting with random travelers so I asked Vitoria if she wanted to go for a walk on Recife’s main urban beach: Boa Vista. She agreed. This long stretch of sand reminds me of South Florida with high rises perched just across the street from the sand. It is also famous for having a lot of shark attacks (56 attacks and 21 deaths in 20 years). Swimming is strongly discouraged here. As we walked down the sand and unexpected rainstorm hit and we had to hide under a lifeguard shack. There, we met three drunk surfers who offered us some aguardente. I took a shot of the disgusting liquor. Eventually the rainstorm subsided and we headed back to the hostel.
The rest of the evening was uninteresting. I went to bed and the next morning set off for Joao Pessoa.
Recife is cool! My favorite part about Recife is that it has so many distinct neighborhoods, each with its own atmosphere. The city center is lively and invigorating while also historic. Olinda has quiet-charming. Boa Vista is one of the world’s nicest urban beaches. The weather is also spectacular and sunny. With the exception of personal safety, it is hard to ask for anything more in a city.
Recife also has one of the larger airports in Brazil, so it is an easy stop on most Brazil itineraries. Despite its size, Recife is off the radar of most foreign tourists with the exception of long-term travelers going up/down the coast.
2 days is probably the perfect amount of time to spend in Recife itself. You could do 3, but if I had a third day, I would rather tack on a day trip to a nearby town. The state’s most famous beach is called Porto de Galinhas but you could also take a tour to Maragogi in the next state south.
On the subject of beaches, Northeast Brazil is known to have the country’s best. To not visit a beach here would be a crime. Because of the shark problem in Boa Vista, this means you need to visit another city or town in the region too. I previously mentioned a couple ideas, but there are endless more good options.