Porto de Galinhas, certainly one of the best beaches in all of Brazil

From what was supposed to have been a three-night stay in Olinda we had planned on traveling a little over an hour-and-a-half south to spend four nights in the beach town Porto de Galinhas. But since we too quickly got bored with Olinda we spent six days on the beach instead. All in all, not bad.

According to Wikipedia Porto de Galinhas has been voted Best Brazilian Beach for eight consecutive years. We thought it was a really good beach, but I’m not sure why it would consistently be voted the best beach along the many thousands of miles of Brazilian coast.

Out for a walk on the beach

We had a reservation at one nice resort for our planned four-night stay, but as there were no rooms available for the first/extra two nights we stayed at a neighboring resort (Summerville, which made us just a little nostalgic for our old office in Somerville, MA) for two nights. They were both nice, with good access to the beach, with one exception: the food was pretty awful.

Both places, you see, served meals buffet-style. In other words, large quantities, low quality. We thought it was strange, especially as our second resort, Nannai, was a pretty high-end operation. Everything about it was beautiful except the food was just bad.

Who could complain about a resort like this, right? OK, I can.

I think it can be explained by something we’ve observed and later documented to some degree. We’ve been surprised during our travels in Brazil at how little English is spoken here. Everywhere we go, the hotels and restaurants, everyone is speaking Portuguese. As we travel the world – with only China as a notable exception – you can always find people who speak English, especially in restaurants and hotels. Not so in Brazil; we’re regularly finding ourselves struggling to understand Portuguese. I get that it’s a big country and thus can be more inward-facing than many countries, but still it’s been surprising.

Then Mark came across some article in the British press about how Brazil has one of the lowest rates of foreign tourism in the world. Other countries with extremely low rates of foreign tourism – think the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, and Algeria – make sense. But Brazil? Fabulous beaches, great food, Rio, the Amazon? For whatever reason (the insane crime rate could have something to do with it), Brazil doesn’t emphasize foreign tourism and so it’s pretty much just well off Brazilians we see at these resorts.

One day we walked a half our up the beach to this lunch place overlooking the coast. Good food, great scenery.

My guess, then, is that for whatever strange reason the Brazilians who come to these resorts in Porto de Galinhas just love all-you-can-eat slop troughs. Strange.

Fortunately, we discovered one good – really good – restaurant in town, maybe a 20-minute taxi ride away. It was called Barcelona Tapas and, to our surprise, it was genuine, authentic Barcelona tapas. We met the owner/chef and indeed he was a native of Barcelona, married to a Brazilian woman. It was far enough away and the menu for carb-conscious people like us was limited enough that we only went a couple times but it was such a respite from the buffet tables!

Barcelona Tapas!

The good news is that two weeks into our Brazilian trip now we still haven’t been robbed. That counts as a victory, right? Unfortunately, though, someone appears to have made an attempt to steal our credit card information. The credit card company caught it, notified us, and we easily confirmed that no, we had not tried to purchase some $29 worth of masonry services. So far so good except that then of course they cancel the card meaning for us endless hassle as we have to order new cards, figure out where to have them sent, and change all sorts of automatic charges. Annoying but I suppose not as bad as getting robbed at gunpoint, right?

Wildlife in our bathroom

And in our little garden, eating some fruit that had been left out. We don’t actually know what these were, but they were cute.

Another shot of the cute feller

When we left the resort we could eventually find some good food

Even good coffee

Meanwhile, the hotel itself was beautiful

Sometimes really beautiful

The beach right below our hotel had a massive natural barrier out a ways so especially at high tide it was more like a calm lagoon than the ocean.

One of many historic churches in Olinda

We were supposed to love Olinda. While most of our Brazilian stops are all about beach resorts, Olinda is one of Brazil’s best-preserved colonial cities. Out on that northeastern point of Brazil jutting out toward Africa, just north of Recife, Olinda is chock-full of old churches, winding streets, and old colonial mansions. The historic downtown area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it must be good, right?

Sadly we just weren’t that impressed. I was expecting to be charmed as we had been in San Miguel de Allende or San Cristobal in Mexico, which we’d really loved. Or maybe Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Instead we were pretty … what’s the word? … bored? We didn’t like our hotel at all, we didn’t like the restaurant options, and after 20 minutes walking around the old town we were pretty much done.

Usually we love little towns with street art like this

I mean, it was pretty enough. But for us at least there was none of that historic charm mixed with modern tourist infrastructure that can make an old town almost magical. So here’s the question: was it Olinda? Or was it Mark & Jim?

Here’s the thing: it’s been almost three years since we were in San Cristóbal and over two-and-a-half years since we were in Bolivia. Is it just that we’ve seen enough of those old Latin American colonial towns that we don’t get impressed anymore? When we’re in Europe and we go to a new cathedral I often observe that it takes a lot to impress us these days (though I still do get impressed sometimes). Is it just time for us to quit this endless roaming around the earth?

Carnival is a big deal in Brazil, and Olinda has one of the biggest celebrations in the country. We’re still a couple months away but it seems as though they’re getting ready already.

Of course, we have sort of answered that last question; in two weeks we fly to New York to start house hunting. That doesn’t quite answer the question, though, of whether Olinda was kind of boring or if we’re just bored. Either way, we decided to leave early. Instead of the three nights we’d expected to stay we canceled our last two nights and drove down to a beach maybe four hours south of Olinda. Not a lot to say about Olinda then.

Looking over the town towards the ocean

And then off toward Recife back in the distance

Another church

And still another

The local university

The little pool at our unimpressive hotel

Mark took all the other pictures on this post but I managed this shot of a tiny little kitten up in a tree. When I walked back past maybe 45 minutes later someone was trying to urge her down with the promise of food. I’m going to assume it worked eventually.

Me, sand, surf, and a Kindle. Does it get better than this?

Praia da Pipa – Pipa Beach – is an absolutely magical little surfer/backpacker town in northeastern Brazil, almost precisely at that point where Brazil sticks furthest out towards Africa. It’s big enough to have great restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels but so small if you look it up on Wikipedia all you get is a Praia da Pipa in Portugal.

In other words, it was heaven. There were three things I loved most about Praia da Pipa. First, we stayed at Toca da Coruja, one of the most beautiful resorts we’ve stayed at in a long time. Not grand five-star luxury exactly, and somewhat surprisingly not even on the beach. But beautiful bungalows with great wrap-around verandas set in gloriously verdant tropical gardens. So nice you really didn’t want to leave.

The walkway to our bungalow

But leave one must as there are beaches to be experienced. Our hotel had a private little rustic space on the beach maybe 10 minutes away by vehicle and they’d drive you out there in the morning and pick you up in the afternoon. Once I figured out where it was you could also walk out to the beach in maybe 35 minutes and that was nice too. Once you got there it was quiet, remote, and beautiful. The swimming wasn’t so good as the undertow and currents were pretty strong so they urged you not to swim out at all. We could go out maybe waist deep and as the waves came in you could feel pretty certain you didn’t want to be out any further.

Our rustic little beachfront – shade, tables, chairs, great food, and good wine

On top of that beautiful beach, though, they served lunch out there too. Oh my god did they serve lunch. Three days we were there and three days we had moqueca, this Brazilian fish stew that is simply to die for. We remembered it from a trip to Brazil we did in 2005 but I’d forgotten how good it was. That, a salad, and some great Argentine Pinot Grigio and we were very happy campers.

And then finally the third thing I loved was the town itself. Again, this perfectly sized tourist town but not at all overrun (yet, at least) with package tour groups. Much more of a surfer vibe that, though I’m not a surfer, I love. Lots of little restaurants and little bars that don’t measure tiny drinks all meant for independent travelers. When we were first coming into town our driver pointed out that there are lots of shrimp farms in the area and that if you like shrimp this was the place to be. He wasn’t kidding – tons of shrimp on every menu, all of it good, and distinctly inexpensive.

How can you not like a town with sights like this?

All in all just about a perfect little stop. And, with two stops in Brazil under our belts, neither of us have been robbed even once on this visit. We’ll see how long we can keep that streak going!

A little slice of our veranda, including one of two rocking chairs. It was a perfect spot for early morning or evening relaxing.

There were two pools in the resort. Again, not too shabby.

Here’s the moqueca and salad we would have for lunch every day. If we’d have stayed for a week I don’t think we’d have tired of it.

Mark enjoying our nearly private beach

The dirt road leading to the beach

And a surprisingly lunaresque landscape on the walk back from the beach

When we got into Praia da Pipa our first stop was lunch, at pretty much the closest place to our hotel. The food was great (shrimp, not surprisingly) and the view out to the ocean was gorgeous.