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.

A streetscape in our Jardins neighborhood

Sao Paolo turned out to be little more than a utility stop for us. That seems like a shame in a way, since it’s one of the biggest cities in the world. And it’s sort of the New York of Brazil, with tens of thousands of restaurants and innumerable shops and art galleries and nightclubs and bars. Many well-heeled Brazilians wouldn’t live anywhere else.

But for an outsider it’s a hard place to get a grasp of. It’s so huge and sprawling. It’s not very pretty. There are really no monuments or must-do sights that you’ve ever heard of. It’s knd of a mystery in a way, especially when its rival metropolis, Rio de Janeiro, is packed with sights and beaches that are practically household names.

If you have a 15-hour flight to get to Brazil it helps a lot if your plane has a bar!

Another big drawback is the city’s reputation for crime. Like in Rio, you hear and read so many warnings that you feel like staying holed up in a bunker. We stayed in a fairly posh part of town called Jardins, where you could walk pretty freely around, without too much worry. There were plenty of restaurants and shops to keep us occupied, especially since we had errands to run.

Ordinarily I would have liked to wander around historic central Sao Paolo, not too far from Jardins, to see its grand colonial architecture. But when the guidebook warns you to watch out for the countless pickpockets — and avoid the area altogether in the evening or on weekends, that deflates your interest quite a bit.

So we mostly stuck to our own neighborhood and got through our chores. It didn’t help matters that chores were more difficult than normal. Our first priority upon arrival in any new country is to buy SIM cards for our phones. The difficulty varies wildly from country to country, but Brazil turned out to be the worst. Most stores simply would not sell them without a Brazilian ID. Many phone stores were mysteriously closed on the weekend, even though everything around them was open.

And we faced a surprising language barrier in these stores and elsewhere in Sao Paolo. In so much of the world there is a strong presence of English, at least among young people in educated, urbanized areas. The biggest exceptions have been in China and Japan, and to a surprising extent here in Sao Paolo.

Nonetheless, I managed to eventually muddle my way through the complications of buying SIM cards using some combination of a few words of Portuguese, filling in with Spanish and Italian, and a good dose of google Translate. After two days of finally finding a place that would sell the SIM card, we loaded them in our phones only to find that it takes up to 24 hours for it to work. What the hell?

We of course managed to sniff out some great food here, and we got through our errands. And we did even enjoy just a taste of the things we love about Brazil. It’s super multi-cultural. People like to have fun. They stay up late. And now we are ready to hit the road and encounter all that we love about Brazil in some more beautiful places.

Jim, on the streetscape, as we churn through our errands

After a long walk to an Indian restaurant that was unexpectedly closed, we ducked into a nearby Italian place, where they served us outrageous amounts of tasty grub

Mark and Jim take over the airplane bar. And if you are wondering, yes, Jim is wearing pajamas.