The two sides of Brazil: cycling from Xique Xique to Salvador
Salvador epitomises everything you might imagine about Brazil; sandy beaches packed with bikini-clad sunbathers, high-rise apartments reaching to bright blue skies and picturesque, colonial squares buzzing to the beat of samba. The city mesmerised us, but half of the wonder was feeling we’d arrived in a different country to the one we had cycled through to get there.
Wanting to avoid the major highway into the city, we had weaved our way from Xique Xique along minor roads, dirt tracks and through cobble-stoned villages to reach the Ilhla de Itaparica across the bay from Salvador. Pedalling towards the port at Vera Cruz where we would catch a boat into the city, we dodged a horse out for a stroll on the high street, a sight so common it didn’t draw a stare.
We couldn’t help thinking of this the next morning on arriving in the city. After hauling our bikes on to a passenger boat, we disembarked at Salvador’s tourist terminal and began a steep climb up one of many hills in the centre. We found ourselves dodging more unusual obstacles, when armed police wearing balaclavas to avoid recognition, and TV crews came running downhill in our direction. They didn’t bother to stop the traffic for their operation, so we followed the locals’ approach and weaved around the spectacle. Apparently this is the norm here.
In spite of the police drama, Salvador was the perfect place to relax. We arrived on a Tuesday, the biggest night of the week for live music in the historical centre of Pelourinho and our couchsurfing host took us out to explore. We were blown away by the beauty of the centre’s brightly coloured, colonial buildings which lined the hilly, cobbled streets. The town was buzzing, decorated for the upcoming Sao Joao festival and everywhere street vendors sold beer, pastels and ice creams.
Stocked up on supplies of ice-cold Brahma, we joined the crowds on a flight of steps, where a free concert was going on. The band played samba and other traditional music whilst the audience danced in unison to their favourite tunes. Hips swung, arms waved and we watched in awe, tapping our feet in typical British style. How we wished we could dance like that.
Several strong caiprainha cocktails helped loosen us up, but the moves in the samba club later on were far beyond even our drunken abilities and we chose to watch the experts perform from the side of the room. There were a cluster of foreign tourists in the bar and a young, American girl shouting ‘holler’ at her compatriots brought home the feeling of having arrived in a ‘different’ Brazil.
For the last eight days on the road from Xique Xique we hadn’t seen any other tourists and were such an odd sight to the locals that we were regularly stopped and asked about our trip. We can explain in Portuguese where we have been and what we are doing, but people often look at us as if they have misheard. It’s only when Paddy gets out a battered map of South America with our route so far drawn on that people believe us and then usually collapse into fits of laughter.
Interest from friendly locals made the leg to Salvador more enjoyable, as the cycling at times was tough and/or boring. From Xique Xique the road passed through hot, low, scrub land which gave no cover against a strong headwind that saw us pedalling furiously downhill as well as up. The sun was scorching, so we took to getting up at 5am to cover as many miles as possible before the heat got too unbearable; also, there was the added advantage that we could catch some of the Euro 2012 football matches.
After days of monotonous riding, we were surprised to find ourselves steeply climbing as we approached the town of Morro de Chapeu. The road weaved up and we reached over 1000m, the first time we have been so high since leaving the Andes in Venezuela. Suddenly, it was cold and wet and we were wearing our fleeces, a novelty after the scorching weather of the past month.
A sign informed us that we had climbed into the north of the Chapada Diamantina Mountains and from here to the coast we would have continual hilly riding. The days were long and with no internet to download new podcasts we were stuck listening to the same old music we’ve had on the I-pods for the last 14 months. Paddy took to pretending to shoot vultures as he cycled along, anything to make the day pass quicker.
Finally, we were within a few days of the coast and as we got lower the weather improved. Close to the town of Feira de Santana we took a cross-country detour to start weaving our way towards the Ihla de Itaparica. We were relieved we did as the traffic heading towards Salvador on the main highways was head-to-toe with articulated-lorries and would have made for miserable cycling.
Our roundabout route though meant some tough riding, not good for our bottoms which still need a coating of Vaseline each day. The dirt, washboard road on the way to Santo Estavao bounced us about a lot and it was a huge relief to finish for the day. The centre, like Salvador, was decorated for the upcoming Sao Joao festival which is celebrated across the north east of Brazil in every village, town and city.
The next day was Sunday and we pedalled along wondering if it got better than this. The road was easy, the sun shining and the scenery captivating as we rode towards the Rio Paraguacu to catch a ferry across the river on our way to the twin towns of Sao Felix and Cachoeria. The two tourist spots are situated on either side of the river, connected by a bridge built by British engineers in 1885.
We’d arrived at lunchtime, but although this is a tourist mecca we still struggled to find something to eat. Whilst Paddy tucked for the umpteenth time into carne de sol, a kind of fried, dried meat served with salad and manioc flour fried in butter (as claggy and tasteless as it sounds), I filled up on olives, cheese and chips, all we could find as a vegetarian option.
In the past month eating has become a real chore. In part, it’s because Brazilians have a very meat-led diet and as a veggie I am restricted in what I can eat. Even in Salvador, I found myself eating salad and rice as a meal in restaurants. Yet, Paddy finds there are limited options even as a meat eater. We are much more reliant on our stove than in any other country and for days at a time we have porridge for breakfast, noodles for lunch and pasta for dinner. The monotony of our meals means that we eat for energy rather than pleasure.
The locals in Sao Felix, however, were enjoying tucking into meat feasts and beers as we navigated our way over the cobbles and tram tracks, which deliver tobacco leaves to the cigar factories along the river banks. The square was packed with cowboys in town for a reunion, their horses tied to every available shady post, be it a telephone box or post office railing.
As we cycled slowly, uphill out of town more riders were cantering, bareback in the opposite direction to meet up with their buddies. It looked an easier way to travel in this region, as we found ourselves climbing some ridiculously steep hills. We climbed quickly from -60m in Sao Felix (we really must get a better altitude meter for our next trip) to over 300m and spent the next two days dropping and rising up crazy hills. The gradients were steep and there was lots of pushing uphill as we made our way towards the coast.
The road finally eased off as we neared the Ilha de Itaparica and soon after crossing the road bridge onto the island, we were rewarded for our efforts over the previous week with our first view of the Brazilian Atlantic coast in over a year. We had last seen the Atlantic in Cayenne, French Guyana, but then it had been a muddy brown from the silt brought up from the Amazon River.
Here though, viewed from the top of the island, it shimmered, sapphire blue, just as we had left it in Peruibe many months ago at the start of our adventure around South America. It was a special moment and we hurried to get down to the beach and the warm, clear water. From the shores of Itaparica we could see the high-rises of Salvador across the bay. We sipped caiparinhas, reflecting on reaching this point on the map and the route we had taken to get here.
Perhaps, we should have been drinking water instead of rum after a tough 100km. Standing up to leave after three cocktails, Paddy’s leg cramped up and he ended up on the floor with staff, customers and me laughing at him as I tried to stretch out his leg.
This was a special occasion though, as Salvador marks the beginning of the end of our trip. From here we will take approximately five weeks to cover 1,800km back to Rio de Janeiro and the spot on Ipanema Beach where we started our circuit of South America in May last year.
It’s something we’re looking forward to and we can’t quite believe that it looks like we’ll make it the whole way around. Yet, at the same time we aren’t ready for this to end. The trip has been more incredible than we ever imagined and we wonder every day if we can prolong it any way. However, we realise at some point everything good has to end, and for us that point is Rio.
So, instead of dwelling on the end, we are planning to make the best of the time we have left. It promises to be an exciting stretch, with beaches, rainforest, sand dunes and of course, caiparinhas. It might be the start of the end for the trip, but it’s the beginning, we hope of a fun, sunny, relaxing leg along some of Brazil’s most spectacular beaches.
It’s also time for us to ask you to please sponsor our trip, if you haven’t yet done so. We’re cycling to raise money for the charity Action for Brazil’s Children, an organisation that helps provide educative and leisure programmes to underprivileged kids throughout the country. If there’s one thing that we’ve realised from riding around the country, it’s that although cities like Salvador might shine with wealth, there is incredible poverty as well.
Brazilian kids are warm, funny and full of life. ABC’s programmes give them a chance to learn new skills and offer them the prospect of a better future. If you have enjoyed following our trip we’d ask you to please sponsor us as we complete our circle and help us raise us much as possible for the charity’s fantastic work.