Rio is chaos. On a hot summer weekend, a wall of umbrellas covers the entirety of the city’s beaches, accompanied by thousands of people. When many foreigners think of Brazil, it’s Rio de Janeiro that comes to mind. And yet, as picture-perfect as Ipanema Beach may be, with the famous “Two Brothers” mountain in the distance, every bit as beautiful as you had hoped, it’s egregiously crowded.
But not Bahia. North of Rio de Janeiro, Bahia is known for its postcard of a coastline. If you haven’t heard of Bahia, then that’s all the better; it’s highly possible neither have your friends, your boss, nor your inlaws. The Brazilian state is huge (somewhere between California and Texas), but my affinity, like most visitors in the know, is for its beaches. Though the sparkling coast is slightly shorter than that of California, it would take twice as long to drive this stretch of Brazil north to south, largely due to unpaved roads. In short: There’s no fast way to do Bahia.
In fact, the more bumpy the road, the fewer the people at the end of it, leaving a pristine beach that’ll make you feel like the last person on earth or the first one in heaven.
This inability to rush is something you feel with each Bahian interaction, especially during meals. The time between ordering dinner and taking your first bite could be 60 or 90 minutes, though servers will gladly keep you hydrated with a fresh coconut or beer in the meantime. Kick back, and don’t stress the wait, with nothing but blue sea and sky in front of you. Friendly beach dogs stop by for a pat or treat as they rove. And the swimming is ideally laid back, where you can often wade over 100 feet into the water before it’s above your knees. You have little to worry about, save for a few mosquitoes, routine SPF layers, and some spotty wifi—but that’s the point. You’re removed from the masses. You’re officially on “Bahia time.”
My first time in Bahia was during a period of incredible transition, and these beaches were the perfect salve for an uprooted mindset going through physical and mental upheaval. Having left New York City in 2017, I’d been ping-ponging around several countries, supporting myself as a freelance writer. I’d hiked Patagonia, drank wine in Mendoza, experienced a devastating earthquake in Mexico City, and was reeling from the chaos of carnival in Rio. But Bahia immediately felt different, so much so that I often found myself taking out my phone to drop a pin on the map, just to look at how far away I was from everything I knew. The solitude was striking. I would find myself skinny dipping and sunbathing stark naked in the sand simply because there wasn’t a soul in sight in either direction, despite it being mid-March with an 80-degree cloudless sky overhead. I found solace in the distance.
Though I technically wasn’t the only one. A friend joined this leg of the trip, who’d just gone through a wrenching breakup, quit her job, and needed escape. And while we were there, her best friend back home in the Midwest devastatingly passed away. The services were held mid-snowstorm, and any last-minute flight would cost thousands of dollars, require some 30+ hours of travel, and would likely be delayed or canceled due to weather. Bahia gave her the space to grieve and process. Here, she asked the universe for forgiveness for not being at her friend’s funeral. Our week was touch and go emotionally, but it was the perfect setting to take our individual space, to walk separate directions down a beach and be alone for hours at a time.
From here, I eventually went on to Berlin, but Bahia stuck with me. I returned three more times since then, as a refuge from cold, from my inbox, and whatever ails me. And so Bahia has become so much more than a vacation spot to be checked off some list.
It might initially feel like a wasted opportunity to revisit a place when there are unlimited options available to you, but a repeat vacation is actually a uniquely fulfilling experience. Too often is it tempting to build a collection of countries-visited as if playing Pokemon, as though a bigger list has some kind of coolness currency to leverage over one another (and particularly on social media). But the stories are much more rewarding from someone who’s enjoyed lengthy stays in only 15 countries as opposed to a person who’s spent the same overall time in 89. It’s not just about traveling slower, it’s about coming back to see how a place has changed, how you’ve changed along with it, and building a relationship with the location.
Repeat destinations hover in a magical place between home and vacation. Because as exciting as travel can be, some trips leave you tired, with a feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation or like you can’t wait to get home, no matter how memorable the excursion. Coming back to the same far-off place over time builds a sense of home, somewhere that feels familiar and comfortable, where you can create routine and relationships, but is still categorized in your mind as a reprieve. It’s not about ensuring every single day is perfect—eventually you get to the point where even the rainiest day on Bahia’s coastline can send your dopamine levels sky high.
But all the views in Bahia are worth coming back to. You could find a black-sand beach on one turnoff, followed by a cliffside vista at the next. Then you may come upon a sea-shelled shore, before arriving at a dock where a boat shuttle awaits. Before you know it, you’re on a car-less island with sand-covered pedestrian roads.
No matter where you wind up, the end goal is always to fall asleep to the sound of ocean waves, eat fresh-caught seafood or hearty Brazilian cuisine, and for every day to feel like the previous one, so that you also lose track of time and urgency. Above all, Bahia helps clear out the fog inside your head. There is no space for pretentiousness here. The hospitality feels local and homegrown, where no one cares about status or how much money you can throw at distant resorts. You might have the best week of your life at only $50 a day.
To get to Bahia from the US, you will likely need to go through Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, and then catch a flight to Salvador or the smaller regional airports of Ilhéus, Porto Seguro, and Prado. Colorful, colonial Salvador is the Bahian capital (and was actually Brazil’s first capital, prior to Rio and then Brasilia), with 4 million people in the metro area. The city is also the birthplace of carnival, the hub of Afro-Brazilian culture, and the homebase of the local Condomblé religion, which is a blend of Christianity and voodoo beliefs brought over by slaves, primarily from Congo and Angola. While there, consider staying at Fera Palace and eating at Casa de Tereza as well as Mistura Contorno, both owned and run by female chefs. Salvador is absolutely worth a day or two of your time while traveling in Bahia, though get yourself a few hours outside the city in either direction and you’ve got a quiet coastline again.
If you fly into Ilhéus, consider heading north, past Itacaré and its mangroves and waterfalls, to reach the potholed backroads of the Península de Maraú. The hotel Pousada Maraú is heavenly. Besides hourlong beach walks, you might barely leave the premises, which is all oceanfront, delicious food, and cozy abodes.
From Porto Seguro, stop in hippie-dippie Trancoso, which is kind of the Tulum of Brazil, for better or worse. Go there mostly to appreciate the sprawling coast, some of which has black-sand stretches. Then target the water-lined Caraíva, which is technically a peninsula, but feels like a no-car island. Lastly, if you fly into Prado, it’s all about Praia de Cumuruxatiba.
Most rental cars are manual transmission, and it’s just as easy to ask your pousada for a private-hire car service if you just want to hang on one beach for a few days. (Can’t blame you.)
There are a lot of places you can go in the world to have uninterrupted coastlines, and it’s entirely possible that some of those Caribbean, Fijian, and Mozambican ones could outshine Bahia as you build your beach-escape mood boards. But that’s probably because Bahia doesn’t really fit on a mood board. As beautiful as its beaches are in real life, Bahia doesn’t feel like it’s branded for any singular experience. You can’t sell a Bahia postcard like you can a Rio one; it’s a place that looks better IRL than in its photos, which might also account for how easy it is to escape the masses there. So yes, Rio might be chaos, but Bahia is bliss.