Brazil Eco Travel
Ten years later, this ex-nurse who sold her Battersea Rise flat and left her job in Peckham to follow a peanut, is expanding Butterfly House, her two-year-old Bahia jungle lodge on Brazil’s Maraú peninsula. ‘The plan was to tumble in the wind’, Chloe tells us over tea as we shelter from a sudden tropical downpour. She tumbled here, to an unspoilt stretch of Bahian coast that continues more or less uninterrupted for over 1,000 kilometres.
As the skies clear, sipping from a freshly dropped coconut, we cross the garden to explore the beach. A golden ribbon of sand shimmers in the sun, separating the azure waves from the verdant Atlantic rainforest. In the distance, a fisherman stands waist-high in the waves and a couple of surfers glide towards the shore; it’s like we’ve just stepped into a postcard.
The lodge itself has three suites and five separate villas hidden amongst banana trees and coconut palms. The villas, raised on bamboo stilts and sheltered by thatch and grass roofs, are flavoured with a taste of their owner’s past – amongst locally sourced wooden furniture, a sofa from Peter Jones has been shipped over from Chloe’s London flat. I wonder if it knows how far it is from Sloane Square.
Tiles, ceramics and hand-woven bed linen, found in Morocco on various trips gone past, add another layer to the cocktail mix of styles that make up the lodge. Art Deco pictures and tin chocolate signs, salvaged from French car boot sales, are scattered around the rooms. LP covers double as place mats and a ladder is propped up against the wall.
The Bahian way of life is famously languid, but for the more restless amongst us there’s plenty to keep you entertained. Water sports and the occasional yoga retreat are on offer, as are excursions around the peninsula. A spa, along with four hobbit-houses, will be opening in the next few months.
One evening we hop on a quad bike to chase the sunset. The aim is reach Barra Grande, the town at the tip of the peninsula, for a sundowner. Tearing down the muddy track (officially known as Federal Highway BR030) in the gathering dusk, flying over pot holes and dodging puddles, we miss the turnoff and with it the sunset. Detour completed, we arrive in the darkness, but the caipirinhas don’t disappoint.
Back at Butterfly House, the barefooted chef Elias talks us through the menu for the evening meal. Sitting under a line of hanging baskets in the sea-facing restaurant Anna Banana, we are served local fish on a bed of seafood risotto, followed by mini coconut cakes with condensed milk.
The next day, we head out by boat to explore mangroves and waterfalls around the peninsula. We pass by hills covered in a multitude of green, remnants of the Atlantic rainforest that has been reduced to about 7% of its original expanse, yet remains one of the most important biodiverse regions on the planet. Close to 40% of its animal and plant-life is endemic.
Our days of hammocks, coconuts and empty beaches are up, and it’s time to dive into Salvador, capital of Bahia. The faded glory of the Pelourinho old town harks back to Brazil’s colonial past – Salvador, founded in 1549, was the first capital of the Portuguese colony and a main hub for slavery – but there’s nothing faded about Villa Bahia. This carefully renovated hotel with a commanding spot on one of the main Pelourinho squares is made up of two 17th century townhouses and has remained faithful to this bygone age.
Wandering through the cool, dark corridors is a lesson in the imperial beginnings of the small maritime kingdom that gave birth to Brazil. Rooms are named and dated after countries discovered by Portuguese explorers as they fanned out in the earliest waves of European exploration. São Tomé e Principe, 1471, sits opposite Madagascar, 1500; Macau, 1513 is upstairs.
Heavy wooden furniture dating back hundreds of years is dotted through the rooms. Indigenous tribes gaze down from pictures on the walls and a giant map of the Portuguese empire hangs above the reception. Even the receptionist looks the part, wearing what looks like an 18th century dress.
For a trip punctuated by food – this is Bahia, the coast of cacao and coconuts after all – it seems fitting to end our trip with a few more meals. For lunch we head to Dona Mariquita, a charming restaurant where dishes come wrapped in banana leaves and are served on polished terracotta plates. A Pokeka stew, made up of fresh and smoked prawns mixed with cassava flour, coconut and spices is the pick of an assortment of local fare that makes use of all that Bahia has to offer.
After an afternoon watching a man teach his dog to surf at one of Salvador’s several beaches, our final meal is at Paraiso Tropical. Bright multi-hued caipirinhas spark an appetite before we tuck into cashew, coconut, biri biri and mango salad. The main is the Paradise Shrimp Stew, another Bahian classic made with cashew nuts, capsicum and spices. We finish with a bewildering assortment of mysterious and unfamiliar fruits, many of which are picked fresh from their own organic garden. A group of waiters gather, looking perplexed as I crunch into something and swallow it whole. Laughing amicably, they show us how to peel it and remove the seeds. The next one tastes a lot better.
With the World Cup just around the corner, there’s an energy and vitality in the city which makes the jungle lodge a few hours down the coast seem more distant. But whether you’re strolling down the cobbled streets admiring the colourful townhouses of Pelourinho, or racing a quad bike down a red ochre track through the jungle, there’s an inescapable feeling that the Bahians have got it right – chill out, grab a coconut and head to the beach.