The old city of Salvador

Salvador, founded as a fortress in 1549, was one of the first Portuguese settlements in Brazil. It offered a natural harbor—a large, deep bay, protected from Atlantic storms, which the Portuguese named the Baia de Todos os Santos (the Bay of All Saints)—and an easily defensible position, high on a bluff.

The 10th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/


It was the colony’s first capital, a center for slave traders and sugarcane exports. The old city, with its cobbled streets, dates from the 17th century, and its squares, colonial houses and Baroque and Rococo churches are remarkably well preserved. The new city, where the ship docked, is on a narrow strip of land by the bay; it’s a steep climb to the old city, so most people take the elevador (a public elevator) or the older funicular.


Salvador attracts tourists from other parts of Brazil and Latin American countries because of its history, beaches and rich Afro-Brazilian culture. The streets of the old city are lively and colorful; oil painters and wood artists display their work outside small shops, drum troupes and dancers perform in the squares.


The most spectacular performance is a mix of dance and martial art, the capoeira. Slaves secretly developed capoeira, and it became a cultural symbol of resistance to oppression. Two combatants sinuously weave through a routine of acrobatic kicks, arm movements, cartwheels, headstands and back flips. A split-second error in timing, and you’ll floor your opponent with a body punch or kick; the art is to miss by a whisker. Capoeira is performed to the percussive beat of congas, pandeiros—a tunable hand-frame drum with metal jingles on the rim, like a large tambourine—and berimbaus—a single-string musical bow, of African origin. Capoeira is as much a part of the culture of Salvador as samba in Rio. We saw it performed by two professional troupes, by students from capoeira schools, and even seven-year-olds in the favela school. 

The only sport to rival it in popularity is, of course, futebol. I came a little closer to my goal of seeing professional games in as many countries as possible when the two local Serie A clubs, Bahia and Sporting Club Vitoria, met in one of the first games of the new season. It was a small crowd—probably no more than 10,000 in a stadium that can hold almost 50,000. The derby has a history of fan violence, and we were told that was why people stayed away. A tight first half, fought mostly in midfield, ended with Bahia grabbing two opportunistic goals. Vitoria put in a fine attacking performance in the second half and scored one, but despite lots of near-misses could not manage an equalizer. It was high-quality football—precision passing, good wing play, and intelligent defense. The other entertainment came from the rival fans, who beat drums, set off firecrackers and hurled Portuguese expletives at each other. The police, in camouflage outfits with sticks and dogs, looked more menacing than the fans.

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Eating out in Salvador’s old city was always an adventure. We avoided the tourist places and chose restaurants where Brazilians were eating (even if we couldn’t read the menu). Many dishes are based on the staples of beans and rice, with interesting flavors. We enjoyed feijoara, a spicy beef stew, other dishes with ham and chicken, and good seafood. The freshly made street drinks—iced, crushed sugar cane, and coconut water sipped through a straw from the fruit—were refreshing. We needed to keep refreshed, because the heat was intense. Not as hot as in Rio where students reported that the temperature reached 112 degrees Fahrenheit one morning.  And not as humid as the Amazon, where students said they went through three or four shirts a day. But hot enough for us.

Next week: Upriver to colonial Cachoeira