...An exotic tropical city in a vast country that encompasses everything from deserts to rain forests. Near the equator and nearer the South Atlantic Ocean Salvador is what Americans are imagining when they think of the place where "The Girl from Ipanema" strolled. In fact Vinicius de Moraes who penned the lyrics to that famous tune lived in what is now the northern part of the city a neighborhood known as Itapua. There on the wide sandy beaches skimming the warm aquamarine ocean he surely sat at a thatch-roofed bar drinking cachaca and coconut water out of a ripe green shell and watching the native women--tall tan dark and lovely--frolicking on the shore. You can still do that today. (Or if you prefer you can gaze at the tall dark handsome Brasilian men in their minuscule Speedos.)
Salvador was the first capital of Brasil and holds the title of oldest city. Its 450th birthday precedes the country's 500th in 2000 by one year. The oldest part of town (called "Pelourinho") today boasts an elevator that eliminates the steep climb from the sea level port to the buildings nestled into the mountainside. Pastel-colored houses some adorned with those famous blue Portuguese picture tiles line narrow cobble-stoned streets and wide open squares. Reminiscent of New Orlean's French Quarter Pelourinho is far older larger and better preserved. The ocean breezes sweep it fragrantly clean while the brilliant equatorial sunshine guilds the old city like glimmering Brasilian gold.
If you're a history buff there are lots of centuries-old buildings churches and even museums to tour. Yet sometimes history having never receded completely into the past reaches out to touch you in the present. For instance you may spot a "Baina do Acarage," one of the women who still practices "Candomble," the ancient African religion of her enslaved ancestors. Distinguishable from the bikini-clad natives by their traditional garb--white dresses with belled skirts and colorful head scarves connoting the spirit each Baina serves--you may encounter them selling acaraje a native sandwich of sorts that is not unlike a huge "hush puppy" stuffed with votapa and shrimp. Though a colorful element to the local scene the Bianas are not present merely to provide photo ops for tourists. Acknowledged as accurate fortune tellers they are also respected for their ability to both cast and break debilitating curses.
If you're looking for total relaxation however it seems a beach is never farther than a brief walk away. If you become bored with the city's coast line you can take a car ferry out into the Baia de Todos os Santos the Bay of All Saints and explore many more miles of sandy shore on Itaparica Island. Some are far more secluded than others and all enjoy a gentle surf because of barrier reefs that hold the pounding ocean waves at bay.
You can't truly relax on a Salvadorian beach however without a cold drink and the drink of choice is caipirinha. Served in a rocks glass over ice it's made with sliced crushed limes, sugar and a big shot of cachaca a Brasilian liquor. Just watch out: They pack a powerful (and sneaky) punch same as the sun which being much stronger so near the equator can fry a pale-skinned American hailing from the Midwest.
For American and British travelers Brasil currently proves an economical vacation spot (at the time of writing) because the exchange rate hugely favors the dollar and the pound. But there are conditions that deserve a word of caution: First few people in Salvador speak English as a second language so unless you are bilingual or either staying with or traveling with someone who speaks Portuguese communications could prove a problem. Vehicular traffic on city streets is like a high-speed life-threatening "game" of bumper cars. You do not want to drive in Salvador. And finally because there is no public assistance in Brasil the poor hustle to make a living selling everything from food to craft items on the streets and the beaches. Though pesky and often intrusive these vagabond peddlers are usually polite while their goods are of excellent quality and their prices cheap. But the worst among them the criminal element prefer to target (American) visitors because (American) tourists are all thought to be rich and ripe for plunder.
Despite any negatives Salvador remains the epitome of what the rest of the world believes all of Brasil to be. So if you wish to visit South America's largest country but can't spend months traveling from the African-influenced north to the very "Germanized" south visit Salvador with its palm trees white sand dunes and centuries old fort (built to keep out the Dutch). For when you have seen Salvador you have seen Brasil.