Recife has shed its iffy reputation to become one of northeast Brazil’s key tourist attractions. Visit during carnival and discover a city brimming with colour, culture and caipirinhas
Ten years ago Recife wasn’t very high on many vacation lists. Declared the fourth least desirable place to live in the world by a Washington poll, this architecturally underwhelming city, located in the Brazilian ordeste, boasted a crime rate that made Johannesburg blush and an urban beach (Boa Viagem) fringed by ugly, high-rise buildings and populated by killer sharks.
Luckily, things have improved. The sharks and skyscrapers are still there, but the police and local council have worked hard to clean up the city’s image and draw attention to its canal-and-bridge charms with the optimistic sobriquet: the Brazilian Venice.
Originally settled by the Dutch in 1624, Recife was their main base for twenty years until the Portuguese ejected them and took control. Situated on the tropical coast and built at the confluence of the Beberibe and Capibaribe rivers – both fun to try and pronounce after a couple of caipirinhas – Recife still serves as a major Brazilian port. The three and a half million people in the metropolitan area make it one of the country’s largest cities and the second largest in the northeast.
The mix of Portuguese, Indians and African slaves made Recife one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world and the charismatic old town – called Recife Antigo – still has many remnants from this colonial past in the shape of colourful buildings, old theatres and forts - even the oldest synagogue in the Americas, the Kahal zur Israel on pretty Bom Jesus street.
Not that I got much chance to inspect the city’s charms too closely, arriving as I did slap-bang in the middle of carnaval. The sight of a million Brazilians squeezed into colourful shorts and bikinis, jumping and gyrating along the city’s cobbled streets and across its narrow bridges, was overwhelming to say the least; and that’s before I spotted the swaying, fifty-foot papier-mache cockerel…
Recife’s carnaval works slightly differently to the better-known but more commercialised events in bigger cities like Rio and Sao Paulo. There’s a lower nipple-tassle count for one, and instead of taking place in a huge Sambadrome, Recife’s annual shindig takes place on the streets, giving it a more inclusive, communal atmosphere enhanced by the dozens of trio electricos (huge carnival floats) and foliões (parading bands).
The music’s different too. The city’s mix of African, native Indian and European cultures is manifest through a kaleidoscope of traditional styles like frevo, a cheerful, dance-driven march (derived from polka) that’s accompanied by dancers that throw acrobatic dance moves with small, colourful umbrellas. There’s also maracatu nação, a dramatic percussion orchestra that has its roots in the slave hierarchies, maracatu rural, a similar but faster indigenous sound associated with the sugarcane workers of the Pernambuco interior, and a plethora of other regional styles from coco de roda and afoxe to baiao, ciranda and cabodinho – all of them eminently upbeat and danceable.
More surprising were the contemporary sounds. Strategically placed stages showcased local acts from Recife and the associated state of Pernambuco. It was through these live performances that I discovered the mangue beat scene, a heady cocktail of Pernambucano sounds mixed with international influences such as punk, funk, hip hop, drum & bass. Some of the bands - Nação Zumbi, Mundo Livre, Otto, DJ Dolores - are internationally known, which is no surprise given they play some of the most innovative Brasilian music since the tropicalistas exploded in the 70s.
After a couple of days of dancing, downing caipirinhas and sampling some of the gorgeous nordestino cuisine (carne do sol, vatapa, feijoada) at well-known local restaurants like Parraxaxá, it was time to check out Olinda. This pretty UNESCO heritage site is just a fifteen-minute taxi ride away. Boasting the biggest concentration of colonial architecture anywhere in Brasil, most of it framing tiny cobbled streets that run up and down hills, creating an intimate allure that’s way beyond the urban excesses of Recife. Of course it was carnaval there too, but with a slightly different flavour - and more of a manageable size.
On Saturday morning, I found out what the giant papier mache ‘chicken’ was all about: it was the famed ‘Galo da Madrugada’ (‘Rooster of the Early Morning’), which symbolises the special, final carnival parade near the São José district. This was the celebration to end all celebrations as over a million people took to the streets to dance beneath the burning tropical sun.
Clearly I had peaked too early. After two hours of jumping around, I beat a retreat to Boa Viagem. Despite the nearby tower blocks and shark-warning signs, laying in the blazing sunshine, drinking milk directly from a coconut husk and listening to the distant thunder of the batucada still proved a fantastic way to unwind.