The northeast of Brazil is a vast region including nine states with several national parks, thousands of miles of coastline, and a diversity of cultures, climates and attractions.
Perhaps the best known places of the region are the bustling coastal metropolises Fortaleza, Recife, and Salvador. Salvador, located on the coast of the Northeast’s largest state, Bahia, is a soulful, vibrant city. This port city and former capital of Brazil has a strong Afro-Brazilian spirit and is the heart of capoeira and of the Candomblé religion. The city has an infectious energy.
Typical scenes of Salvador include talented drummers moving to samba reggae rhythms as they play, and skilled capoeiristas practicing their art on cobblestone streets and sandy beaches to the tune of the berimbau. The city’s historic center is characterized by large squares, pastel colored colonial-era buildings, congregating locals, and numerous historic monuments.
Besides interesting cities full of culture the region also includes Brazil’s second tallest waterfall, Amazon territory in the northwest state of Maranhão, alluring beaches galore, and some pristine archipelagos alive with precious reef and abundant marine life. A handful of national parks contain important archeological sites, pre-historic rock paintings, and numerous natural and geological sites worth exploring such as ancient caves with ethereal electric blue pools.
Climates vary in this large area. The dry, semi-arid sertão which characterizes large areas of inland territory receives little rain, sometimes providing difficulties for farmers, and is susceptible to drought. By contrast the state of Maranhão in the northwest of the region features tropical forests, mangroves, estuaries, and receives ample rainfall year-round.
Samba, soccer, music, dance, and beach-going are national passions in Brazil and the Northeast is no exception. Carnaval is celebrated all over, while some of the best parties happen in Salvador and Olinda. Wherever the coast is nearby in the northeast, beach going is an everyday occurrence.
Some beaches are packed to the brim with sunbathers, hawkers, surfers and sun-worshipers of all ages showing off their bronzed bodies; while others are remote paradises with majestic white sand dunes, coconut palms, beach shacks, and more donkeys than people in sight.
- When To Go
- Top 5 Sites
- Top 5 Things To Do
Brazil’s population represents a mixture of indigenous, African, and European cultures, among others. Many people have mixed ancestry. Salvador, one of the most populous cities in Brazil, has a strong African-Brazilian culture, as do many other areas and cities in the northeast region. There is also a prominent Portuguese influence. The once capital Salvador was a major port when the Portuguese established the city and began settling there and along Brazil’s eastern coast beginning in the early 16th century.
In the days of early colonization the land was settled by Europeans and many sugarcane plantations were established. These were ultimately supported by slave labor. During the period of the slave trade in Brazil several million African people were forcibly transported to Brazil to work primarily on sugar plantations, many of which were located on or near the northeastern coast. Elements of African culture, deriving from various points of origin within Africa, are expressed in the music, dances, food, language, and lifestyle of the northeast.
There are also strong indigenous and European influences. Brazil’s festivals are some of the best places to experience the diversity of traditions and representations that exist in Brazil, and in the northeast.
Besides Carnaval which is held every year in February/March across the country, perhaps one of the best places to experience a sense of the region’s pluralism is at the Bumba-Meu-Boi festival in São Luis in the state of Maranhão in June.
It is difficult to define the characteristics of a population as diverse and covering such a vast area as Brazil’s northeast. The best way to understand the culture is by experiencing it first-hand. Some notable features of the region include electrifying musical genres and talented local artists, celebratory inclinations that extend beyond the annual Caranval revelries to festivals throughout the year, unique cuisine, and its’ inspiring, if complex, landscape, history and people.
Moqueca is a popular and tasty dish originating in Bahia; it is a seafood stew made with fresh seafood, vegetables, palm oil, and coconut milk. For street food, try acarajé, a fritter made from flour and black-eyed peas which is deep fried in dendê oil and stuffed with shrimp (or chicken or vegetables) and condiments such as vatapá (paste with coconut milk and ground cashews), caruru (fresh tomato salad), and hot sauce.
Dendê oil (palm oil) is a common cooking ingredient used for frying and flavoring many foods and condiments. Seafood is prevalent, and can be prepared in many ways. Fish, crabs, lobster, shrimp and other shellfish are common.
Other popular dishes include regional variations of Brazil’s national dish, feijoada, which is a hearty stew of beans, meat, and vegetables, typically served with rice.
Xinxim de galinha is a delicious dish popular in Bahia made with chicken, palm oil, and a rich sauce made of ground dried shrimp and nuts.
Freshwater fish such as tilapia is farm-raised in some places, such as in the state of Ceará. Freshwater fish from the lakes and rivers of the region are important to the cuisine as well as seafood harvested from waters off the Northeast’s extensive Atlantic coastline.
Coffee and sugarcane are important crops that grow well in the tropical climates of some areas, particularly along the coast. The northwestern and comparatively rainy state of Maranhão is a major rice producing region for Brazil.
The markets and food stalls of São Luis in Maranhão are good places to sample exotic rainforest fruits such as cupuaçu, and to sample the cuisine of that region which varies from other states in the Northwest.
Cachaça (also known as aguardente) is a strong liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice, popular throughout Brazil. It is produced both commercially and by artisanal methods, and can be drunk straight or in a cocktail such as the caipirinha (made with cachaça, lime, and sugar).
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When To Go
Weather varies across the region so it’s best to check details before you go based on your travel plans, though generally speaking temperatures are warm throughout the year, with some areas receiving very little rainfall and others receiving rainfall seasonally.
The coasts are pleasantly warm year round. Rainfall inland in the semi-arid sertão and along parts of the northern coast is slight, and sometimes sporadic. Some years there is very little rain in this sub-region, while other years sudden downpours during the very short rainy season can cause dangerous flash floods. Much of the sertão is typically hot and dry.
In contrast, in some parts of the northwestern state Maranhão the climate is hot and humid with plenty of rainfall year round.
Generally May through August is the period that sees the most rain, with amount of rainfall varying largely by region. Carnival celebrations are in February-March, with some of the biggest parties taking place in Olinda, Salvador, Recife, and Fortaleza.
Prices are definitely higher during Carnival season and during the typical tourism high season which runs from about December through March. There are also various other festivals throughout the year.
Popular festivals include the Festa de São João (June); Bumba-Meu-Boi (best experienced in São Luis, Maranhão but also celebrated elsewhere) also in June; and off-season Caranval celebrations such as ‘Carnatal’ in Natal (December), and ‘Fortal’ in Fortaleza (July).
Northeast Brazil is typically very hot, calling for warm weather attire. Dress varies from place to place, between urban to rural settings, and by culture, occupation, and geography. Casual dress is usually acceptable for most activities.
Appearance is important to many Brazilians, and while common everyday dress may not be formal, by any means, it may mean presentable attire and a good sense of fashion, at the very least, especially if going out at night. Be sure to note local customs if visiting a place of worship, or if attending a religious or spiritual ceremony (such as a Candomblé ceremony), which may require specific attire.
Mosquitos may be problematic in some areas, calling for lightweight clothing that covers the arms and legs. Sturdy shoes or boots may be recommended if traveling during the rainy season, particularly in the northwest, where rain can be heavy.
Major airports in the region include those in Recife, Salvador, and Fortaleza, though all nine states have their own airport.
Brazil has a good bus system. Buses are generally efficient for travel around the Northeast though journeys may be long if traveling any great distance. Flying is another option, though more expensive.
Coastal bus routes tend to be more frequently traveled compared to inland routes and roads in the interior tend to be in worse shape than those on the coast. Still, most cities in the region are connected by bus. Taxis are also widely used, particularly for short distances and inter-city transit.
To reach the Fernando de Noronha archipelago off the northeast coast it is possible to fly from airports in Natal or Recife.
Some remote areas and beaches on the northern coast may be accessible only by boat. Ferries and water taxis are used in some places such as Salvador.
It is possible to rent a car, though driving can be hazardous, road conditions are poor in some areas, and drivers can be aggressive.
As the region is vast, there are different health and safety concerns to be aware of in each area. Near some beaches there may be a risk of shark attacks, though warning signs are usually posted in areas where dangerous sharks are sighted or where there have been recurring incidents.
Rip currents, rough waters, and pollution pose additional risks in some beach areas. Tap water may not be safe for consumption in some places.
Crime is a problem in some areas, particularly in certain cities and in particular neighborhoods or areas within each major city. Travelers should be well aware of the area they are traveling in and should take heed of warnings recommending people to avoid a certain area that may have a reputation for crime or theft.
It may not be safe to camp near a river in some areas of the sertão or in other areas with similar climate and terrain, as the risk of flash floods during a sudden downpour can be very dangerous.
The sun can be extremely strong in some areas, particularly during the dry season. Travelers not used to the climate should be careful to avoid sunburn and heat exhaustion by staying hydrated, applying sunblock as necessary and limiting sun exposure during the hottest hours of the day.
A visa is required for travel to Brazil by citizens of Canada, the USA, Australia, and others. Citizens of the United Kingdom and certain other countries are typically not required to obtain a visa prior to travel if visiting as a tourist, though other documentation may be required. If a visa is necessary it can be applied for at a Brazilian embassy prior to travel. All travelers must present a valid passport. Those who are under 18 years of age who plan to travel to Brazil without a parent or guardian may be required to obtain additional paperwork verifying their approved consent to travel without a guardian. Check with your local embassy for specific visa and travel requirements, which may change depending on nationality, intended length of visit, reason for travel, etc.
Top 5 Sites
1. Historic Center, Salvador, Bahia
2. Chapada Diamantina National Park – check out Fumaça Waterfall (Bahia)
3. Fernando de Noronha archipelago
4. Caves and prehistoric paintings, Serra da Capivara National Park (Piaui)
5. Lençóis Maranhenses National Park (Maranhão)
Top 5 Things To Do
1. Explore Morro Branco’s pretty cliffs and colored sand dunes on Ceará’s northern coast, where locals craft colorful sand ‘paintings’ in glass jars
2. Witness a magical sunset from Pôr do Sol dune in Jericoacoara (aka ‘Jeri’)
3. Attend Carnival in Salvador, Olinda, or Fortaleza
4. Learn about diamond mining in Lençóis before embarking on a trekking adventure in Chapada Diamantina
5. Shop in Alto do Moura where artists create clay pottery and figurines and visit the enormous Caruaru Market (Pernambuco)
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