Recife is full of surprises: bright sun, ever-blue skies tempered by
the ocean breeze, delightful beaches, colorful folklore, and the people’s hospitality. Add
to this, international food complemented by traditional dishes. And we can even rent a jangada
(raft) and go sailing.
By Habeeb Salloum
Built partly on a peninsula and partly on islands, created by the Capibaribe and
Beberibe rivers, and connected by canals and bridges, Recife is often called the Venice of
Brazil. The capital of Pernambuco state and the most important city of the Brazilian
northeast, it is considered to be the soul of the country. A vibrant metropolis which
incorporates a combination of the old and new, it is an example of the Brazilian past, but
also a window for the future.
With a population of some 1,500,000, Recife, situated at the easternmost point in South
America where Brazil bulges into the Atlantic Ocean, is closer to Europe than any other
urban center in that continent. The Portuguese first came here in 1548 and the site was
briefly held by the British in 1595, then occupied by the Dutch from 1630 to 1654, before
it returned to Portuguese rule.
In 1637, the Dutch founded the present day city after they had razed the nearby town of
Olinda. In its early years, it prospered due to the processing and export of sugar,
produced in the surrounding large estates by slave labor. At one time it was the center
for the slave trade and had huge slave markets where millions of Africans were channeled
into the sugar-cane fields. These slaves, the original Indian inhabitants and the
Portuguese masters intermarried to give birth to the Recifians of today. A beautiful
bronze-colored race, on the whole, they are perhaps one of the world’s most handsome
people. This becomes evident if one walks the city’s beaches on a Sunday afternoon and
watches the young women promenading on the sands.
This mixture of races gave impetus to great creative activities. Much of the popular
folk arts, cooking, folklore and music originate in this part of the country. It is also a
center for painters and sculptors but, above all, it is noted for its festivals with their
colorful and appealing dancing, music and singing. Outshining by far all these folkloric
events is the annual Carnaval with its distinctive dancers and singers. Many travelers
consider Recife to be one of Brazil’s richest musical towns, in a country which is one of
the most melodic lands in the world.
The city is built partially on the mainland, and on three inter-connecting islands:
Santo Antônio, Boa Vista and Recifeall joined by bridges. The most historic of
these, and the main commercial center, is Santo Antônio, saturated with traffic-filled
narrow streets, ancient churches and office blocks. Boa Vista includes both residential
quarters and a commercial section where one can find reasonably priced hotels and
entertainment establishments. With its busy docks, Recife is the least interesting of the
three islands and holds little interest to travelers.
Recife is the fourth-largest city in Brazil, but less modern and cosmopolitan than its
more famous counterparts. It is an important transportation center with a busy port
processing and exporting coffee, cotton, sugar and industrial products. In the last few
decades, the city has also become a tourist destination, besides Brazilians, luring
tourists from North America and Europe.
High-rises, at least 60 colonial churches, mostly built in the 17th and 18th centuries
and peoples’ markets intermingle in the citya blend of the old and new. Skyscrapers
nudge out picturesque colonial mansions, edged by white sandy beacheslined with
coconut palms. The old city, with its many tiny one-way streets, wonderfully ideal for
walking, edge canals and bridges give Recife an atmosphere of a `city built atop the
The resort-town is an enchanting combination of warm weather, excellent beaches, top
notch hotels and the best of restaurants. The warm beach waters are protected by a long
coastal reef from which Recife, the Portuguese name for reef, derived from the Arabic rasif
(causeway), gets its name. It holds back the violence of the waves and serves to turn the
warm waters washing the beaches into placid pools in which bathers can relax.
For North Americans, there are a good number of travel agencies which offer package
deals for one or two weeks catering to all tastesat times, heavily discounted. When
tourists reach Recife’s Guararapes Airport, eight miles from the city center, a resort
full of enchantment and surprises awaits them.
At the top of these surprises is the bright sun shining in an ever-blue sky, but
tempered by the ocean breeze. Adding much to this seduction are the delightful beaches,
the colorful folklore, the charm and hospitality of the people, and the international
foods complemented by traditional dishes. They all help to make one’s stay in Recife a
period of pleasure.
And this is not all. The numerous excursions offered add even more temptation to this
vibrant resort. One can rent a jangada (old Brazilian wooden sailing craft) on some
of the beaches and go fishing or just for sailing the coastal waters. From the hotels,
numerous travel agencies offer a good number of excursions. The most worthwhile of these
are: the Island of Itamaracá Cruise, Lover’s Island Picnic, City Tour, Hinterland Trip to
Caruaru and Nova Jerusalém, and the tour to the southern beach of Porto de Galinhas.
The affluent Boa Viagem, the city’s most popular district and beach with a striking
view of the Atlantic, is the home to the upper-middle class. It is the center of the
city’s social life and includes a wealth of fine restaurants and a glittering hot spot of
nightlifetopping the whole northeast of Brazil in evening establishments.
Its 8 km (5 mi) long beach, called the Copacabana of the province of Pernambuco, is
always crowded, especially on Sunday. Every week on that day it appears as if all
inhabitants of Recife and the thousands of tourists who mill about its wide sands are
colonies of ants. Occupying every square yard on that huge beach, this mass of humanity is
pestered by a constant flow of vendors. One after another, they offer coconut milk, cold
beer, rum cocktails, a variety of fresh fruits, seafoodboth cooked and fresh from
the sea, ice cream, straw hats, all types of sun lotions and anything else a sun
worshipper could possibly want.
Every night, this crowning jewel of Recife’s beaches, is lit by a special lighting
system, which enables bathers to swim at night in the sea whose temperature hovers
constantly around 25° C, year-round. This gives the beach a seductive appeal, especially
to the young. Even though the city offers a number of other beaches like Barra de Jangada,
Candeias, Piedade, Pina, and Venda Grande, Boa Viagem is Recife’s top seaside drawing card
and touristic Mecca.
Most of the visitors coming to Recife stay in the hotels which line the beach and are
located a few yards from the waters. They are almost always full, especially during the
summer months from December to March. Today, these holiday abodes are being discovered by
travel companies in North America and Europe. One of the great bargain destinations in the
world, their prices and those of the surrounding eating places are very
reasonablelower than most other winter holiday spots in the western hemisphere.
However, all is not bliss in this South American resort. Swimmers must be careful to
avoid injury when swimming near the sharp rocks of the reef, and many parts of the beaches
are very crowded and strewn with litter. Visitors should guard their belongings on the
beaches and they must be careful when walking in the city at night. To get a good rate of
exchange, tourists must bargain with street currency vendors. As in most countries of the
world, the American dollar reigns supreme. Currencies like the Canadian dollar are very
Beside the beaches, in the old section of Recife, there are a wealth of sights to
explore. Not to be missed in Recife are: the Praça da República; the historic Basilica
of our Lady of Penha; the Cathedral of São Pedro dos Clérigos with a beautifully
sculptured front; the Basilica of Our Lady of Carmo with a very impressive interior; the
imposing 19th century Teatro Santa Isabel; Cinco Pontas Fort, built by the Dutch when they
ruled the town, now housing the City Museum; the colorful Mercado de São José (Saint
Joseph’s Market); and the Casa da Cultura de Recife (Recife Cultural Center), once a
prison, but now the top regional craft center in the northeast of Brazil.
Yet, no matter how interesting are the historic monuments of Recife, visitors come, in
the main, to relish the joy of its beaches. Tourists from the northern lands when they
return after a sojourn in this beach-resort talk in ecstasy about its warm sands, made
enticing by an eternal summer.
Habeeb Salloum, who resides in Toronto, is a Canadian author and
freelance writer specializing in travel and the culinary arts. Besides books and chapters
in books, Habeeb has had hundreds of articles about food and travel published. Among his
most important works are the books: Journeys Back to Arab Spain (1994); with J.
Peters, From the Lands of Figs and Olives (1995 HB; 1997 PB); with J. Peters, 2
(1996); and Classic Vegetarian Cooking From the Middle East and North Africa, (in
press). You can contact him at email@example.com
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