Welcome to paradise – Even on first impressions, Caraiva was clearly a place where even the most stressed of travellers would feel their shoulders drop. It was also plain to see that tourism has reached these parts. There were Japanese fusion restaurants, shops selling organic skincare products and several dozen guesthouses, the biggest of which has 12 rooms. I was staying at Casa da Praia, run by husband-and-wife team Fabio and Claudia Freitas. “The south of Bahia is very different from the rest of the country and even the rest of the state,” said Fabio, who in a previous life worked in the cemetery business before relocating to live a life beside the sea. “Carnival season here lasts much longer because people don’t like to work,” he laughed, before offering to show me around.
The beach was a stone’s throw away. It was long, golden and deserted. I gazed out across the Atlantic, hopeful of a glimpse of the whales and dolphins that are often spotted. Further along the coast, around 30km to the north, was Trancoso, a glossy resort town well established as a haven for the rich and famous. Naomi Campbell has a house there. It was along here on 22 April 1500 that the Portuguese first set eyes on this mysterious new land. Spotting the rounded peak of Monte Pascoal, and in desperate need of freshwater, they negotiated the rocky reefs and entered the rivers. Some of the shipmates were left on land to make contact with the native Tupiniquin people and went on to establish one of the first settlements in the region.
The 1960s brought change of another kind. As Bahia started to develop and the road network expanded, isolated communities like Caraiva changed forever. Eighty-six-year-old Maria Dos Santos remembers the time well. I met her during my afternoon stroll around the village with Fabio as she and her daughter Edite were lazing on their porch. “Everything came by boat back then,” said Maria, adjusting her lime-green nightie. “That soon changed. Roads were built nearby and lots of people started to leave.” Caraiva’s current population stands at 328 – barely 10% of the number before the roads came. Maria and Edite’s simple home overlooked Caraiva’s origins: its Catholic church. The white-and-blue building was hung with red bunting, and patches of the original stone and coral foundations were visible.
Across the road was the cemetery. Graves sat under twisted cashew trees and clusters of nettles. The large padlock on the gate didn’t faze Fabio. “It’s only a small cemetery,” he said, picking the lock. “Nobody dies here.” Fabio and I strolled back to the hotel. At the beachside bar, ‘The Girl from lpanema’ played on the stereo over the sounds of birdsong and waves. A lone fisherman was slowly guiding his boat back to land. A couple from Hamburg were enjoying scoops of acai ice-cream; they told me they were on a self-drive trip along the BR-101 highway. “We’ve come all the way from southern Brazil,” the man said. “It’s much nicer up here, far less crowded and developed. Where else in the world is like this?” “We’d never heard of this place but people told us,” added his wife. “The road maps are not so good – no mention of Caraiva. It’s off the map – literally.”