Brazil covers almost half of South America and touches all of its 13 countries, with the exception of Chile and Ecuador. "Discovered" by Pedro Alvarez Cabral in 1500, it was penetrated by Portuguese settlers, missionaries and explorers during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Bahia is Brazil's most historic state, with many of its inhabitants retaining strong links with their African heritage. Its capital, Salvador Bahia, sits on a peninsula and with a population of 2.4 million is one of Brazil's cultural highlights. The vibrant city has ornate churches, cobblestone streets and wild and frequent festivals with capoeira groups dancing through the streets. Capoeira began as an African martial art, developed by slaves to fight their masters. Barred from slave barracks, it was practiced clandestinely and disguised to give the appearance of acrobatic dance.
Salvador is divided into the cidade alta (upper city) and cidade baixa (lower city). The two parts are separated by a 70m bluff with a Lacerda elevator, built in 1892 in the art deco style, connecting them. This was intended to carry goods from the harbour to the markets, but for around 2.5 cents, locals use it as public transport.
Baixa was always the commercial centre of the city. In the 16th century, people moved to the cooler heights of Pelourinho to live and kept their businesses on the waterfront below. That's pretty much still the case. While there is some interesting architecture in Baixa, there is also much poverty.
Cidade Alts is the city's historic section. The hilly, uneven site was chosen to protect the new capital from Indian attacks. The most important buildings churches, convents, government offices and homes were built on hilltops. The neighbourhoods of Terriero de Jesus, Pelourinho and Anchieta are filled with 17th-century churches and houses.
When in Pelourinho you are always close to a house of worship. The most famous is Sao Francisco, which has one of the new world's most ornate church interiors, with gold-leaf wallpaper, an 80kg silver chandelier and Portuguese tiles. The town is a beautiful place of cobblestone streets, red-roofed colonial houses painted in soft blues and lemon, galleries and open-air restaurants. It has Latin America's largest baroque architectural complex, recognised by UNESCO as part of Mankind's Cultural Heritage.
When in Salvador it is almost essential to attend a candomblé service, the most orthodox of the many cults brought here by Africans. This combines traditional Yoruban practice with common elements of syncretic faiths. Drums can be heard at night coming from many terreiros de candomblé scattered throughout the city. Most allow visitors, but it is a good idea to read up on the rights and wrongs of attending such a ritual, eg some colours are unacceptable. Candomblé accessories are easy to find and even if you aren't planning to buy anything, they are interesting to browse.
Mercado Modelo is a marketplace in the dock area of the lower city. It is Latin America's largest, held in the old Customs House with two floors of almost 300 tents selling craft made of leather, straw, clay, wood, shells and beads. There are pieces made of gold, silver, copper and brass, some decorated with precious and semi-precious stones. Models of clenched fists, four leaf clover, garlic and BonFim ribbons (worn on the wrist with three knots, granting three wishes when the ribbon breaks) and other craft express the city's religious syncretism. Musical instruments crafted by locals are of such high quality they are frequently used by international artists.
Salvador is literally surrounded by beaches, with sand ranging from sparkling white to black. These are where people relax, cool off, socialise, eat, drink, dance, exercise, surf and swim. City beaches are crowded and great meeting places, others are just for lazing in the sun. If you do surf, beware of currents as they are hard to read.
Itapuã is prominent because it is five kilometres of sand sitting between the warm ocean and rows of coconut trees. Once a fishing village quite separate from Salvador, it has been absorbed into the greater metropolitan area and is loved for its calm waters, natural pools and stalls selling food and drink.
Salvador sits on the vast Bay of All Saints (Baía de Todos os Santos). It has 56 islands, Itaparica being the largest, which can be reached by ferry, pequena launcha, catamaran or small boat.
Sol Victoria Marina Hotel, near the old town of Pelourinho, overlooks the bay. It has 235 modern rooms, a restaurant, pool bar, café, pool, health and fitness club and terrace giving superb views of the bay.
While Salvador and in fact Brazil is a fascinating place to visit, travellers are advised to be particularly cautious, even on beaches, as pickpockets including children are very clever and authorities advise to not use your pockets or backpacks for belongings.