Close your eyes (but not really so you can read the rest of this post). Take a deep breath. Exhale it slowly. As you do, let the sway of the tall coconut palm trees lining the street loosen any sense of obligation. Let the vibrant murals of street art transform your thoughts of worry into reminders not to hurry. Let the breathtakingly beautiful and historic architecture consume you until you realize, perhaps for the first time since the beginning of this exercise, you are in Brazil.
Not only are you in Brazil, you are in Recife, the gem of the Northeast. You will be here for 24 hours. How do you make the most of this beautiful turn of luck? Follow the guide below.
Take a Morning Walk on Boa Viagem Beach
Take advantage of the cool morning sand as you wander on the beach populated only by joggers and the vestiges of the cleanup crew. If you arrive early enough, you won’t be bothered by beach vendors attempting to sell sunglasses and trinkets. Gaze as far over the Atlantic Ocean and into the horizon as you can. If you’ve got hyperoptic vision, you might see the western coast of Africa from the shore. As surely as the clock turns, the day will heat up and the crowds will come. So, enjoy the quiet surf and warming sand as long as you can.
If you’re lucky, a few açaí stands will be open and fortunately not crowded.
Soak Up the Culture of Olinda
Culture and beauty are everywhere, but Olinda has more. That’s why it’s called Olinda (The Beautiful). The city has owned and retained its heritage as a historic colonial city, making it the most magical and time-warped place in the western hemisphere. It is also the place to be for Brazil’s Carnival. When Carnival is not happening, you can take a tour and view the city’s splendor from different perspectives. But, you can do that and get a taste of bass-heavy maracatu performances, observe fancy-footwork frevo shows and catch a Capoeira circle demonstration during the Carnival season.
Because this is a tourist destination, you’ll likely find someone who speaks English better than the locals. But if you’re unlucky in your search and you are unable conjugate a Portuguese verb to save your life, just smile. A little warmth goes a long way.
Shop at Rio Mar
Situated just over the river on the way to the Boa Viagem neighborhood is Rio Mar, a shopping center that is as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside. It is spacious and meticulously maintained, and it is filled with glass and refracted natural light. I’ve observed how different lighting (sunlight, overcast light, rainy day light) takes character in the mall. It is a wonderful and calming way to pass time, especially on Sunday.
Rio Mar has a variety of stores that allow you to get dressed up in the fanciest Brazilian digs. In addition, there are marvelous bookstores offering a wide range of titles and cozy spaces. If you get hungry, the food court is certainly an option, but be sure to visit one of the “openly closed” coffee shops that will transport you from the mall word into a space with a unique ambiance. Space management is a skill and feature that can truly be experienced in exclusive Brazilian areas.
Visit Recife Antigo and Marco Zero
Barring Olinda, there’s no better place to be warped in time than in Recife Antigo, or Ye Olde Recife. If you’re up for it, take a tour of the beautiful Northeastern jewel and see modern folks juxtaposed against a 1500s backdrop. Rent orange bikes around the area provided by the Itaú bank. Enjoy a meal at one of the many outdoor restaurants featuring live music performances. Walk along the river and see why Recife is called the Venice of Brazil. During Carnival, it’s impossible to see an inch of sidewalk or street.
The best time to go to Recife Antigo is on Sunday nights. That’s when handcrafter stalls are open, and you can buy one-of-a-kind items along with not-really-mass-produced-but-still-factory-made knickknacks.
Take a walk down the road until you get to a wide open space. Stop in the center of the giant compass rose. You’ve made it. The beating heart of Recife Antigo is Marco Zero–the point from which the city was first founded. On Sundays, it isn’t uncommon to see people in fine clothes out on the town–whether they’re on a romantic date, an outing with friends or meeting up with people with similar interests. The alternative aesthetic is also on display at Marco Zero. If you ever dressed goth or grunge in high school, you might feel a bit nostalgic for the old days or surprised at the unique Brazilian scene.
You can walk around the streets of Marco Zero freely and indulge your tastebuds in the unique Pernambucano way of making common food–feijoada, carne do sol, tapioca dulce or salgado. The varieties are endless.
Say goodbye, For Now
As all good things must come to an end, so too must this fortunate, unexpected adventure. Crying as you leave is expected–even Adam and Eve cried as they left Paradise. (A popular saying is that “God is Brazilian”, so the parallel isn’t far off.) But as you’re taken into the airport kicking and screaming, be sure to take a mental note of all the things you wanted to do but couldn’t. You’ll be able to do it when you revisit to this tantalizing city the next time.