At the end of the 15th century, the race for the orient was on. Columbus famously sailed west, unaware that a massive and as yet unknown continent would stand in his way. At the same time, the Portuguese were exploring the west coast of Africa, struggling through the unpredictable shallows and infamous doldrums of the Gulf of Guinea and down the inhospitable southwest coast of Africa.
Eventually, the Portuguese succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope and sailed into the Indian Sea, but their momentous achievement was something of a Pyrrhic Victory: the voyage took far too long and the loss of ships and men made it economically impractical. The great Portuguese navigators went back to their maps and excogitated a new plan: a manoeuvre known as the volta do mar. By arcing west into the Atlantic Ocean, they thought, the fleet could both bypass the perilous shores of West Africa and pick up strong northerly winds that would carry them quickly to the Cape of Good Hope. The first attempt by Vasco da Gama in 1497 proved successful and a new sea route, not to mention the first global empire, was born.
The new sea route had, by sheer chance, also led to the discovery of a new continent: South America.
The second attempt at the volta do mar was led by Pedro Álvares Cabral. Strong winds blew his ships further west than expected, however, and on 22 April 1500 he laid anchor off the previously unknown eastern coast of Brazil, at what is now known as Porto Seguro (safe port). The new sea route had, by sheer chance, also led to the discovery of a new continent: South America. Cabral and his men set ashore, encountered the natives and named what they initially thought was an island as Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross). One member of the expedition, Pêro Vaz de Caminha, immediately set about recording what he saw. He continued to do so for a week and the result, a letter to King Manuel I known as the Carta de Pêro Vaz de Caminha, became the first historical account of Brazil. The document described the local people and the idyllic land itself: “There are some long beaches along the coastline, while the land itself is flat, beautiful and densely wooded. The jungle seems to be vast, spreading in all directions from the sea, as far as the eye can see. The air is very healthy, fresh and as mild as that of Douro e Minho (a province of Portugal)… There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of water and the fertile land could be cultivated with all sorts of crops… The parrots are as large as hens and there are very many other beautiful birds.”
Just 15km south of Porto Seguro lies the charming, unspoilt town of Trancoso. 83 years after the Portuguese crown had laid claim to Brazil, the Jesuits arrived to begin the process of converting the natives to Catholicism. They identified a suitable area on high ground overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, cut a swathe out of the jungle and began building a settlement called São João Baptista dos Indios. At the heart of the village they created a Quadrado, a 300-metre-long rectangular piazza, and a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, both of which survive today. Predictably, the church occupies a prime position, sitting at the east end of the Quadrado looking out over the glorious beaches and across the Atlantic Ocean. Around the Quadrado the Jesuits built a series of houses, the ancestors of the colourful ex-fishermen's cottages that flank the piazza today.
In the 18th century, the Jesuits decamped and little was heard of Trancoso for a couple of hundred years. It was only in the mid-1970s the town began to receive a regular stream of visitors. Amongst the first to arrive were hippies in search of a quiet life. Many of these incomers, called biribandos by the locals, were not penniless vagabonds, however, but well-to-do Paulistanos (residents of São Paulo), Cariocas (people from Rio) and French. They sought to interact and integrate with the townsfolk and embraced their new, simple lifestyle with supine gusto.
News of Trancoso’s easy charm soon spread and the town started to attract the rich and famous, who were eager to experience a slower, flip-flop pace of life and an authentic Bahian ambience.
The biribandos began to buy property but also initiated conservation projects aimed at protecting the area from speculators and property developers. Electricity arrived in 1982 and a better road was constructed in 2002, connecting Trancoso to Porto Seguro up the coast (via a circuitous inland route).
News of Trancoso’s easy charm soon spread and the town began to attract the rich and famous, who were eager to experience a slower, flip-flop pace of life in an authentic Bahian ambience. Fortunately, the conservation projects had achieved their goal and apart from a large hotel complex and a stunningly situated golf course up the coast, Trancoso remains largely underdeveloped.
Today, the Quadrado is still at the centre of life and serves many purposes: an open-air arena for capoeira practice, a football pitch for the local boys, grazing for horses and a general meeting point for locals and visitors alike. Some of the boldly-hued old cottages surrounding the Quadrado now host boutiques, shops, bars and restaurants. As dusk falls, al fresco eateries and capirinha bars hang their colourful lanterns from exotic trees and a gently hedonistic atmosphere descends over the town.
Over 400 years ago, the Jesuits founded Trancoso as a centre for saving souls. This proselytising spirit still permeates the air, though today’s convertees are simply visitors who need little encouragement to see the light and fall in love with the town’s exquisitely laid-back lifestyle.