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Several people had told me that the best food in Brazil is to be found in Bahia, and that the best food in the south of the state is what Sylvinha serves on the otherwise empty beach at Espelho, 18km south of Trancoso. A thousand kilometres north-east of Rio de Janeiro, this part of the coast — the Costa do Descobrimento (it means “discovery”) — is a Unesco-protected littoral that runs south from Porto Seguro, where the first Portuguese settlers are believed to have made landfall when they arrived in Brazil in 1500. It could not feel further from the crowds, the noise, the energy, the edginess of Ipanema and Copacabana. That much nearer the equator, even the sea temperature is appreciably warmer.
The challenge, however, is getting a reservation. There are just three picnic tables on the two terraces of Sylvinha’s barraca (hut) — though by pushing them together she can squeeze in a party of 14 — and she cooks only at lunchtime. To get a table, advised Paul Irvine, co-founder of the specialist Rio-based travel agency Dehouche (who had arranged my trip), “You need to leave a message on her phone.” There’s no signal where Sylvinha lives but “at about 10pm each evening she goes to find one, collects her voicemails and calls you back.” He adds: “It is well worth wading across the river for.” We asked the concierge at our hotel to ring her; unexpectedly, she picked up and fortuitously had a table for 1pm.
“Espelho” means mirror, though the green Atlantic was not what you’d call glassy that day. Nor was the journey to get there exactly smooth. For this you need a boat or a four-wheel drive and an ear sufficiently attuned to Brazilian Portuguese to comprehend the instructions of the man who guards the chain gate at the entrance to the rutted track that leads to the beach.
Sylvinha’s full name is Maria Sylvia Esteves Calazans Luz, though like so many Brazilian celebrities she is known by a single diminutive. An artist as well as a chef, she first came here from São Paulo in 1974 and never went back, painting in the mornings and then preparing a three-course, no-choice meal for which she charges R$100 (about £20) a head, excluding caipirinhas, cans of Bohemia beer or water.
The first course was a crisp flatbread served with something between hummus and tahini. There followed a tableful of bowls of varying sizes, the largest of which contained steaks of amberjack, the firm-fleshed fish known here as olho de boi, cooked with orange, ginger, soy and coriander. To accompany it was a stir-fry of peppers, beans and cauliflower; a heap of steamed barley; purées of plantain and cassava; passion fruit and mango chutneys. Everything was intensely seasoned with combinations of star anise, cloves, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon, as was the aromatic, almost frozen custard — based on a recipe of Sylvinha’s grandmother’s — which came with a thermos of coffee brewed with water in which cinnamon quills had been simmered. It was all utterly delicious. We were glad we’d swum first. Now we needed to walk off lunch.
Whichever direction you opt for, the wild coast at Espelho is scalloped with little coves, backed by low sandstone cliffs and divided by flat boulders over which it is easy to clamber. Walk north and there are a handful of simple pousadas tucked among the sea almond trees beyond the beach. Turn south and the sand underfoot changes colour and texture — there are stretches where it’s pale and powdery, others where it’s almost black and glitters with what I took to be mica.
We walked for hours, passing scarcely a soul. It was only the realisation that sunset would be upon us by six o’clock that made us turn back.
A further 10km or so down the beach (or 22km by unpaved road) from Espelho and you come to Caraíva, a sleepy village of some 300 people, where mules and carts are the only means of transport and where there was no electricity before 2008. To reach it you are ferried across the estuary of the Caraíva river in a brightly painted punt-like boat.
Ten minutes later and your feet are in sand again: there are no roads here, only sandy lanes. And though there are perhaps a dozen simple, inexpensive places to stay, you can find yourself alone on a wild beach within minutes if you head south along a stretch of sand that runs unbroken for 8km, backed by the immense rainforest-cloaked Monte Pascoal National Park.
Back in the village, it’s worth pausing at Boteco do Pará, close to the quay and celebrated for its pastels de arraia, little crescent-shaped parcels of deep-fried pastry filled with arraia (a kind of skate) and tomato.
With their terracotta roofs and colourful façades, the single-storey fishermen’s dwellings at Caraíva recall the 50 or so that surround the Quadrado, the grassy car-free main square in Trancoso, the loveliest resort in Bahia. Indeed, until a decade or two ago, when it began to morph into the boho celebrity hangout it is now, it probably felt a lot like Caraíva remains.
Unless you crave real seclusion, however, Trancoso is the obvious place to base yourself, not least because it has an exceptional hotel in Uxua, a collection of 11 houses, four of them historic structures on the Quadrado, the rest newly built from timber in the cultivated jungle of its grounds. Here, capuchin monkeys cavort on your roof in the early morning, and little marmosets forage for fruit in the trees by the iridescent, aventurine-quartz-lined pool. In short, Uxua offers the best of both worlds: the sense that you are sequestered away amid subtly restrained jungle yet also within five minutes’ walk of a lively village and a handful of terrific restaurants. My tips would be Capim Santo and Aki Sushi, though you could do a lot worse than eat in: Uxua’s moqueca — grouper and giant shrimp in coconut milk and palm oil, topped with spiced toasted manioc flour — in particular is outstanding.
Better yet, a succession of great beaches are accessible without need for a car. (There are horses if you want to explore the furthest of them.) Trancoso itself stands on a cliff, and not far from the edge is a handsome 18th-century Jesuit church. Beside it, a cobbled path descends to a stretch of mangrove, through which a rickety wooden bridge leads to the sea.
For sofas, bossa nova and Uxua’s beach club, turn left towards the stretch of sand known as Barra do Rio Trancoso. For solitude, turn right and, past the coconut palms and beach bars of Praia dos Nativos, a string of coves reveals itself: first Coqueiros with its tidal pools and coral sand; next Rio Verde (a backdrop of luxuriant vegetation gives it its name); then on to even more secluded Itapororoca, Patimirim and — once you see the stand of cashew trees and perhaps a few surfers — Itaquena.
You may be within walking distance of civilisation of the most sophisticated kind, but this remains a pristine landscape and still very much a coast to discover.
Dehouche can arrange similar itineraries. Uxua has double rooms from £300 per night. Flights from Rio de Janeiro to Porto Seguro on GOL take an hour and 45 minutes; Trancoso is about 80 minutes’ drive from the airport. To book a table at Sylvinha’s call: +55 73 9985 4157
Photographs: Getty; Clio Luconi; Fernando Lombardi