Brazilian nature and joy, with vast expanses of sun and ocean that seem even more endless. Small colourful towns guarded by solid churches that sprout between palms and tropical trees. Spits of white sand that form pools of warm, transparent water. Falling asleep and waking up to the sound of the sea.
When the plane touches down, we’re reading Uma Aprendizagem ou O Livro dos Prazeres, by Clarice Lispector: “There was the sea, the most unintelligible of non-human existences.” It’s the bluest blue in the Nordeste region, which is why the small state of Alagoas is often compared to the Caribbean. The name stems from the many lagoons, rivers and immense sea, while the capital, Maceió, enjoys a long coastline. The average temperature hovers around 25 degrees, tempered by the sea breeze, and the warm, transparent waters.
This was the land of the Caetés Indians, who witnessed the arrival of the Portuguese expeditions. Brazilwood, which gave the country its name, was a main source of the timber trade. The first occupation occurred in the village of Penedo, in 1545, on the banks of the São Francisco river, which belonged to the capitania (colonial division) of Pernambuco. Alagoas eventually separated from it in 1817, becoming a strategic centre for sugar cane production and an important commercial port during King João VI’s reign. Its first governor, Sebastião de Mello e Póvoas, disembarked at the port of Jaraguá, where interesting squares and old inspection posts and warehouses remain, offering a certain end-of-century romanticism.
The Nossa Senhora Mãe do Povo church overlooks the Praça Dois Leões (one of the statues is a tiger), surrounded by palatial houses, like the Image and Sound Museum and the nearby neoclassical Palácio do Comércio, which was once the town’s judicial and political centre. Behind them, a copy of the American Statue of Liberty gazes out to sea. In the centre, there’s the Republic Memorial and the Floriano Peixoto Museum at Praça dos Martírios. It offers a collection of folklore and Alagoas culture, while the coast provides the backdrop for summer holidays, whether it’s at the chic Ponta Verde, the popular Jatiúca, the sporting events of Pajuçara, where you can visit natural pools, or enjoying the isolated Praia do Amor. En route, we see the tapioca stalls: “If you haven’t tried it, you haven’t been here!”, says our friendly host, Thiago Tarelli, who wears a t-shirt that says: “Alagoas makes you happy”.
Built on a sandy spit between Praia do Pontal and Lagoa de Mundaú, the southernmost neighbourhood of Pontal da Barra is one of the friendliest, somewhere to enjoy a fine sururu broth and watch the sunset. Its narrow streets host restaurants and shops selling the finest Alagoas handicrafts, and almost all of them back onto the water. Inhabited by fishermen and artisans, it’s famous for its colourful embroidery and lace (inspired by fishing nets), which are transformed into towels, pillows and dresses. “Men go fishing and women make lace,” says Deusa, who has been making lace since she was five, which she learned from her mother, who learned from her own mother: “The drawings and colours are in our heads.”
A little further south is the first capital of Alagoas, the old Vila de Santa Maria Madalena da Alagoa do Sul, which nestles on a hill over the sea and was originally founded in 1591. Nowadays, it’s called Marechal Deodoro and is a national heritage site. This was the birthplace of the monarchist soldier who led the military coup that dethroned the Portuguese emperor King Pedro II that led to the proclamation of the Republic in 1889. It’s worth visiting his 17th-century family home and checking out the various churches, particularly Nossa Senhora da Conceição and the Franciscan complex. The latter is unusually dedicated to Mary Magdalene and boasts the Museum of Sacred Art, housed in an ancient convent whose exhibition rooms were once monks’ cells, which offer a view of the old roofs leading down to the sea. The city may have lost its status to Maceió in 1839, however, it retains a hidden and enduring charm, reminiscent of a Portuguese village dressed in white, with its low houses, tropical colours, palms and brazilwood trees. Amble down to the serene bay at Lagoa Manguaba to cool off and admire the day.
Half an hour’s drive south and we arrive at Barra de São Miguel, a fishing and boat building area, which offers tourism in various guises, from the liveliest to the more relaxed and elitist. Its waters are connected to those of the Niquim River and very popular at weekends. The beach with the greatest buzz is Praia do Francês, which modestly proclaims to be the country’s most beautiful, but the mix of shops, pousadas and pavement cafés ensure that it’s a busy spot. The best thing about it are the miles of untouched sand.
We silently descend the lagoon, in one of the few Atlantic forest reserves in Alagoas, to visit the oyster farms. Sustained by a small fishing community, it is one of the country’s best producers.
Sebastiana, better known as Bastinha, coordinates these tours organised by the Kenoa eco-resort. She covers our arms and legs with a floral oil to keep evening mosquitoes at bay, before helping some men from the village push off the canoes that take us down the lagoon, which was the old evangelisation route. She tells us that there are seven types of shellfish, including various yellow and red crabs that live among the long muddy roots of the mangroves. “We live in this silence. You can’t hear anything, except the odd bird,” she says. Only a rare chirp and the snaps of the forest wake us from such profound peace. White herons and birds of prey swoop unexpectedly by the water. And we eat oysters in the small boats, served with salt, lemon and honey molasses, washed down with a glass of sparkling wine, while the day fades. There are also motorboat rides, from the marina, another experience in Barra de São Miguel. You can visit Praia do Gunga for diving and snorkelling, or just glide quietly while the night comes down.
Land of freedom
The day has barely begun and we’re admiring the statue of Ganga Zumba, who gazes at the sea at Cruz das Almas in Maceió: “Every black person who fled slavery wanted to return to their land,” says our guide Rafael. Ganga Zumba was the first of the great leaders of the great Quilombo dos Palmares (17th century), in Serra da Barriga, a symbol of the slave resistance that took flight from the sugar cane plantations of Pernambuco (which Alagoas belonged to at the time) and Bahia. We make our way to the interior, traversing green hills, with cattle dotted over the landscape like white flowers.
In addition to agriculture and livestock, the chemical industry, cement, oil and natural gas, this has been an area of sugar cane mills since the 17th century; we encounter lorries that leave behind a sweet and alcoholic trail. The closer we get to Palmares, the more hikers we see by the side of the road. It’s Black Awareness Day and everyone is headed for town.
Ganga Zumba was the son of Princess Aqualtune, sister of the King of the Kongo, present day Angola, who arrived in Brazil to be sold as a breeding slave as a punishment for leading the Battle of Mbwila against the Portuguese. Later, “she would lead the slaves fleeing to Palmares, which she organised politically”, explains Gil, who guides us through the Parque Memorial Quilombo dos Palmares, a replica of the African mocambos, a cultural heritage site opened in 2007. “This is also a story of women’s strength.” Zumba resisted and negotiated a peace treaty with the Portuguese in 1678, but Zumbi, the most famous leader of Palmares, wouldn’t accept the deal. “Zumbi was born here but was captured as a child and given as a gift to a priest, later to be baptised Francisco. One day, he fled here. Raised by Zumba, he started the greatest slave resistance ever. “He painted himself and dressed like an African warrior and his followers did the same, so nobody knew who he was.” On 22nd November, 1680, today’s date, he was captured. So, we see hundreds of people, many dressed in white, celebrating him. There are traditional African dances and capoeira, and people sell teas and knick-knacks, food and drink throughout the day. In Lagoa dos Negros we join hands and make a circle, under the great gameleira tree, where warriors asked for blessings and strength. The silence is magical. “Did you notice that slight breeze?”, smiles Gil. “The blood of African kings and queens flows in our veins.”
Miracles of nature
The Milagres Ecological Route covers three municipalities, 23 kilometres of Porto das Pedras, followed by São Miguel dos Milagres to Barra de Camaragibe, in the south of the state. Taking the barge across to São Miguel is a slow-motion voyage to a much-loved place. We encounter shops selling quality local handicraft. We head to the viewpoint to soak up those lands bordered by palm trees and the sea. Below, we see the simple Nossa Senhora Mãe do Povo church, where everyone is welcome, even dogs taking outdoor naps. Angélica takes care of the church and tells us that it was the Portuguese who built it between 1637 and 1639, “it’s the third oldest in the state”, showing us a beloved image of Nossa Senhora do Carmo, which hails back to the time it was founded.
A stone’s throw away is the Fountain of Miracles, where people queue with demijohns. Senhor Benedito comes to get water for his family to drink and cook. “It’s better than mineral water”. And does it do miracles? “It’s a question of faith”.
It’s worth taking a buggy ride to the protected beaches, such as Toque, Lage, Patacho and Marceneiro. On Lage, there’s a green tunnel, where we’re welcomed by families of small sago monkeys. Today it’s a natural reserve with charming beachside lodges, a heliport, golf course and the most popular and expensive New Year’s Eve party in Alagoas. The fishermen of Porto de Pedras run the Manatee Association, a sanctuary on the Tatuamunha River where these mammals live. According to our guide, they’re endangered “because of man, and because reproduction is difficult (the female is boss)”. There are believed to be only 500 in existence, and there are about 45 here. The association raises them and returns them to the wild when they reach 200 kilos. We went to observe them on a raft ride and saw four, one swam next to us: “It’s Telinha, she just came to check.”
“This sea has been showing off for a week now”, we hear at daybreak in Maragogi, gazing at so many crystalline turquoises and palm trees that sway with the morning breeze. The beaches are divided by rivers and streams and we will discover them by motorboat via Pontal de Maragogi. The village name comes from the nearby river, Maragui, Tupi name given by the Potiguara Indians, “the river of mosquitoes or midges”, pronounced “Maragogi” by the Portuguese.
Alagoas has the world’s second largest coral reef, which softens the waves on the beach. This protected area, which covers 430,000 hectares and 120 kilometres of coastline and mangroves, is home to a wide range of biodiversity. Words fail to describe such beauty. They say around 1,500 people arrive here every day, which can double in peak season, but there are rules. There are beaches for groups, with leisure and relaxation areas, others for water sports. The natural pools that form among the corals are “closed” when the tide has reached a certain level, “for nature to recover,” explains Filipe, our helmsman. The largest are Magarogi and Japaratinga, but all the beaches are incredible: Burgalhau, Barra Grande, Antunes, Xaréu, Camacho, Dourado. Or the quiet Peroba, the last before Pernambuco. We swim to the reefs and are then surrounded by a school of striped yellow fish, known as sergeant major fish. When the tide is very low, the sandbank forms a path into the sea. “It’s not water with sugar that soothes us, but water with salt,” says Filipe. “Here, nature is boss.” In Maragogi, sea and sky merge in shimmering shades of blue; the horizon is a diffuse and ever-present line. We are bigger and smaller. When we get to the coast, we drink cool coconut water and eat lobster, prawns and grilled pineapple with rosemary at Pousada Antonina. It tastes like life. “Alagoas is not beautiful, Alagoas debauches”, Thiago jokes. And we remember a verse by Carlos Drummond de Andrade: “The world is big and fits in this window overlooking the sea.”
by Patrícia Barnabé /// photos Carlos Pinto
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