by Monica Mendal
Imagine this: you’re lying on the beach with a caipiroska in hand. Mythical whitehorses roam free where the sea meets the sand. A man walks by offering you cheese on a stick. Obviously, you take it. You wake up from your nap sun-kissed and a little drunk. You walk up a hill towards a grassy square lined with candy-colored pousadas and cushioned picnic tables. The square is anchored by children’s laughter. They kick around a soccer ball with nothing in their way barring a small white church overlooking the sea. To most, this sounds like a dream. To the locals of Trancoso, an old fishermen’s town in Brazil’s coastal state of Bahia, this is just home.
But getting there isn’t as celestial. It’s a little over an hour's drive from Porto Seguro International Airport. Oh, that’s basically like Tulum! Not quite. While there’s no traffic and barely any cars on the road, the roads are bumpy and unpaved– actually, scratch that, because there is no pavement. The majority of the drive to Trancoso is through winding dirt roads. You’re essentially off-roading for an hour. Wear your seatbelt.
But as a wise poet once said, taking the road less traveled makes all the difference. And that is completely the case with Trancoso. Once you finally arrive, its warmth and simplicity embrace you. It’s rustic and raw in a deliberate way. The locals’ unforced and respectful comradery is the foundation that helps preserve their little utopic paradise in Bahia. They’re the ultimate hedonists. And the minute you step foot onto their town square, the quadrado, you’re one of them.
Trancoso is for the travelers who don’t look to vacation as an opportunity to detach from civilization but fully immerse themselves into a new one with an open mind and an open heart. And for those people, here’s how to do Trancoso like a local.
When you begin the search for your trip, you’ll quickly realize that your only option is to stay in a pousada or house. Trancoso has preserved its charm due to its lack of large, chain hotels. In fact, you won’t find a single one. The community’s tourism strategy is unlike any other travel destination I’ve seen, the town does not feel compelled to adjust their home to suit tourism; rather, they want to host you in a more authentic way. By keeping chain hotels at bay, Trancoso is in no way trying to create a barrier between locals and tourists, rather a bridge.
Once you step foot onto Trancoso, you live as the locals do; there’s no other way. So with your accommodation alone, your experience will inevitably feel more immersive from the get-go. If you’re looking for a subtle taste of luxury (subtlety is all you get in Trancoso) then Wilbert Das’s Uxua Casa Hotel & Spa is the crème de la crème of jungle chic. Tucked discreetly behind two turquoise doors right in the middle of the quadrado, it projects that cool if you know, you know kind of vibe. It attracts a stylish crowd of international jet-setters and celebrities, like Anderson Cooper and Solange Knowles, and for good reason. It offers a tastefully elevated escape while still maintaining the natural, unpretentious wonders of Trancoso’s bohemian spirit. Each corner of the property—from the jungle casas and treehouses to the restaurant, spa, healing pool and beach bar, will make you feel at home in your own paradise.
A place that really felt like home to me was Casa de Perainda. I don’t know how else to describe this place beside it being just completely magical. This tropical paradise is on a quiet street, just a few blocks from the quadrado and offers an experience so distinct that I found it to be so much more than just a hotel. Designed to feel like a home, there are just 5 rooms, all tastefully decorated, in this tiny pousada with a shared pool and a community hammock just outside your door. You wake up to the owners, Virgilio and Alexandre, greeting you warmly at the breakfast table, which is one long shared table serving 6 unique courses daily. Eating alongside the other guests, you begin to form a family, perhaps even making plans to spend the day together. Virgilio and Alexandre are available to help guide you with coordinating your plans and offering insider tips and advice. Casa de Perainda was so special that returning home to my family to share stories from the day over homemade snacks and tea was what I looked forward to most.
As all tourists do, you must spend a day on the main town’s beaches, Praia dos Coqueiros and Praia do Nativos. Lounging at UXUA Beach Bar, indulging in caipirinhas and fish skewers is basically a right of passage in Trancoso. Then there are the lesser-known beaches in town that are further away from the main square like Praia do Taipé and Rio da Barra. But the real local beaches are in Caraíva and Praia do Espelho. You can hire a car to drive you along a scenic route, lush and beautiful in true Bahia fashion—although I recommend renting a boat (do you want me to describe the roads again?)
Praia do Espelho is just one of those vast, naturally beautiful beaches that come to mind when you think of Bahia. You have your share of pousadas and restaurants, but it still feels empty. The most beautiful aspect of Espelho is the natural pools that form on the sand, creating what feels like another little community: kids are jumping from trees into the water, locals are catching up in huddles while eating $1 queijo coalho, and when they’re ready… they all head to Sylvinha’s for lunch.
Sylvinha is a local cook whose restaurant is tucked just past the trees behind the natural pools. The restaurant is designed to feel more like a home. It’s decorated like a tropical oasis with colorful cushions and quirky homeware decor. There’s a grassy front yard where you can lie horizontal under the shade or sun after you’re done eating. Her home-cooked meal is an amalgamation of all the Brazilian classics, and it’s the best food you’ll have in Trancoso. (Be sure to call ahead for a reservation as she prepares the food based on an anticipated headcount.)
Then, there is Carîva, where the crowd is just plain cool. It’s a little hippie beach town (even smaller and more remote than Trancoso. In fact, they’ve only had electricity for a decade). It’s where the local crowd flocks to during Trancoso’s busy season. There are no roads or cars, just donkeys and colorful canoes moored on the water. The sanded pathways are dotted with colorful pousadas that will lead to the sea or the river. And there’s a spot on the beach where the two meet, that’s where you want to be.
While the quadrado is filled with shops that carry upscale Brazilian designers, Trancoso boasts a richly diverse community of local artists—a community that has been crucial to the town’s history and rebirth. It was the hippies and artists of the 1970s that restored the town after years of neglect and dilapidation. They revived it with creative energy and new innovation while still preserving the essence of its simplistic beauty. This is what sparked the comradery and mutual understanding between the hippies and the fisherman that still exists today. The Trancoso of today is a product of their doing, and for that, the local artists are largely celebrated throughout town.
Laila Assef is one of the better-known artists in Trancoso, whose work you’ll likely see sprinkled throughout pousadas and restaurants in town. She’s known for her quirky and colorful chandeliers made out of recycled bottles; she’s a master in turning trash into treasure. For art that will exist as a memory of your visit to Trancoso, buy a painting by naif artist, Damião C. Vieira, whose work depicts the spirit and colors of the town. Divino’s Trancoso is our favorite shop. The owner is known for traveling through Brazil and curating a chic selection of precious goods from Brazilian craftsman– from wicker baskets, to ceramics, to handicrafts.
Then, of course, there’s Maria Solange Ferrarini, known to locals as Solange. Solange is the now-famous face behind the New York Times’ exposé that revealed her as the OG crochet bikini queen. You’ll see Solange cooly strutting down the main beaches like she owns them (in a sense, she does) wearing her creations and showcasing them on a woven hula hoop. Solange embodies everything that a Trancoso local is. She’s too cool for you, but doesn’t know it. And when you’re trekking up that hill to the quadrado after a day on the beach, and you spot her riding shotgun on a motorcycle with her bikinis wrapped around her hula hoop, and she yells something to you in Portuguese and blows you a kiss, that’s when you know you’ve got it.