The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Brazil: Paul Irvine of Dehouche Travel.
Eleven years ago, Paul Irvine’s love affair with Brazil led him to leave his career in London’s financial industry and open Dehouche Travel in Rio de Janeiro. Today, with a second office in Buenos Aires, the company handles custom travel arrangements to most of South America, but Paul is most passionate about planning vibrant itineraries around Brazil, incorporating as much nature, sea, and culture as possible. He’s constantly traveling around the country, digging up intel on fabulous new hotels, hidden beaches, and wilderness adventures, and checking in with his carefully chosen team of guides, drivers (cars and speedboats), and private-jet pilots. His relationships at the hottest hotels often translate to upgrades and gifts for his clients. And though Paul likes to leave some flexibility in his itineraries to allow for the spontaneous moments that are often a trip’s most memorable, his staff is also on hand 24 hours a day to attend to any client’s need. Paul was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
For such a small village, Trancoso has an impressive number of excellent hotels and pousadas. I have four favorites that fit different people, depending on what they value most: direct beach access, design, the most happening restaurant, and so on. But for my money, the best-value splurge is the Villa Vip at Villas de Trancoso, a two-story open-plan villa designed for a couple and built with luxuriant reclaimed tropical hardwoods, including four exposed entire tree trunks. This hotel, which has been around for a few years, consistently has the best service in Trancoso, as well as direct access to the beach through its beautiful gardens and pool area.
Restaurant the locals love
The Estrela d’Agua pousada on Praia dos Nativos may be the hotel of choice for Brazilian celebrities (in fact, before it was a hotel it was the private house of the famous singer Gal Costa), but it is incredibly down-to-earth, and nothing beats a long seafood lunch at its beachside restaurant. For me, this really is the best moqueca (seafood stew) in Bahia. And don’t miss the coconut-crusted prawns.
Back up in the Quadrado, El Gordo was the original fine-dining establishment when it was opened back in 2004 by the larger-than-life Portuguese restaurateur Nuno Almeida, a good friend. Ten years later Trancoso is still my go-to restaurant for a special-occasion meal—traditional Portuguese cuisine, side by side with modern takes on Brazilian cuisine (the badejo in a cupuaçu sauce is a perennial favorite); the candlelight setting by an infinity pool overlooking the whole length of the Discovery Coast is unbeatable.
Finally, for the best meal in Trancoso for less than R$40, the “kilo” restaurant Portinha is still serving hearty Bahian and Mineiro cuisine to an appreciative local crowd who never fail to fill the wooden tables, under a large almond tree, in a prime location in the Quadrado.
You have to go off-menu for this one, but Vlad, the chef at El Gordo (see “Restaurants the Locals Love”), makes the best Thai prawns in Brazil. If you are feeling brave, ask for them extra spicy, and put the flames out with an ice-cold bottle of vinho verde.
What to See and Do
Caraiva. After a two-hour drive down dirt tracks and a ferry ride over the river, you come to the tiny village of Caraiva, as cut off from the outside world as it’s humanly possible to be these days. Pull up a stump in the shade of the almond tree at the Boteco do Pará; order a portion of skate-wing pasteis, the catch-of-the-day baked in a banana leaf, and an ice-cold beer; and spend a lazy afternoon watching the colorful fishing boats come and go.
The all-inclusive facilities of Club Med may seem like a good option, especially for a family with young kids, but be warned: The resort is a long way from the main part of Trancoso, on Praia do Taipe, and beach access is via a steep flight of cliffside steps.
If you don’t know what you are looking for, you can easily miss Silvinha’s. It’s nothing more than a small shack set behind Praia do Espelho and accessed by a canoe over a stream, but this might well be my favorite lunch spot in Bahia. Reservations are only taken the day before, and there are no menus. Silvinha serves dish after mouthwatering dish of Asian-inspired Bahian cuisine from her wood-fired kitchen to two tables of lucky diners in delightfully tropical kitsch surroundings.
Book a half-day ATV excursion for an exhilarating way to take in some of Trancoso’s nature. You’ll follow dirt tracks through the tropical undergrowth and traverse rivers to come out on the gorgeous deserted beach of Itaquena before returning through the Buffalo Valley, a great spot for bird watching and home, as the name suggests, to a large herd of buffalo.
Although this is a remote corner of rural Brazil, the remarkably unphased locals are more than used to dealing with VIPs and have a great can-do attitude, so when it comes down to it, almost anything is possible. In the past we’ve arranged surprise marriage proposals on the beach, customs officials to come up from Porto Seguro to the private airstrip in Terravista, and dinners cooked by famous chefs from São Paulo.
How to spend a Sunday
Every day is a lazy Sunday in Trancoso! Brazilian humor abounds with jokes about the slow pace of life in Bahia, and nowhere is it easier to see why than in Trancoso. Start with a breakfast of fresh local fruits and tapioca pancakes before taking the jeep on a gentle drive through the Buffalo Valley and farther down the coast (there’s only one road, so you can’t get lost) to Praia do Espelho, deservedly famous as one of Brazil’s most picturesque coves. Settle in for some sunbathing and a cocktail at Baiano’s before moving down the beach to Silvinha’s for lunch (having called ahead to make sure she saves a spot for you). Head back to Trancoso in time for sunset cocktails at the Uxua beach bar before rounding off the day with a wander round the boutiques in the Quadrado (which open late on Sundays) and a blowout dinner at El Gordo.
If you are after a taste of the jet-set crowd and international party scene that put Trancoso on the map, then the time to go is the high season, which extends from New Year’s (most people arrive only a day or two before New Year’s Eve) to the end of Carnaval, which varies each year but falls sometime in February or March, depending on Easter. New Year’s and Carnaval are getting busier every year, though, so if crowds aren’t your thing but you want a festive atmosphere, I recommend aiming for one of the lively local religious festivals—namely, São Sebastião on January 20 or São Bras in February, when they change the wooden flag poles in the Quadrado and celebrate the occasion with an all-night feast and traditional music. That said, if you are after peace and quiet, off-season (i.e. June through September) is pure bliss: Temperatures are still in the high 70s to 80s, and you will often have mile upon mile of palm-tree-backed beaches all to yourself.
November has the highest average rainfall, and in a town where most roads are dirt tracks, heavy rain can make life a little tricky. Having said that, November is the month I chose for my wedding in Trancoso because the weather (when it’s not raining) is gorgeous: The days are long and warm without being too hot and sticky, the trees are in bloom, and the nature looks stunning. Prices are also lower than in peak season, and the beaches and restaurants are quieter.
Trancoso is in Bahia, but that doesn’t mean you need to book a flight to Salvador—if you do, you will be in for a ten-hour drive. The local airport is Porto Seguro. Keep in mind that there are only a handful of flights a day, and in high season these book up far in advance. The good news is that there is a private airport in Trancoso itself, so if money is no object you can charter a jet and touch down just minutes away from your villa or hotel.
Don’t be tempted to book a hotel in the center of town. All the action is in the Quadrado or on the beaches, where the roads aren’t paved and therefore often don’t show up on maps.
Local taxis don’t have meters, and though the drivers are usually very honest, in high season they may try to charge extortionate rates, even for short trips. Make sure you agree on a price before you get in.
The 3G is patchy in Trancoso at best, so the best idea is to turn your iPhone off and enjoy the tranquillity of the area! With limited light pollution, though, this is one of the few areas where I really enjoy opening up my Night Sky app (which works even without 3G) and, based on your GPS, uses augmented reality to label the key stars, constellations, and planets of the Southern night sky. For Android and for iPhone.
As elsewhere in Brazil, the standard tip is 10 to 15 percent, depending on how happy you are with the service. Keep in mind, though, that most restaurants will have already added a service charge to the bill, in which case you do not need to tip extra.
Grab a snack from the airport kiosk called Over-Booking. Yes, that’s what it’s called.
Suncream. Although this is a beach destination, good suncream is hard to find and disproportionately expensive.
Cash. There is only one cash machine in Trancoso, and in high season it runs out quickly, so if you can, stock up on some reais beforehand, although credit cards are now widely accepted.
The vendors that gather in the Quadrado behind the church have some beautiful crafts; the hummingbird mobiles make especially nice gifts to take back home.
The Quadrado. Your ideal Instagram shot will include a selection of the following elements: The Jesuit-founded São João de Batista Church, dating back to 1585; the brightly colored wooden flag poles; a grazing donkey; local kids playing football; and the fluorescent pink foliage of the jambo tree.