Once in a blue moon, travel writers encounter the hardship of visiting a destination so unspoiled and undeveloped that they’re faced with a Catch-22: either shout from the rooftops how enchanting the place is (and risk its discovery by hordes of objectionable tourists) or keep the secret to themselves (and fail to do their jobs).
Trancoso, in Brazil’s northeast state of Bahia, is one of those places. Among the oldest settlements on the coast where the Portuguese first made landfall in the 1500s, it was essentially abandoned for 500 years and rediscovered by hippies in the 1970s. One local described her parents buying their first house there by bartering it for a battery-powered radio and a sack of rice. Now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are no telephone lines above ground, or any other modern eyesores to intrude on the sense that you’ve stepped back in time. The heart of the town is a village green called the Quadrado, perched high on a bluff overlooking the ocean and surrounded by candy-colored fisherman’s shacks. By day, it is nearly deserted, but at night, illuminated by fairy lights, it comes alive with soccer matches, vendors, musicians and couples out for a stroll. Since the ’70s, the hippies have stayed—and the town finally got electricity in 1982—but a discerning international crowd has also moved in: Boston’s own Brazilian-born couture swimwear designer, Sinesia Karol, has a shop there, and the likes of Anderson Cooper and Georgina Brandolini D’adda have homes too. Despite that, it’s about as far from glitzy as you can get. Brazilians joke that Trancoso is where rich people go to act like they’re poor, and you’ll see Sao Paulo society fixtures engaged in friendly haggling with local fishermen about which fresh catch they want for lunch.
Inserted into this tropical idyl is Uxua Casa Hotel and Spa. The brainchild of Wilbert Das, the fashion genius who built Diesel into an international brand, the hotel’s aesthetic is “new is good, but old is better, and everything should be made by hand.” To that end, one of the rooms that guests pass through to reach the Quadrado contains a working loom, where a local artisan weaves the textiles that grace the rooms, while a Pataxó Indian sits in the gift shop, hand-painting centuries-old, traditional designs on different wares. Each casa is named for its local association: the midwife who lived in one, or the old man famous for burning almescar resin in front of his house and entertaining kids with stories and tricks.
Set amid gardens that do an admirable impersonation of Eden—monkeys in the trees, butterflies fluttering everywhere and jewel-colored hummingbirds pollinating a variety of blindingly beautiful flowers—there’s a central common area. That’s where you’ll find the swimming pool, which is lined with locally mined crystals believed to have healing properties. Adjoining the pool is an open-air living/dining area decorated with Amazonian artifacts and custom details like a terra-cotta planter that looks like it’s climbing up the stairs on legs made out of mangrove roots. In keeping with its ultra-private vibe, only guests or staff members are allowed on the property, with the exception of the restaurant out front, which is open to the public.
The hotel itself isn’t located on the beach. For that, guests exit onto the far end of the Quadrado, taking a right toward the whitewashed 16th-century church. Beachgoers descend through a tropical forest to a mangrove swamp, where the same narrow, rickety wooden bridge has taken fishermen to the sea for centuries. Numerous cafes line the palm-shaded zone between the mangroves and the Atlantic, but Uxua has its own beach bar, consisting of daybeds with cocktail tables, and a central lounge with a thatched roof, where an old fishing boat serves as a bar and one of Brazil’s top DJs spins smooth Bahian bossa nova that sets the perfect mood. The beach cafe’s local
cuisine is superb—the fish tacos are exquisite—but don’t be afraid to sample the food, such as casquinhas de siri or crab cakes served in the shell, that the locals sell while walking up and down the beach.
While Uxua’s Almescar Spa, located on the hotel’s grounds, is unsurprisingly excellent, the foot and leg massages offered by robust locals on the beach are pretty damn close to heaven. For roughly 70 Brazilian reals ($21.50), you’ll receive 50 minutes of reflexology and lower-body work that one guest described as a “toegasm.” (Moreover, how they manage to get every last grain of sand off their customers’ feet is nothing short of miraculous.) They offer full-body work, as well, and the beach massages offer a couple of advantages over the spa: 1) You can sip a passion fruit caipirinha all the while, and 2) as soon as you’re done, you can go tearing into the surf.
For a change of scenery, Uxua will arrange for a boat to transport you to Praia do Espelho, a beach 30 minutes away, where the caipirinhas are still cold and the Restaurante da Silvinha offers a distinct dining experience. Run by a legendary local, it’s a three-room shack that serves a delicious set menu and draws cognoscenti from miles away.
There are, of course, countless other activities, from snorkeling and diving to cooking or capoeira lessons, but ultimately Trancoso is all about the beach. After touching down at Uxua, the most delicious kind of torpor sets in, so that spending all day by the water and all evening on the Quadrado never gets boring. Maybe, you’ll be too entranced to spread the word. Some secrets are worth keeping. ◆
Uxua Casa Hotel and Spa uxua.com
- – Traveling to Trancoso during the holidays and our winter months comes with both higher temperatures and prices, but visiting in the third week of January means you can see the town’s most important festival, the Festa Sao Sebastiao. Locals party all night on the Quadrado, and at dawn, the men go into the forest to cut down the tree trunk that will be painted and erected in front of the church, connecting the earth and heavens in a Bahian mix of Catholic and indigenous rituals.