All it takes is a few days at the cocoa farms and the colonial houses to understand why Ilhéus, in southern Bahia, has inspired everything from food to literature
Some of the most remarkable stories in Brazilian literature were written by Bahian author Jorge Amado (1912-2001), but even his creative gifts couldn't have envisioned the novelistic fate filled with twists and turns of Ilhéus, Bahia, in Northeast Brazil. The port city where the author spent his childhood and adolescence was the land of cocoa at the start of the 20th century, and its legendary barons amassed immeasurable fortunes thanks to the “gold fruit.” But a blight put an end to the bounty and pushed the place into bankruptcy. Decades later, Ilhéus has reinvented itself, producing award-winning chocolates and taking its visitors on a journey into the past, with its enchanting cocoa farms and well-preserved historical architecture – and a little sweet tooth.
Scenes from out of Jorge Amado
Walking through the streets of downtown Ilhéus, it's impossible to not be transported to the pages of the author's novels. The best way to observe the colorful houses is on foot. Some of the settings featured in his works (particularly the 1958 novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon) were real places that still exist. The bar Vesúvio is still there, serving the “kibbeh made by the Arab Nacib,” the protagonist's husband, as is the brothel Bataclan (today a restaurant). The mansion owned by the Amado family, with its jacaranda floors, English tiles, and marble staircase, is also located in this area, and now home to a museum. From the third floor window, a young Amado used to watch the characters of the day and the effervescence of the wealth that cocoa had produced, ensuring plenty of inspiration for his stories.
Bar Vesúvio — Rua Dom Eduardo, 190
Casa de Cultura Jorge Amado — Rua Jorge Amado, 20
Much of this prosperous and contradictory Ilhéus in the author's memory existed only thanks to cocoa. Brought to the region from Pará over 270 years ago, the fruit found ideal conditions in which to flourish in the humid lands of the Atlantic Forest. Throughout the past century, the cocoa beans were exported, assuring the fortunes of the chocolate barons. However, the cocoa empire only lasted until 1989, when a blight devastated the plantations. In a plot rife with conspiracy theories, the witch's broom fungus was intentionally introduced to the plantations. And just like in an Amado saga, it is speculated that whoever was responsible intended to sabotage the plantation owners, and in doing so, disastrously led to the decline of one of the wealthiest monocultures in the country.
Today, in an effort to recuperate its prestige, cocoa is still widely planted in the region and a number of farms open their doors to those who want to see the day-to-day activities.
Located by the side of Rodovia Jorge Amado, Fazenda Yrerê allows visitors to walk through the forest among the cocoa trees, where they can try the freshly picked fruit (tip: rather than biting into it, you should suck on the pits in order to get a taste of the sweet flavor of the pulp – which, at that moment, does not at all resemble chocolate). Next, the tour heads on to the wooden structures with adjustable roofs used to dry the cocoa beans. In this space, employees stomp on the seeds or turn them over with a metal rod – one of the most emblematic images of Bahia's cocoa era.
Fazenda Provisão is another hideaway that harkens back to the past. Visitors are welcomed by a 19th-century chapel right by the entrance, followed by a staircase that leads up to the colonial headquarters. There, the owner Roberto Novaes, the fourth generation of a family of cocoa producers, tells stories of his grandfather, a baron who spent six months out of the years riding around Paris in a limousine. In addition to the trails on the plantation, the place can be reserved for lunches comprised of family recipes. You can also stay there overnight.
Still, in order to get a real notion of what the decline of the cocoa boom was like, you need to visit Rio Braço. The village, one of the most prosperous in the region in the early 20th century, today looks like a ghost town. Lining the packed dirt road is a row of old ruined houses, now overrun by vegetation. Recently, the abandoned local train station was renovated and transformed into a lovely restaurant serving Northeast Brazilian food and a leisure center with forró shows.
In the last decade, new generations decided to bet on what today seems like a no-brainer: chocolate. Diego Badaró, of AMMA Chocolate, was one of the first people to realize a rebirth could take place. He saw the potential of a sustainable, organic management of the abandoned family estates that inspired Jorge Amado's The Violent Land. These days, their candy bars are racking up awards, sold in such shops as Selfridges in England and Isetan in Japan.
“Chocolate can save the world, because it's a complete food and it helps to care for the forest.” Now there are over 30 brands in southern Bahia producing certified chocolate, such as Mendoá and Chor.
Much of the growth of this market also has to do with the discovery of cocoa's health benefits. At Meu Querido Spa, at Praia dos Milionários, visitors can feel the efficacy of the substances with anti-oxidizing powers in their skin. The treatment options range from a hand spa to massages with cocoa butter. After a visit to Ilhéus, you'll never look at a chocolate bar the same ever again.
The enchanted lagoon
Around 19 miles [30 km] from Ilhéus (many of them on dirt roads) is Lagoa Encantada, one of the largest reflecting pools in Bahia. There you can take a boat to two nearby waterfalls. One of them, Caldeiras, is named as such because of the holes in the rocks that form natural “ofuros.” Back on firm land, order a platter of fried snook at the small local restaurant and hang around for another spectacle: the sunset.