By B. Michael Rubin
January 8, 2014
Americans and Europeans travel to Brazil to see Rio de Janeiro and Florianópolis and Foz do Iguau. Brazilians seek out lesser known wonders such as Lenóis Maranhenses. However, even Brazilians who take vacations to the Northeast don’t usually consider the capital of the state of Paraba as a vacation destination.
For those who enjoy tranquil beaches and easy smiles, you will find João Pessoa to be a small, sleepy city one-third the size of Curitiba or Belo Horizonte. Like its better-known neighbors – Recife, Fortaleza, or Natal – João Pessoa boasts warm ocean temperatures and calm surf all year, a welcome attraction for families with children. Especially attractive to vacationers, there’s not much rain. One taxi driver boasted, They don’t sell umbrellas here.”
Despite the reserved profile of this picturesque city, I found it open and hospitable to tourists. João Pessoa has a fleet of white taxis, a large public bus system with a TV on the bus, and plenty of hotels and pousadas. Best of all, the tourist restaurants and hotels along the beach aren’t full, which means better service and no waiting on line.
My flight on GOL Airlines was on time, but there was no complimentary meal service, and the small sandwiches they were selling were over-priced. Thus, after the 30-minute taxi ride from the João Pessoa airport to the beach and checking in at my hotel, my wife and I were starving. It was 5 pm local time. Amazingly, but typical of our vacation experience, we found a restaurant not yet open that agreed to open just for us. I had a delicious lamb dish with red rice served in a red-fired clay bowl.
Travelers will not be disappointed by the local food, as it offers a wide variety and includes delights rarely seen in the south of Brazil. For example, the breakfast in the hotel offered such Northeast specialties as mangunza, which tasted like sweet hot corn; escondidinho with carne de sol; rabanada, the Brazilian version of French toast; a filling potato-like root, inhame; and a quiche mixture called rocambole misto.
The large hotel where I stayed, the Hardman Praia Hotel, (120 rooms), was clean and quiet and efficiently run. It also offered its breakfast guests a woman on the kitchen staff awaiting requests to prepare eggs or tapioca in any style requested. I ordered an American dish not common in Brazil – ovo mal passado.
The hotel room had an excellent air-conditioner, the kind that comes with a remote control and is so quiet you can’t tell if it’s on or off. There was also a power switch next to the bed if you get cold during the night. The room had a side view of the ocean as well as a kitchenette stocked with water and soda and beer, but no plates or silverware. The hotel had an excellent restaurant with 24-hour room service. It also offered four free daily newspapers in the huge, comfortable air-conditioned lobby, along with a small fitness area with massage downstairs, and free chairs and umbrellas for the beach. The hotel provided suggestions and reservations for a wide selection of day-trip options through CVC and smaller travel companies, including boat trips and rental cars.
The most popular strip of ocean in João Pessoa runs along two beaches, Tamba and Cabo Branco, where the Tropical Tamba Hotel is located, João Pessoa’s best known hotel. Along these two beaches, you will find the typical open-air inexpensive eateries as well as the ever-popular McDonald’s. There are also two crafts fair exhibition malls within a few blocks of each other in Tamba, alongside a central shopping center and a helpful tourist information office with friendly assistance in English.
The Hardman Hotel, where I stayed, was located about 2 kms. away from Tamba on Manara Beach, which is less populated. I like beaches without restaurants right on the sand as they are quieter, but most Brazilians prefer the more crowded areas. The street than runs along the beach, Avenida João Mauricio, is closed to cars each day from 5-8 am.
On Manara Beach, there were few vendors selling hot cheese or sunglasses. Occasionally they walked down the immaculate sidewalk that stretches along the beach and made themselves available, but they didn’t approach tourists unless they were summoned.
Manara Beach, although less crowded, has numerous restaurants. I was surprised to discover a sushi restaurant, as I’d imagined this cuisine only had fans in the south of Brazil. I also found Chinese restaurants that were filled with hundreds of customers for dinner, unlike typical Brazilian Chinese restaurants that are designed mostly for deliveries. In the one where I ate, China Praia, the food was inexpensive (R$20 for two people), and the menu much larger than most Chinese places I’d been to.
I enjoyed several lunches at DNA, which was around the corner from my hotel and offered a very large menu. One afternoon, I ate lunch a few blocks away at a “buffet por kilo” restaurant called Mangai. It had seating for at least 500 people and offered the largest buffet selection I’ve ever seen.
Manara Beach also has one of the newest malls in João Pessoa, with a Pizza Hut out front. It’s not the biggest mall in the city, but the design, a white tent structure facing the ocean, is strikingly unique. The food court seating area of the mall offers spectacular views of the ocean.
One day I took a short hop to the Estaão Cincia (Science and Arts Education Museum), about 10 km. from my hotel, which can be a pricey taxi ride, depending on your budget. However, after arriving at the museum by taxi, I discovered it was easily accessible by bus, and we took the bus back. The museum didn’t have much to see inside, but the building itself is a glass, eight-sided wonder designed by the late Oscar Niemeyer. From the roof deck, there are magnificent views of the entire panorama of João Pessoa. The museum stays open until 9 pm, and I was told it’s beautifully lit at night.
Another nice excursion brought me to the arts fair in Jacar, a tiny town just outside the city limits of João Pessoa, which sits at the mouth of the Paraba River, where the area’s first port was located. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a bus there from my hotel, so I spent the R$30 each way for a taxi. Every evening along the Paraba River in Jacar, thousands of tourists gather for the sunset at two or three riverside restaurants. The tradition was begun by a man known as Jurandir do Sax. He plays Ravel’s Bolero on his saxophone standing in a row boat in front of the restaurants every evening as the sun sinks over the river. His idea for a sunset revelry became so popular that he opened the Maria Bonita restaurant, and in the passing ten years, it has inspired a cluster of other restaurants and tourist shops neatly organized along a serene walkway bursting with flowers.
My wife and I also spent one day walking through the historic center of João Pessoa, which was an easy 30-minute bus ride from our hotel. The historic center is the oldest section of the city, located alongside the river that brought the first residents. Surprisingly, it didn’t appear as if the city had spent much money to support tourism there, but we were treated to some magnificent churches reminiscent of Salvador. We also discovered in what appeared from the outside to be a woman’s house, an extraordinary collection of antiques, which the owner said she’d been gathering for over 40 years. Typical of the hospitality and friendliness of the Northeast, the woman was on the street having left her house when we happened to wander by, but she turned around and invited us back to view her marvelous collection.
Although some Internet travel sites have noted the high crime rate in João Pessoa, I never felt unsafe walking around. The beach promenade is busy even after dark, and I was never approached for money, despite my appearance as a tourist. Even the guys who watch the cars parked on the street were polite and much older than the teenage boys we normally see in the South.
The hotels in João Pessoa are never full except during Carnival week, thus offering a welcome retreat for families from Rio, São Paulo, and Braslia. During my week in this quaint city, which lacks the sophistication and infrastructure of the South, I was continually impressed by the good cheer and warmth of the local people, especially those working in the hotels and restaurants, who were always ready to greet me with a smile and never seemed stressed, unhappy, or too busy to take care of me.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil. He is the editor of the online magazine, Brazil: Communication for Foreigners