Like the whole of Brazil, the Northeast is a place of contrasts. Churches, villas, and fortresses in Recife, Natal, and Fortaleza tell the tale of Portuguese settlers who fought Dutch invaders and amassed fortunes from sugar. The beaches in and around these cities evoke Brazil's playful side and its love affair with sun, sand, and sea. West of the cities, the rugged, often drought-stricken sertão
(bush) shows Brazil's darker side—one where many people struggle for survival. This warp and weave of history and topography is laced with threads of culture: indigenous, European, African, and a unique blend of all three that is essentially Brazilian.
Brazil's northeastern cities are experiencing a renaissance whose changes strike a balance between preservation and progress. Recife remains a place of beautiful waters, and nearby Olinda is still a charming enclave of colonial architecture—though bohemians have long since replaced sugar barons. On Ceará State's 570-km-long (354-mile-long) coast, Fortaleza continues to thrive against a backdrop of fantastic beaches with both new amenities and timeless white dunes. Although smaller and with less-storied pasts, Natal and surrounding beach towns like Praia da Pipa have cemented their status as some of the country's most beautiful and popular tourist destinations. Meanwhile little-known Alagoas, Brazil's smallest state, is gaining recognition as the place where white-sand beaches and fisherman villages still remain gloriously underexplored.