The Northeast: Places to Explore

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Photo: Vitoriano Junior/Shutterstock

Recife

Just over 3.6 million people make their home in the capital of Pernambuco State. This vibrant metropolis 829 km (515 miles) north of Salvador has a spirit that's halfway between that of the modern cities of Brazil's south and of the traditional northeastern centers. It offers both insight on the past and a window to the future.

It was in Pernambuco State, formerly a captaincy, that the most violent battles between the Dutch and the Portuguese took place. Under the Portuguese, the capital city was the nearby community of Olinda. But beginning in 1637 and during the Dutch turn at the reins (under the powerful count Maurício de Nassau), both Olinda and Recife were greatly developed.

The Dutch had hoped that Brazilian sugar planters wouldn't resist their rule, but many took up arms. In 1654, after a series of battles around Recife, the Dutch finally surrendered. In the 17th century Pernambuco maintained much of the affluence of the earlier sugar age by cultivating cotton. With several rivers and offshore reefs, Recife proved to be an excellent port and began to outgrow Olinda.

The city has beautiful buildings alongside the rivers that remind many visitors of Europe. Unfortunately, huge swathes of 19th-century buildings were razed to make way for modern structures. As a result, the center of the city has pockets of neocolonial splendor surrounded by gap-toothed modern giants. Today Recife is a leader in health care and has benefitted from significant government investment in recent years, resulting in a boom in infrastructure and construction industries. It's also Brazil's third-largest gastronomic center—it's almost impossible to get a bad meal here.

Recife is built around three rivers and connected by 49 bridges. Its name comes from the recifes (reefs) that line the coast. Because of this unique location, water and light often lend the city interesting textures. In the morning, when the tide recedes from Boa Viagem Beach, the rocks of the reefs slowly reappear. Pools of water are formed, fish flap around beachgoers, and the rock formations dry into odd colors. And if the light is just right on the Rio Capibaribe, the ancient buildings of Recife Antigo (Old Recife) are reflected off the river's surface in a watercolor display.

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