Salvador began as Brazil’s first capital city, but today it continues as the home of 2.9 million people and the capital of the state of Bahia, with a rich tradition of celebrating Carnival and an historic center that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Portuguese explorers first landed in what is today Brazil in April of 1500; Salvador was established in 1549 and became the colony’s first capital, until 1808, when it was moved to Rio de Janeiro (in 1960 the capital was moved to the built-from-scratch city of Brasilia).
Salvador is located on the Bay of All Saints, which connects it to the Atlantic Ocean, and became an important city for trade and commerce. Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci saw the bay on All Saints Day on November 1, 1502 and gave it its name. Sadly, Salvador also became an important location for the burgeoning trade in African slaves and to this day nearly one-half of Salvador’s population has at least some African heritage. As many as 40 percent of all the slaves brought to the New World went through Brazil, which finally outlawed slavery in 1888, making it the last country in the Western world to end the buying and selling of human beings.
Of course Salvador’s colonial history gave the city its distinctive and beautiful architecture and charm. There are a number of Catholic churches to be found (more than 70 percent of the state of Bahia is Roman Catholic and there are 109 parishes in Salvador), including Cathedral of Salvador, Basilica of St. Sebastian, the Church of Our Lady of Penha, and Senhor de Bonfim Church, famous for those who buy and tie brightly colored silk ribbons to their wrist. Three knots must be tied in the 47-centimeter long ribbon (supposedly the length of the right arm of Jesus Christ). Legend has it that when the ribbon falls off, your wishes come true.
The best concentration of colonial-era buildings can be found in the Pelourinho neighborhood, which UNESCO designated as a World Heritage Site in 1985. Today the neighborhood is a very popular stop for tourists and cruise ship passengers.
The history of Brazil, (Brazil ranks fifth in the world in both population and land mass), has been one of both triumph and tragedy. Its vast natural resources, including timber, gold, silver, gems, and more recently oil and natural gas, have provided considerable economic wealth. However, that wealth has also brought woes.
Brazil struggles with a number of challenges including deforestation through illegal logging as well as clearing land for cattle ranching. In the past few decades, discoveries of large oil and natural gas fields have resulted in corruption by politicians as well as those working in the semi-public energy giant, Petrobras, though reforms are underway.
Like any nation, Brazil’s struggles with lawlessness, which has to some degree, come to Salvador. As poverty, crime, drugs, and gang violence plague cities like Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, police crackdowns have pushed those problems onto cities like Salvador. Without a doubt many areas of Salvador are safe, but there are some problems with crime, so visitors should be aware of their surroundings.
Brazil’s history of human habitation dates back more than 10,000 years. Even though it is a nation hundreds of years in the making, with a rich history being preserved in places like Salvador, this fascinating country is settling into its rightful place in the world.
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