Written by Elizabeth Choca

The Brazilian port city Porto de Galinhas sits in stark contrast to its neighboring cities, such as Recife and Salvador. What it lacks in historical elegance, it makes up for with gorgeous beaches, diverse ecosystems, relaxing amenities, and a cute downtown.

Port cities in both Brazil and the Caribbean are steeped with the history of European colonization, their streets saturated with colonial architecture. Buildings whose facades are detailed with intricate engravings and accented by large wooden doors retain elements of the past, even if deteriorating from disuse and covered with graffiti. These cities also carry the weight of their dark history of human trafficking. The exceptional racial diversity ubiquitous in these port cities along with local music – usually tropical beats with pronounced African influence that resonates in the soul stirring, infectious urge for movement and socialization – are a remainder of the ugly road that led to the beautiful now.

Porto de Galinhas is an hour south of Recife. It sits on Brazil’s coast just before the country’s geographic outline doubles back west toward the Caribbean. Porto de Galinhas is a distinctly post-colonial contrast to its northern neighbor Recife. Where Recife is a typical coastal city rich in historical edifice and now replete with the development of modern infrastructure bracketed by river slums and poverty, Porto de Galinhas is comprised of contemporary one-level residential housing and a variety of hotel complexes. It is easy staying in Porto de Galinhas to forget the history more visually evident in Recife, but its name alone ties it to a memory of its former self. Porto de Galinhas translates to “the hen port”. Though every souvenir shop in the quaint downtown would lead you to believe a literal translation, pushing a variety of cute ceramic chickens and chicken souvenir items, the actual city title dates back to a time of illegal importation of African slave labor. To avoid interception, traders would transport slaves with guinea fowl, a type of African pea hen desirable for their egg production and loud warning call when danger is sensed, improving farm fitness by alerting other less astute species to the potential threat. When a shipment of slaves would make it to the coast, the word would be sent that there were “hens” in the port.

Porto de Galinhas is now a stunning getaway, blessed with a richness of sensational wildlife and ecosystems. Its beaches are what tropical getaway calendars are made of: 180 degrees of steely aqua, crystal water, and shallow waves. The water is the temperature of a bath and hugs you as you enter. The salt acts as an invisible force of buoyancy. Falling beneath the surface you escape to a split universe and the world goes quiet. Even the roughness of the saltwater and waves is comforting. The tactile experience of long walks barefoot is a rare treat for a vacationing city population. The beach has a stretch with piscinas naturales, or tide pools, filled with small fish, crustaceans, and urchins. The diversity of species is inspiring.

The city offers tours that are unfortunately crowded and somewhat hurried, but the wildlife, protected by the watchful eye of tourism, is flourishing and completely unafraid of their human visitors. The larger school fish trapped in pools at low tide jump over each other to receive the offerings of fish kibble the guides dole out to the guests. In fact, the fish seem to have an unnatural comfort and smugness only afforded to animals without predators. I have a theory that the humans scare away would-be interested bird predators, and they are naturally protected from larger sea predators, which means they are free of most natural threats. Additionally, humans consistently provide them free lunches. They are rewarded for the brash counter-evolutionary approach to large omnivorous mammals (humans) by winning a larger cache of fish snacks. This conditioning affords visitors the opportunity to swim with the schools of fish, drawing them in with tasty fish kibble, so close that they are actually touching you in the water, frantic to be the first in line for a snack. Like some surreal imagery from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you float in a tropical paradise, broken from reality, in the ocean, surrounded by small fish encircling your hands and body.

Porto de Galinhas also boasts picturesque marshlands, similarly brimming with a wealth of natural elegance and dense species diversity. Marsh birds are captivating. Egrets and herons appear almost impossibly delicate with stilted legs, crooned necks and slender long beaks. The Jacanas have compact bodies, short bills, and webbed feet. The loons, sleek and calm, float on the water’s surface between clandestine dips, disappearing briefly before bobbing up again. And perhaps my favorite bird, the regal cormorant, sunbathes with its wings at half-mast between athletic predatory dives, converting its body into artful spears. Here too, one can get lost in awe of the world’s tangible complexities.

Aside from its rich natural wealth, Porto de Galinhas has a small downtown with 5 to 10 blocks of shops and restaurants, which provide a nice mix of clothing, souvenirs, and supermarkets. At the end, where the street meets the beach, there are a few restaurants where you can eat overlooking the ocean, listen to the waves break, and smell the faint salt marine essence hanging in the air. I recommend the marine stew, which is served in a glass cup. Though the look may not be appealing with chunks of crab, mussels, and octopus floating in a pureed yellow stew, the taste knocks you out in the best possible way. It is so profoundly wonderful that the rest of the world shuts off and the only focus is the taste in your mouth as the velvety soup melts away and you savor the remaining octopus piece. They have a tank of live crabs at the entrance of the restaurant boasting seafood so fresh it’s still alive when you order it. Some people prefer not to imagine the demise of their dinner, but I am quite happy to be a conscious participator in receiving fresh, delicious food.

After dinner, the streets are abuzz with activity. An aςai with granola and banana makes for the perfect nightcap. I love froyo, and aςai, the Brazilian froyo equivalent, rivals or bests my favorite froyos from the states. The closest description I can give is berry sorbet smoothie with hints of flour and honey. It is most often sold with condiments in a cup and eaten with a spoon. It is a justifiably popular treat sold throughout Brazil and in the small downtown of Porto de Galinhas, you can find at least 10 aςai locales along with two mobile street vendors. It merits its large following and is the perfect cold slice of heaven you can convince yourself is healthy. In my opinion a case could be made for consumption at any time of day: breakfast as a yogurt, an afternoon snack, a refreshing roadside treat when on the go or exploring, a respite from the heat, or a sweet note after dinner.

Many Brazilians visit Porto de Galinhas for the gorgeous beaches and a relaxing get-away. This is a fantastic place to stay if you have a family or a significant other and want a zen vacation with beach and spa time. You can also appreciate the natural beauty of the environment, though there are few sophisticated ecotourism options in the area. It is less than ideal for singles looking for nightlife and social outings and has no cultural offerings in the way of museums or theater. It lacks neighborhood diversity and therefore is not interesting as a walking city. Active vacationers will quickly exhaust the list of activities and may become bored after a few days. This is an ideal travel spot if you are looking for a relaxing break from the stress of life and are hoping for a more sedentary vacation.

Though its history is not immediately evident in its present day appearance and it may lack the antique charm of many neighboring cities, Porto de Galinhas has capitalized on the beauty of its natural landscape and smartly leveraged itself as a respite from life’s daily hustle.