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An old book called Lost in the Wilds of Brazil has been left in the corner of my room beside an urn brimming with palm fronds and crimson heliconias. I pick a page at random and start to read: “At every yard there was something to see. Bright-coloured flowers lined the banks, red-leafed bushes were common, tall palms, grotesque vines, ferns, plants of all kinds.” I pause as the rain starts up again, an apocalyptic downpour that drums a rhythm on the roof. Outside the water slides off the waxy surfaces of banana leaves. Monkeys will return to bristle between the ferns and the orchids once they’re sure that the skies are securely closed.
To visit Trancoso is to step inside a storybook, to enter a world so magical that you’re never quite sure that it’s real. This former fishermen’s town occupies a small stretch of coast in Bahia, a jungly state that was Portuguese explorers’ first landing point in the 16th century. “This is where Brazil began,” one proud resident tells me on my first day.
Initially founded by Jesuits, the town existed in a blissful bubble, removed from the outside world until a band of hippies arrived from São Paulo in the Seventies. They settled, and crafted a mindful sort of tourism that has kept the place popular with a bohemian set today. I’ve come to Trancoso to visit a hotel called Uxua, and to find out how it is drafting a new chapter in the town’s intriguing tale.
The beating heart of Trancoso is its quadrado, a five-acre patch of grass that functions as a village green. It’s where children play and horses roam, presided over by a tiny church built from coral blocks and whale bones. On either side of the green are rainbow-coloured houses, of which Uxua occupies four (as well as a further seven casas dotted around its interior garden). It is something of a cliché to say that a hotel is so well concealed that you’d walk straight past if you didn’t know it was there. But with Uxua you really can – and I really do – miss the stable-door entrance several times.
That’s because there’s next-to-no signage here – even in my room the only indication of it being part of a hotel is a pair of white Havaianas printed with a delicate “U”. The lack of logos is a conscious choice made by a Dutchman who is a master of branding. Wilbert Das was the Creative Director of Diesel for 20 years, and was largely responsible for the cult status that the label relished in the noughties. On a visit to Trancoso in 2004 the designer was bowled over by the area’s beauty: “The feeling was so strong, I couldn’t ignore it.” He built a house, and then in 2009 opened a boutique hotel, which has found favour with Solange and Florence Welch (and has also been featured in every global edition of Vogue). “The fact that there’s very little branding here is probably to counter the overkill at Diesel,” Wilbert says. Today, though, word of Uxua has spread so far and wide that he simply doesn’t need to shout about it.
I quickly fall in love with the place on an aesthetic level, and fail to see how anybody with an appreciation of design cannot. It is a joyous plunge into the mind of a creative master, home to one-of-a-kind details that stop you in your tracks. There’s the swimming pool inspired by a pond in the Atlantic forest, with a floor mosaic that contains 40,000 healing quartz stones. There are the scores of wrinkled maps of Latin America, the walkways lined with enormous palms and flowers that look like fireworks, the outdoor showers hidden within hollowed-out tree trunks, and the television screens secreted away inside antique travellers’ chests. Most striking of all is the colour on the walls – a hypnotic shade of chalky blue that, in the kind light of day, looks like one-part pistachio ice cream and one-part Bahian sky.
Over lunch with Wilbert I find out that beauty goes further than skin-deep. “This house was owned by a woman called Dona Frozina and she loved the colour blue,” Wilbert explains as he points out her portrait. Beside us there is also a framed photo of Dona Gloria, the midwife who “birthed the whole town”, as well as the Pataxó Indian who gave the hotel its name (Uxua means marvellous in the indigenous language). Wilbert cites the metalworkers, weavers, carpenters, rope workers and rattan craftsmen too numerous to name, many of whom have launched their own companies off the back of their creative involvement.
“My goal was integration,” says Wilbert of his approach. The designer has engaged with Trancoso’s craft scene, which is rich and varied thanks to the legacy of hippie culture and the town’s long period of isolation. “There was no electricity here until 1978,” he explains. “People were so cut off that if you needed something, you had to make it.” Uxua has recently opened a boutique that sells a line of handmade clothing and textiles, which is made in collaboration with local artisans. The shop is an organic extension of the furnishings that Wilbert was already being asked to create for private clients (he has also crafted entire homes, including the beach retreat of the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper). Around the hotel you can see artworks in action – there’s a weaver called Evandro who spins bags and blankets on two great looms, and there’s a Pataxó Indian called Caio whose monochrome, geometric designs adorn cushion covers. Uxua’s artist-in-residence programme also feeds back into the fabric of the hotel (the leatherwork menus in the restaurant are a result of one collaboration). A graphic designer called Pato tells me: “You can’t not create here.”
Wilbert is candid about the purity of mission that his wealth from his former career affords. “I didn’t need to do it for the money,” he says, going on to explain that he wanted to avoid any ostentatious forms of luxury that serve to highlight the gaps between the rich and the poor. When the designer first set up shop here, many local people were being exploited, suffering because of the intensely seasonal nature of tourism. He invited staff to join a profit-sharing programme, a family health plan and an education scheme, which includes the offer of English lessons. “People tell me that my staff speak better English than they do in hotels in Rio – I’m very proud of that.”
Uxua’s promise of integration extends beyond the colourful walls of the hotel to its periphery. Today every hotel worth its salt claims to engage with its own community – an unspecified percentage of profit there, an unquantified amount of local workers employed here. Wilbert is aware of the “token” nature of some forms of community engagement. Skeptical of merely donating money, he has instead created custom programmes that empower Trancoso’s residents with new knowledge and skills. “It’s a living thing,” he says. “You have to live here and feed it all the time.”
On one afternoon I make the journey to an after-school project called Despertar with Bob Shevlin, Wilbert’s co-founder and partner, who – adorned with beaded jewellery – has more than a little of the original Trancoso hippie about him. The month-old programme is entirely funded by Uxua and involves teaching ten teenagers about how to lobby governments and lodge complaints against developers. “We’re trying to create environmentalists from scratch,” says Bob. It’s free to attend, and students are given a food package as well as 200 reals (£50) pocket money each month in order to secure their attendance for three hours a day, five days a week.
Not that they need bribing. In the two hours that I spend with the group I watch, agog, as one 14-year-old boy talks about Nietzsche’s theory of religion for seven minutes. His peers patiently watch on, seemingly devoid of any adolescent cynicism. Another explains the countercultural thought that drove the Bahian rock musician Raul Seixas. “Learning about free-thinkers will help these kids get comfortable with speaking out and going against the grain,” Bob explains. “Trancoso is going to grow, and we need to put things in place to protect it.”
For now, however, Trancoso feels serene. Or at least it does during my June visit – I’m told that high season tends to attract a wealthy set of Cariocas and Paulistas, who float in for extortionately priced New Year’s Eve parties on the beach. I consistently rise early (thank you jet lag) and am the first at breakfast – feasting on pulpy juices, tapioca crepes and bowls of acai. I wander the whisper-quiet, packed-earth path of the quadrado to the lookout behind the church. It’s only from this vantage point that I truly understand how hemmed I am by jungle here. It’s a little sanctuary book-ended by dense forest on either side.
It is possibly this sensation of existing apart from the world that has made Trancoso popular with hippies and honeymooners. Daylight hours mean nothing beyond how you choose to spend them, and I find myself asking inconsequential questions just to map out a plan for my time. Should I read my book on my balcony? Do I want to go and buy more cacao? Why not spend the whole day at the beach? Trancoso’s stretch of sand is reached via a slatted wooden bridge that hangs over a mangrove swamp, and Uxua has its own bar built out of an old boat. On one day I have a coconut with fish tacos, on another I stick to straight caipirinhas. Both times I’m accompanied by bossa nova beats and hawkers selling trinkets.
Come evening the quadrado wakes up from its slumber. A string of ceramic shops and galleries open their doors, the path lit by the glow of lanterns strung up through almescar trees (the resin of which is the signature ingredient in Uxua’s spa). I’m invited to a capoeira ceremony, a sort of passing-out party for students of the Bahian martial art, a school of which Uxua have sponsored for a decade. On another evening I end up at the L’Occitane theatre for a classical concert with Wilbert. The venue is a bright-white, sail-like structure that rises out of the jungle against the night sky like a spectre.
Trancoso has a particular kind of alchemy, which means that reality itself seems to soften at the edges. Wilbert once looked up from lunch to see Beyoncé playing football with a crowd of boys in the middle of the square. Another time he was taking shelter from the rain in a bar when a horse walked inside and right up beside him. He says: “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but nobody else thought twice about it.”
In my few days in Trancoso I catch glimpses of this storybook quality. The rain falls in sheets then clears to a rainbow in seconds, the quadrado is ghostly quiet and then fills with a wedding party in minutes. Uxua has been here for almost a decade, but it is wrapped in the stories of centuries. What’s more, by reinvigorating time-honoured art forms it is ensuring that the Trancosco tale is one that will continue well into the future.
My most significant brush with reality comes during a ride on the beach on my final day. On a horse called Suceso I canter along the sand, half-closing my eyes to protect against the rain. In a trance-like state I ride straight into a tree and slide backwards off the horse, settling into the sand like a wet leaf. “Did you not see the branch?” Xibiu, the horsemaster, asks with bewilderment. I am embarrassed. And also confused at how I could have missed such a solid form right in front of my eyes. I think back to something Wilbert had told me a day earlier. “When you’ve really started to fall under the spell of Trancoso,” he explained, “well, that’s probably when you should leave.