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Exploring Brazil’s Cocoa Coast: Ilhéus

Ilhéus is the main city along what is known as Brazil’s “Cocoa Coast.” The town itself dates back to the early 1500s. During colonial times, it thrived due to the sugarcane trade. Its true boom came in the late 19th-century, however, with the introduction of cacau (cocoa). Plummeting world prices and the abolition of slavery caused the sugar plantations to go into decline. However, cocoa—which earned the nickname ouro branco (white gold)—drew freed slaves and entrepreneurs to the hills surrounding Ilhéus, all of them seized by the desire to strike it rich (or at least earn a decent living). A handful of “cocoa barons” (known as coronéis or colonels), with vast plantations, did indeed become immensely wealthy and powerful. They basically ruled over their workers and the region as a whole until the 1980s, when a fungus known as vassoura de bruxa (“witch’s broom”) decimated the cocoa trees and left the region’s economy in ruins, from which it has only recently begun to recuperate.

Today, traces of the legacy of the “colonels” can be glimpsed by wandering among the handful of grandiose mansions and civic buildings of Ilhéus’s small historical center. You can also read about their exploits in the novels (particularly The Violent Land) of famous Brazilian author Jorge Amado, Ilhéus’s most illustrious son. Meanwhile, the loss in revenue from cocoa has been somewhat offset by the development of the tourism industry. Although there’s no real reason to stick around town itself, Ilhéus is surrounded by native Atlantic forest and, to the north and south, boasts some attractive white-sand beaches—all of which make it well worth exploring.


Ilhéus’s tiny historical center makes for a pleasant morning or afternoon stroll. Many of its landmarks have become renowned throughout Brazil due to their presence in Jorge Amado’s novels. On Praça Luiz Viana Fialho, the Teatro Municipal, built in 1932, was formerly a cinema where an adolescent Amado frequently went to watch movies. On a corner of the square, the Casa de Cultura Jorge Amado (Rua Jorge Amado 21, tel. 73/3634-8986, 9 a.m.–noon and 2–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–noon Sat., R$1) is housed in the family mansion, built by the author’s father in 1920 after he struck it rich with a winning lottery ticket. Guided tours show portraits of the artist as a young man as well as personal objects and the room in which he slept. Nearby, the Praça J. J. Seabra, Praça Rui Barbosa, and Rua Antônio Lavigne all contain early-20th-century homes and palaces that attest to the wealth of the cocoa barons. Built in 1534, the Igreja de São Jorge on Praça Rui Barbosa is Ilhéus’s oldest church, while the towering mid-20th-century Catedral de São Sebastião, on Praça Dom Eduado, displays an unusual blend of architectural styles.

Despite the catastrophe of the vassoura de bruxa, there are still cocoa plantations in operation near Ilhéus. Since cocoa trees require shade to grow, farms preserve many taller tree specimens of native Atlantic forest, which makes a stroll through these estates a pleasurable outing. Aside from watching the entire cultivation and production process, visitors can taste the cocoa and sample the succulent nectar made from its fruit. Fazenda Yrerê (tel. 73/3656-5054, R$15) is 11 kilometers (7 miles) from town on highway BR-415, which links Ilhéus to Itabuna. Another 9 kilometers (6 miles) out of Ilhéus on the same road is Fazenda Primavera (tel. 73/3613-7817, R$15). Advance reservations are necessary. Trips can also be organized through local travel agencies.


The beaches within Ilhéus itself are neither very clean nor appealing. Most locals prefer to head north toward Itacaré or to the beaches south of the city. In terms of the latter, after Praia do Sul, one of the closest and most popular is Praia dos Milionários. Only 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) from the center of town, its name alludes to its past as the favored beach of Ilhéus’s wealthy cocoa barons. You don’t have to be rich to sit at the many barracas along this coconut-shaded beach. Subsequent beaches, such as Praia de Cururupe along with Back Door and Batuba—both in the vicinity of Olivença, 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Ilhéus—are wilder and more enticing. Large waves make swimming dangerous, though they attract surfers. Municipal buses from Ilhéus provide frequent service to all these beaches from the center or the municipal rodoviária.


While hotels in the center of Ilhéus are usually good bargains, they tend to be older and not really in mint condition. On the upside, a handful retain some interesting historical character. The Ilhéus Hotel (Rua Eustáquio Bastos 144, tel. 73/3634-4242, R$90–150 d) is a case in point. Inaugurated in 1930, the block-long hotel was the brainchild of one of richest cocoa barons, who dreamed of building the most modern and luxurious hotel in all of Bahia. At the time, his architectural plans consisted of such novelties as separate bathrooms for men and women, as well as the state’s first elevator (still in operation today). Long since overhauled, the guest rooms are more modern and modest. However, affordability and some stylish remnants of its glory days compensate. More numerous and expensive are the many beachfront options along the stretch of coastal road leading south to Olivença. Of particularly good value is the large but attractive Hotel Praia do Sol (Praia do Sul, tel. 73/3234-7000, R$170 d). Only 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the center of Ilhéus, this big, modern beachfront hotel is surrounded by abundant greenery and offers colorfully decorated, roomy apartments. The pool comes in handy on weekends when the beach gets packed.

For a heavy dose of both seclusion and understated luxury, head to the Hotel Fazenda da Lagoa (tel. 73/3236-6137, R$880–1,150 d), located 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Ilhéus. The 14 sprawling bungalows on this former coconut and dendê palm plantation are nestled in a burst of greenery situated between a secluded beach and the Rio Aliança (near the Ecoparque de Una nature reserve). The inspired and idiosyncratic decor mixes colonial antiques with whimsical pieces by contemporary Brazilian artists. A gourmet restaurant serves a contemporary blend of Bahian and international dishes, while the spa offers relaxing treatments including stone massages and rain forest mud masks. Rates include dinner and transportation to and from Ilhéus’s airport.


On Praia dos Milionários, Cabana Gabriela (tel. 73/3632-1836, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily, R$15–25) and Armação (tel. 73/3632-1817, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, R$15–25) both offer delicious fish and seafood. In town, an Ilhéus classic is Bar Vesúvio (Praça Dom Eduardo 190, tel. 73/3634-2164, 11 a.m.–2 a.m. daily, R$25–40). Built in 1919, it has appeared in several of Jorge Amado’s novels and is a local institution. The menu is a mix of Arab and Bahian specialties. Even if you’re not hungry, take a seat at one of the sidewalk tables, order a beer, and engage in some people-watching. Live music is played nightly.

Information and Services

Tourist information is available at the rodoviária and the airport. Bahiatursa (Rua Estáquio Bastos 308, tel. 73/3231-8679, 7:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) and Setur (Av. Soares Lopes 1741, tel. 73/3634-6008) are both located in the historic center. A good Portuguese and English website is Orbita Expedições (Rua Marquês de Paranaguá 270, tel. 73/3234-3250) specializes in ecotourism and other excursions and also rents cars. A convenient Banco do Brasil ATM that accepts international cards is near the cathedral (Rua Marquês de Paranaguá 112).

Getting There and Around

The Aeroporto Jorge Amado (tel. 73/3234-4000) is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) south from the center of town and close to the beaches south of the city. There are daily flights to Ilhéus from Salvador, Porto Seguro, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. The long-distance Rodoviária (tel. 73/3634-4121), in Pontal, is also only 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) west from the center and easily accessible by taxi or municipal bus. Águia Branca (tel. 71/4004-1010) operates buses from Salvador’s Rodoviária (7 hours, R$61–141) and from Bom Despacho (5.5 hours, R$40). Rota (tel.73/3634-3161) has connections to Porto Seguro (5 hours, R$37), while São Geraldo and Novo Horizonte operate buses to major cities such as Rio, São Paulo, and Brasília. Driving to Ilhéus from either the north or south, take BR-101 to Itabuna, and then take coastal BR-415 for 40 kilometers (25 miles) to Ilhéus.