From one beach-bum town to another, here we are at Pipa Beach – or Praia de Pipa – one of the most famous stretches of sand in Brazil and one of ten most beautiful beaches in the country. According to Guia 4 Rodas, anyway. It goes without saying why Pipa became popular a few decades ago.
Entering this seaside town with barely a skerrick of knowledge about it, my first impressions once driving down Avenida Baía dos Golfinhos from the bus station in the evening was how much it reminded me of Provincetown in America’s northeast.
A narrow main street shared by vehicles and pedestrians, saturated by loads of restaurants, bars and touristy shops. A toned-down P-Town with a Brazilian flavour.
Staying close to the centre of town is probably the way to go. You’re closer to the action and don’t have to schlepp too far to stumble into a bar for afternoon caipirinhas, or açaí or sorvetes bar for refreshments.
Oh, there’s the beach below Pipa’s main strip, as well – also lined with bustling restaurant-bars just an arms reach from the lapping waves at high tide.
We shacked-up about a ten minute walk away from the action – a quiet part of the village with cliff-top views over Praia do Amor complete with swaying coconut palms, tropical fruit trees and five pooches that like to be heard.
That’s our private room at Hostel PIPAradise – a basic abode with air-con, our own bathroom, free wifi and rocking chair out front. It’s as quaint as anything and also comes with a basic 8am breakfast. Which means 8.30 on Brazilian time. Think the usuals – bolo (cake), bread, fruit, cheese, eggs, calabrese and some kind of watered down juice.
Occasionally we’d walk into town to see what was open after nibbling on the hostels breakfast offerings. Not griping about the brekkie options, just craving a little more variety. In particular, espresso.
Pretty much every place you stay in Brazil serves cafezinho, a version of watered-down espresso. It’s an acquired taste and can only be appreciated if you’ve grown up with it.
One place in town you can get a fairly decent espresso is Tribus Cafe, in the centre of town near the main square. By day it’s literally a booth that churns out hot and cold beverages, sandwiches, breakfast and Brasileiro snacks. Get there at night and it transforms into a pumping bar-cum-nightclub.
We can vouch for the açaì, as well.
Being a baker and all, these guys are one of the few joints open before 8 am. The variety of baked goods is pretty impressive and it’s old school set-up fits right into this hippy beach town.
Glass cabinets and trays up on the back wall are full of breads, sweet and savoury baked goods, cakes, desserts and fried traditional snacks. Nothing is labelled so it’s either a guessing game for non-Portuguese-speaking gringoes such as ourselves, or a quick and easy question from the locals.
The pastries filled with apple or guava and those custard-filled donuts are the most perfect partner to a nice and strong espresso. Or a watery cafezinho. Take your pick.
With our new-found love for açaí, discovering our first self-service açaí bar was a little too good to be true. The deal with these places is kinda simple. You grab your bowl, stick your hands into the freezer and scoop out whatever flavour of açaí you want – or mix them up.
Yes, there are different flavours of açaí. Our favourite was the maracuja – or passionfruit.
Eating it on its own is fine, but the more common way is to layer it with other ingredients like sweetened condensed milk, granola, banana, more condensed milk and a mixture of grated coconut and condensed milk.
Here at Açaí de Pipa they have a bunch of syrups, milk powder, chocolate sprinkles – you name it. Once your creation is made you lay it on the scales. This determines the price.
Wafting from bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant or sleeping in a hammock may be enough for some folk, but there’s a bit to do around Pipa. There are off-road and bike tours, scuba and snorkelling and all types of surfing. Nature-lovers can drop by the Ecological Sanctuary for a session of bushwalking and spotting local wildlife like marmosets – even green turtles at high tide.
The most popular could well be hanging out and swimming at Baía dos Golfinhos – or Dolphin Bay. Some people fork out the dosh and pay for a boat trip, but save the pennies, put on your swimmers and take the short walk from the main beach. It’s seriously easy.
One way in, one way out, and it has to be at low tide due to the spectacular coloured cliffs you walk around to get there. The water is impossibly warm and yes, there are dolphins that swim very close to the beach – often right next to you. We saw plenty of them!
Our short time in Pipa meant we merely scratched the surface of the food scene. There’s a lot to taste in this small town – from local food to the usual Italian that saturates much of the Brazilian cuisine.
One of my favourites in this country are the lanchonetes – places where you can pile up your plate with local food from the buffet and eat to your hearts content.
One such place is Churrascaria Dona Branca, a restaurant brimming with the lunchtime crowd up for an inexpensive feed. At the front of the restaurant is the churrasqueiro, a guy manning the grill and keeping a sharp eye on the carne, sausages, chicken and seafood he turns from time-to-time for us hungry patrons.
You take your plate, head to the central buffet that’s full of pretty much everything you’d expect – grains, salads, stews, fruit, vegetables and then head over to the churrasqueiro and take your pick from his wares.
In the R$15 flat rate you pay for your heaping plate of food, you get two choices from the churrasco – either the beef or pork steak, sausage or chicken. For R$2 extra you can get the seafood.
Drinks are extra, and if you score one of the tables overlooking the lower part of town and the beach, you can watch the countless hummingbirds buzzing at the overhead feeders.
For something a little more ‘polished’, I’d say head up to O Tei do Escondidinho. Ignore the cowboy fit out and focus on the menu, which specialises in the regional cuisine of the north east. Escondidinho (similar to gratin), croquettes, sun-cured beef, cassava and tapioca with coalho cheese – there’s so much to choose from.
The lunch special was more fitting to our travellers budget – two choices from 3 entrées and 7 mains for $19.90 – but I’m kind of wishing I ordered one of the escondidinho dishes. Not that what we had was too shabby.
A couple of complimentary nibbles – diced and deep-fried tapioca drizzled with homemade mild chilli sauce and pickles. Loved ’em.
We chose the same entrée – macaxeira fritz (cassava fries) – some easy nibbles that are ideal friends with a cold beer. Then it was galinha da panela (chicken stew) with rice & farofa for Dean, and baião de dois for me. Mine was basically a mixture of rice, shredded chicken, sausage, beans and seared cubes of coalho cheese – a peasant-style dish that fills you in a flash.
The couple of side streets branching off Avenida Baía dos Golfinhos are also worth a poke around as they have some neat little places to eat and drink.
Speaking of drinking.
Restaurant Papillon (see below) does some smashing caipirinhas, and it almost felt like we were residents at its street-side counter in the evenings. Perfect spot for people watching. They have a smaller off-shoot across the road called Mikroponto where it’s much more cosy and atmospheric.
Curva do Vento down the road mixes a winning caipirinha, as well, but steer clear of the coffee if you’re caffeine snobs like us. One of the best looking bars in town has to be Nativos, located at the ascending cobbled steps at Vila Mangueira. Great music, gorgeous fit-out, but very pricy drinks.
Taking a break from Brazilian food can be refreshing at times, and downing a burger or two may be just the thing to turn to. At least the ones at Jack Burguer, anyway. All made right in front of you in no time. My pick, the one with gorgonzola, of course.
Great spot for caipirinhas, too.
For something a little more civilised, there’s always Tapas Restaurant. Unlike the tapas many of us are used to, the servings here are on the generous side and have an International flavour. The servings are so big that three plates was enough for two of us, which is a pity, because we really wanted to try more from the menu.
Brilliant Spanish tortilla (15.5), beautifully cooked beef with chorizo & red wine sauce (49) and some absolutely wonderful octopus with potato & paprika (63).
Once again, great caipirinhas.
How we got to Pipa from Canoa Quebrada.
Our 6.20 am minivan left from Rua Beco da Praia (near Broadway) when it was full enough to go, bound for Aracati bus depot. The trip takes about 20 minutes and costs R$6 pp.
A 7.30 am Nordeste bus from Aracati to Natal costs R$53 pp, stopping from lunch in Lajes for 30 mins, then arriving in Natal bus depot at 2.30 pm.
Got another bus from Natal depot to Pipa at 3 pm, arriving at 5.30 pm and costing R$15 pp.