Many people visiting Brazil make a beeline for the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. In doing so, they fly over Brazil’s fourth largest city, and one of the most culturally fascinating regions in the country. Recife and the northeastern corner of Brazil are a world apart from Rio, São Paulo and the rest of southern Brazil. The climate is hotter, and much of the food and music can only be authentically consumed in the region itself. It is also a hub of Brazilian political agitation (the northeast, of which Recife is a de facto capital, was the only region to vote against the right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, in the last election). Visitors today will find a city that seems at first glance unlovable: One of the most famous songs about the city — and an example of a Recife music genre called manguebeat, or mangrove beat — is called “Rivers, Bridges and Overpasses” (“Rios, Pontes e Overdrives”), and that’s what Recife’s center looks like, to a large extent. But farther south are the teal waters of Boa Viagem beach, and north is the charmingly colorful pocket community of Olinda. Just a few days in the area will have visitors appreciating a different kind of Brazil.

(Note: Although the fires from the Amazon region have led to smoky skies in São Paulo in southeastern Brazil, no smoke or fires have been reported in Recife, which is 2,000 miles from the fires in the Amazon Basin.)

Head back to Marco Zero for a deeper dive into the city’s culture. For a glimpse of the region’s drought-stricken hinterlands, walk over to the Museum Cais do Sertão (entry, 10 reais), where typical hinterland home life is depicted in a family-friendly exhibition, and where listening booths allow you to hear the sounds of Pernambuco state’s rich musical history. Sample chewy cashew brittle from the vendor carts around the square outside.

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