Penedo, Alagoas

Penedo is one of the colonial jewels of Brazil. Founded by the Portuguese in 1613 near the mouth of the São Francisco River in the northeastern region, it was under Dutch occupation for eight years. Some of the most magnificent churches in the country can be seen here; people are extremely friendly and proud of their heritage and will tell you all sort of stories about them. Nossa Senhora da Corrente, for instance, was named after the "chains" of slavery. The owners, a family of abolitionists, would hide running slaves in a secret compartment until they could escape. This church is lavishly decorated with rare polychrome tiles and gold leaf.

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If you can, stay more than one day to take advantage of the river tours; the boat will take you all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Wear comfortable walking shoes; Penedo was named after the rock it was built on and it's very hilly. The river is very wide near its mouth, but before it gets here it has formed one of the longest canyons in the world. Affectionately called "Velho Chico" (Old Chico), the river is 2,700 kilometers long, flowing through five states: Minas Gerais, Bahia, Pernambuco, Sergipe, and Alagoas, the sertão of so many books, stories, legends, and songs... In Bahia it has a flood plain like the Nile; planting manioc crops and pottery-making (with the clay obtained by digging holes for the plants) are all done according to the cycles of flood and receding waters.

The river is navigable for a 1,700-kilometer stretch and you can actually do this on a "hotel boat."  The "Velho Chico" is also famous for the "carrancas" or figureheads on its boats. The real ones are becoming more and more difficult to find and were the subject of an exhibit in Rio in 2002; you can pick up a reproduction in Penedo to help ward off evil spirits around your home...

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