Itacaré, Brazil: Deserted Beaches and Perfect Surf
Credit: Photograph by Sebastian Liste

I was racing to the airport in the backseat of a Hyundai being driven by a Brazilian man named Miguel when I realized I wasn't wearing pants. I'd met Miguel the night before while having dinner at the restaurant he owned, and I'd mentioned I was having trouble finding a ride. I wanted to squeeze in one last surfing session before my flight, at an isolated beach about 30 minutes outside town. I had no choice – all the beaches in Itacaré are isolated and hard to get to. "Não há problema!" Miguel said cheerfully. He was taking his cousin to the airport, too; I could leave my bag with him, and he'd pick me up on the side of the road. So there I was, at 11 the next morning, dripping wet in the back of a cramped sedan, reggae blasting, board shorts flapping in the breeze, hoping I would air-dry before I had to get on the plane.

Itacaré isn't an easy place to get to, but it's even harder to leave. A Crayola-colored fishing village of about 10,000, it's true Bahia: the California of South America, with a cheerful and bohemian vibe. It's the kind of spot that could have easily become yet another It destination but, thanks to a quirk of geography and economics, just never took off. It was an agricultural powerhouse until the early 1990s, when a fungus called witches' broom devastated the crops. The region turned to tourism instead and was widely tipped to be Brazil's next hot beach town. But then the financial crisis hit in 2008, the resorts never materialized, and now Itacaré is once again largely off the map. There are tourists, but they're almost all Brazilian – in eight days I met exactly one native English speaker, and she lived there. Now that Brazil's economy is on a tear, Itacaré is on the verge of a resurgence with the backpack-and-guidebook set.

The first thing I did after landing in Ilhéus was roll down the windows. The Portuguese name for this part of Bahia is Costa do Cacau – the Cocoa Coast – and the air literally smells like chocolate. If that sounds like something out of some magical-realist tropical fantasy – Gabriel García Márquez meets Willy Wonka – well, it sort of is. The pride of Itacaré is its nearly two dozen beaches, hidden like Easter eggs up and down the coast. But to get to the beach in Itacaré, you have to work for it. Pontal requires a wet trip through a mangrove swamp in a dugout wood canoe; Jeribucaçú sits at the end of an hour-long hike deep into lush cacao forests, past the cascading Usina waterfall. The reward in almost every case is a travel-brochure beach, but without the travelers – often with some sweet swell.

Surfing is Itacaré's main draw, as the calm, consistent breaks are a magnet for pros and novices alike. I can't tell my rail from my tail but had always wanted to learn. I signed up with an outfit called EasyDrop Surf School, which also happens to offer bike rentals, Portuguese classes, yoga, and coconut-oil massages – everything you need to relax like a local. Class at EasyDrop started with a sunrise van ride to Engenhoca, about 15 minutes outside town, followed by a mile-long rainforest trail – past the vine-covered concrete skeleton of an abandoned hotel, a towering symbol of Itacaré's up-and-down fortunes – after which I emerged onto a deserted half-mile stretch of sand. Occasionally there are some other dawn patrollers, tanned, friendly brasileiros who – perhaps because surfing is a relatively new pastime here, perhaps because they're Bahians and born that way – show no trace of the surliness and exclusiveness of other surfers with such an exceptional break in their backyard. I surfed for a couple of hours and recharged under a palm tree with some fresh pineapple and coconut water, sold by a machete-wielding old man for a dollar each.

If anything, Itacaré is embracing its rugged surroundings, rather than taming them, to bring in the tourists. Kayaks and stand-up paddleboards sit outside most of the outfitters in town, and from July to October you can hitch a ride on a fishing boat to spot 30-ton humpbacks breaching in the bay. One company specializes in what the locals call arvorismo, a series of pretty thrilling ziplines and canopy walkways. You can also raft the nearby Contas, where you'll be ferried up a craggy mountain road in an antediluvian Land Rover, before descending through a series of Class III and IV rapids.

Itacaré town comes alive after the sun sets. Bahian restaurants serve up banana-leaf-blackened fish, and bartenders sling caipirinhas on the cobblestone streets, blending the rumlike cachaça with your choice of tropical fruit displayed in mounds on their wooden carts. The entire town can be traversed in half an hour by foot, and you can almost always find a capoeira demonstration or a street samba party (both Bahian inventions) by simply listening for the beat.

I slept 10 minutes away at one of the treehouses at the Arte Na Mata eco-lodge – a.k.a. the Art Jungle. It was named for the hundreds of primitive sculptures that dot the property (many of them hand-fired by an old man named Naco, who lives with his wife and pet parrot at the top of the hill). No WiFi, no cellphone service, and just a few solar-powered lights – it's the closest you can get to living like Tarzan while sleeping in a four-poster bed.

On my second-to-last day, before the pantsless airport ride, I woke up with the chattering birds and had no idea what time it was. My watch said six o'clock; my phone said seven. I stumbled up to the main house, where the ladies were preparing breakfast: fresh-baked toast, sweet sautéed bananas. I asked what was going on and, after a flurry of discussion (Bahians like to say that they live slow but talk fast), received a delightful nonanswer. Apparently daylight savings had started that morning, but while only half of Bahia observes the time change, nobody in Itacaré seemed to know whether we were one of the parts that had sprung or not – and, to be honest, nobody seemed to care. One of the ladies smiled and shrugged: "Itacaré!"

• Getting there: Fly to Rio de Janeiro. Connect with a Brazilian carrier like TAM for a two-hour flight to Ilhéus. Drive two hours north to Itacaré.
• Stay: ArtJungle Eco Lodge takes its name from the sculpture park it was built on, with tree houses and stilt bungalows allowing guests to sleep like Tarzan without sacrificing any comfort. It's managed by a family who prepare fresh-cooked meals on the terrace. [from $59 for a two person bungalow; artjungle@artjungle.com.br]
• Eat: If you tire of the grub at the Lodge, try Casarão Amarelo.
• Do: To watch capoeira while sipping caipirinhas, stop by Jungle Bar, which is located on Rua Pedro Longo and only opens after the sun sets.
• Surf: It's not easy – you'll have to walk a half hour on a forest trail that snakes through private property – but save time for Praia Jeribucaçu.