I recently got back from a whirlwind tour of Brazil. And, as I mentioned in this month’s cover story, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the South American country twice before — once in 2005 and again in 2010. Both trips were sponsored by the Brazilian confectionery association, ABICAB, as well as APEXBrazil, Brazil’s trade and investment agency, and included visits to such places as São Paulo, Bela Horizonte, Victoria and Laoga da Prata.

What I didn’t mention was that I’d actually visited the country even earlier, back to 2003. The trip was a family excursion during Christmas break to see my daughter, who at that time was studying Portuguese in Brazil as part of a junior year abroad program while in college.

Although I wouldn’t say I’m totally familiar with the country, I’d like to think I’m not a neophyte. During all those trips though, I never made it to Bahia, Brazil’s famed cocoa-growing region.

This most recent trip satisfied not only my curiosity about the region; it revealed the country’s inner soul. I have to credit the good folks at ABICAB for playing a large role in that discovery process since they were the ones planning the itinerary.

ABICAB’s Rodrigo Solano deserves a good portion of the kudos since he not only provided us with the tidbits of local culture that only an engaged Brazilian can, he also helped us experience it as no tourist could.  Take for example that first evening when I and Alvaro Arce Valdez, an accompanying journalist working for El Comercio in Lima, Peru, landed in Salvador.

Both of us were a bit jet-lagged, yours truly slightly more as a result of having flown from Chicago to São Paulo and then São Paulo to Salvador. Nonetheless, not to be outdone by my younger colleague, I readily agreed to enjoy a congenial dinner in the city’s historic heart, the Pelourinho neighborhood.

Solano, the consummate host, arranged to have a traditional Salvadoran meal in the Villa Bahia hotel. On our way there, we walked through cobblestoned streets, occasionally hearing the strains of African-Brazilian music coming from storefront churches.

Sitting out on an enclosed patio, Solano introduced us to moqueca, a stew which he assured is best prepared in Salvador. Two steaming skillets featuring shrimp and chicken were accompanied by separate bowls of rice, manioc and peppers.

The evening concluded with a stop at O Cravinho, a cachaça (sugar cane spirit) bar serving up infused cachaças, some of which are made using barks and roots. It’s a place the locals come to, not only because of its reasonable prices, but also because of the atmosphere — the infused cachaça resting on barrels above the bar as patrons sit on stools cut from tree trunks.

Known for its African heritage stemming from its role as a slave trade center in the 18th century, Salvador beams with Brazilian beau temps. It has the largest carnival in the world, surpassing that of Rio de Janeiro in both size and intensity, Solano assured me.

Despite all the favorable impressions this first colonial capital of Brazil made on me, it was Ilhéus that won my heart. This port city, which at one time was one of the largest exporters of cocoa beans in the world, still preserves its charm captured by famed Brazilian writer Jorge Amado.

Yes, the Café Vesuvio, where Amado penned his novels revealing the harsh and beautiful truths behind Brazil’s cocoa industry, is still operational. And so is the Bataclan, which also houses a museum reflecting its notoriety as a bordello.

Perhaps it was Ilhéus’ literary connection that captured my fancy. Or was it the bevy of new and old cocoa farmers and chocolate makers that we broke bread with in Bataclan that second evening of the trip? I do know that both places reflected a renewed pride and spirit in Brazil’s cocoa legacy and heritage, one that’s in the process of a revival. And that is the real beauty I found in Bahia.

Check out the rest of our Brazilian cocoa content: