Come to Bahia, Brazil, if you want to “forget the rest of the world,” said David Hochman in Town & Country. One of Brazil’s largest states, the northeastern coastal region lies between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. A place of wonderful extremes, Bahia encompasses both the “laid-back splendor of far-off beaches and Salvador, the pulsating and frequently unholy capital city of 2.5 million.” Other jarring contrasts abound, as confounding as they are inspiring— “tropical isolation versus urban spectacle, chic retreats versus crumbling colonial treasures, posh high-rises versus unthinkable poverty.” But together they make for one complex, colorful destination.

Bahia’s urban hub, Salvador, remains a “colonial jewel on an ancient bluff above All Saints Bay,” commanding breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. Its quaint neighborhoods teem with culture. The historical center, El Pelourinho, is among the “Americas’ most stunning repositories of 16th- and 17th-century architecture.” Throughout the small quarter, now a UNESCO-preserved site, colorful colonial buildings line slanted cobblestone streets. Drop in on the rococo 18th-century Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, one of the most famous in the world’s largest Roman Catholic nation. Afterwards, stop by Jardim das Delicias to taste the state’s signature dish, moqueca, a spicy seafood stew and the “tastiest emblem of Bahia’s melting-pot mojo.”

“There is a yang to Salvador’s yin,” and that’s the “ivory-white” Cacao Coast. Located about 180 miles to the south of the city, this seemingly endless arc of white sand often feels nearly deserted. The seas are “so clean, so warm, so private” that a dip in the crystal-blue waters seems “illicit.” The beach towns along the coast are secrets in themselves. Itacaré, a charming surf village, has also begun to attract local artists. Hidden in the rain forest, Fazenda de Lagoa—a cluster of eco-chic bungalows decorated with “rainbow-striped wall hangings and hand-beaded chandeliers”—sits just outside the “vibrant colonial town” of Ilhéus. Go to Rio to party, but come to Bahia for pure beach bliss.