I have to use a magnetic tag on the key ring to unlock the condo’s front door—BEEP—then the same magnetic tag to unlock the second door five steps further—BEEP. Then I use it again to unlock the building’s door—BEEP—and a regular, boring metal key opens the apartment’s door.
When I go out, I have to lock the apartment’s door, press a white button to release the building door, use the magnetic tag to unlock the first door downstairs and press on another button to release the final door.
“It’s a quiet street, no worries here,” my Airbnb host mentioned when she first showed me how to get in and out.
She wasn’t being sarcastic—it is a quiet street and a safe neighbourhood.
Welcome to Santos.
It was supposed to be a short night and an early start in São Paulo—the city was just a pit stop—but I didn’t hear my alarm and only left at noon. Oops. Fortunately, going to Santos is easy, buses leave from Terminal Jabaquara every twenty minutes or so.
I bought my ticket at 1:20 p.m. for the 1:30 p.m. bus.
It was pouring rain for the entire 70-minute-long trip and I was hoping the driver could see the road better than me. It was still cloudy and stormy when we arrived in Santos, but at least it was warmer than in São Paulo.
And this was the first of an endless series of naive observations about Santos, a city I had never set foot in and where I hadn’t planned to stop.
So, why Santos? Basically because it’s the closest city to São Paulo and it’s on the coast. The biggest seaport in Latin America is a popular weekend getaway for Paulistas—it would be mine too.
Now, I had reasonable expectations about Santos. It’s a port, so the beach was unlikely to be clean. It’s close to São Paulo, so probably as cloudy and rainy as in the megalopolis.
And that was about the extent of my knowledge about Santos.
I glanced at Google Maps and went out to explore.
Three hours later, I had discovered that:
- Santos is one of these places where restaurants only serve lunch and close at 3 p.m.
- The city layout was confusing, probably because located mostly on the island of São Vicente—on islands, you take a street and end up going around and around.
- There was a tramway that looked like Nantes’ tramway.
- Locals use canals as landmarks—Canal 7 is the port, Canal 1 is the stadium, Canal 6 is the aquarium, etc. Yes, actual drainage canals.
- Said canals run perpendicular to the beach and into the sea. Just in case I was delusional enough to think the beach was clean… yeah, definitely not.
“It’s weird, it feels… old. Old-fashioned shopping malls, traditional Brazilian food—nothing exotic, think feijoada… Even the Airbnb reminds me of my downstairs neighbours’ apartment in Nantes. Nothing wrong with it, but I could see an old couple living here, yet the owner must be my age.”
“Like, no IKEA furniture kind of apartment?” Feng laughed.
“YES! It’s exactly that! Orange tiled walls, beige couch… very 1970s. Actually, it feels like Santos boomed a few decades ago and now, it’s mostly home to retired Paulistas. I keep on seeing old couples walking their dog. All the hipsters are in São Paulo.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that like Aracaju, Santos is a mostly a Brazilian getaway. It doesn’t cater to international tourists and it probably doesn’t get a lot of them anyway—locals assume I’m from São Paulo, like every “foreigner” asking for directions.
The only English speaker I met was a dog.
“Sou Brasileiro,” the owner explained. “But we adopted him while on holidays in Hawaii, so he only understands English. Sit. Easy.”
It’s okay, I’ll figure it out. I finally found a paper map. “Santos, para viver o ano todo” it says on the front.
Not going to move here ever, but I’m going to “unlock” Santos and figure it out.