Brasil, ninquen segura este pais. (Brazil, nobody is stopping this country.) -- popular samba lyric

This is where Brazil began.

Here, in the steaming tropics of a country larger than Australia, the tiny boats of Portugese hero Pedro Alvares Cabral anchored in 1500 and the first capital of one of the world's most exotic nations was laid. It was from here that the Portuguese sailed forth to thwart the repeated attempts of the English, the French and the Dutch to take the colony until peace finally arrived in 1647.

Since that day when Cabral and his men stumbled ashore on the sun-splashed beaches of Salvador-Bahia de Todos os Santos (the city and the state surrounding it are both called simply Bahia), Brazil has become the world's sixth most populous land, it's fifth largest in land area, and one of the most potentially vital nations in the world.

Brazil has more than half the population of South America and touches every other country on the Continent except Equador and Chile. It is a country of young people, with nearly 42 percent of the population under 14 and 53 percent under 20 -- with 11 million people, a stable (if militaristic) government, vast resources and one of the most racially mixed societies in the world. Brazil is, indeed, on the move.

The samba lyrics may be right. There may be no stopping this country, once it brings its rocketing inflation under control.

With all this growth, of course, comethe problems. While the rich frolic in their micro-bikinis on the fabled sands of Ipanema, a tiny boy, his body clad in rags, sleeps on the steps of Rio's cathedral while his family sets up housekeeping under a nearby tree that isweeping with the afternoon's rain.

As the country grows, and prospers, the poor flood in from the countryside, moving into the miserable favelas that crowd Rio's hillsides. While the rich dance in San Paulo's nightclubs, the poor break into their rooms and steal their money, their clothes, even their hair dryers, although they have no electricity in their impoverished shelters. Brazil is booming, but is undergoing a social stratification that bodes ill for the future.

But not, it seems, in Bahia. For here, in the original capital of the colony, life goes on much as it has for centuries. The center of the slave trade of the nation, Bahia is more of an African city than a Brazilian one. You see more blacks in Bahia than in any other major city in the country, and the dress and sounds are more reminiscent of West Africa than South America.

Here the markets teem, offering masks, basketwork and even baby monkeys for sale; here the Catholic Church may rule men's lives, but the terreiros dedicated to the African gods of voodo,rule their souls; here the ancient African art of capoeiro, a type of footfighting, can be seen being practiced on the beaches; and everywhere there is the uniquely Portugese architecture missing in most of the restof Brazil.

Here you will find the uniquely Brazilian foods you can experience nowhere else in this country. Dishes such as moqueca, freshly caught fish simmer in a golden oil laced with peppers, onions, scallions, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, cumin and coriander; ensopado, fresh fish poached in fresh coconut milk; and galinhaao molho pardo, freshly killed chichen prepared in a brown sauce enriched with the chicken's own blood.

But Bahia is not just a sleepy colonial town. It has dozens of rising high into the humid air, a modernport servicing most of the nations of the world traffic jams that rival those in any major city, and a growth rate that has seen its population double from700,000 to nearly a million and a half in only one decade. Still, Bahia--unlike Rio, unlike San Paulo and unlike Brasilia--clings to a proud history andlives as much in the past as it does in the present.

To see that past, you need only walk through the upper city with its classical Portugese homes, cobblestonedstreets, 60 cathedrals (including the Church of St. Francis with its magnificient baroque gold leaf interior), markets (the hippie market offers a wide range of handcrafted goods) and shops. mWalk down the winding Rua Alfredo de Brito Pelourinho, a fine old neighborhood, to view the many artisans'shops, pastel homes with tile trim and pretty little balconies, butcher shops heavily laden with swinging carcass of goats, and cages of singing canaries,reminiscent of the Alfama section of Lisbon.

Or, go to the lower town, to the Model Market, with its two floors of shops selling goods from throughout Bahia.

Here you can get a magnificient mask,a well-crafted hammock, or one of the gemstones that have made Brazil famous -- aquamarine, tourmaline topaz. And near the Model Market you can catch a ferry back to the nereby island of Itaparica that has the final mark of acceptance from the outside tourism world: a Club Mediterranee.

A four-minute ferry ride across the bay, Itaparica is a remnant of the old, unhurried, charming, crime-free Brazil. Here, in the midst of 86 acres of towering palm trees, on a spun-sugar beach, French women walk topless on the beach, Germans determinedly learn the skills of windsurfing, Chilians ride handsome horses through the jungles and Americans stand at the bar drinking potent Brazilian sugar cane liquor.

At night, the village becomes more Brazilian with carnival celebrations, folkloric pageants and the quintessential symbol of Club Med: an all-night disco.

But it is the city across the bay, the old city of Bahia, that attracts most tourists to this Club Med and to the few resort hotels (Meridien, Orthon Palace, Luxor) in the city. It is a return -- for a moment, at least -- to the past of South America's most futuristic country; a look at a time that has been all but lost in other areas of Brazil; a trip that may be all but impossible to make in another decade. If you want to see the past for Brazil, you must go soon, before the future covers it with concrete.