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Nature and culture interplay here. One of the wonders of the city is watching color and light change on the beautiful old colonial architecture. Inside the 16 th-century Convento do Carmo, the glare of midday reflects in a muted sheen on the wide dark boards of the polished floors and from every contour of the sparsely placed old settles, giving the high white walls and narrow timbered ceilings of the halls a cool tranquility. But the interior would be bland and not Bahian without the squares of brilliant color beyond the tall, open doors at each end - the myriad pinks and reds of the faded, aged tiles of the roofs outside, abstract segments of pastel facades in pure bright stains.

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But there is much more to the architecture and light of the city. When I came upon the church of the Palma, the long wide cobblestone square fronting it seemed larger than life, glaring white at midday with a shadow cutting a wide triangle across it. The old elegant building seemed to hover far away and on a plane above me, severe white with ornate cream trim. But when three small black boys in yellow shorts ran in and out of the sun in front of the elaborate doorways, the illusion was gone and the real substance of Bahia clear. The true wealth of the city is the combination of the people with the magnificent setting.

At dusk in the Pelourinho, the old square that is designated by UNESCO as one of the most important examples of extant colonial architecture in the world, the subtly varied facades radiate saturated pastel from behind luxurious grillwork. The last light splashes the shadow of one balcony at an angle inside the semidarkness of a white room with green shutters, a Cubist painting. Across the street, a muted interior light creates a lavender square in the center of a delicate, faintly peeling light-peach facade. Down the steep hill, past what I know to be the blue and white church of Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos, now a twin-towered black baroque shape, is a collage of pink, yellow, and red roof lines still lit by the sun.

There is a soft languor in the old buildings at dusk. It is easy to forget that they were built for a different time and social order. Until the end of the 18th century, Bahia was the most important city south of the Equator, a major cultural, economic, and political center. But nothing seems incongruous or jarring in the soft black voices and the casual habit people have of sitting on stoops. Bahia is never a museum. In the houses of Lisbon tiles, behind the elaborate marble cornices hidden in side streets off the square, life is lived, not stored safely away and protected.

There is no disjunction, but rather a great rightness that the Pelourinho is used and alive. It suggests a richness of living, an incandescent quality. This is perhaps the reason that Brazilians say ''God is a Brazilian.'' And perhaps the reason Jorge Amado told me that ''in Bahia, the people dance, and God is among them.'' Practical details

The Convento do Carmo, renovated into a hotel, is an excellent place from which to visit Bahia. On a cliff overlooking the sea a few blocks from the Pelourinho, it is the only top hotel in the center of the old city. Rooms are furnished in period antiques. The price of a double is $50 high season (December to March) and $40 low season, and includes a Brazilian a lavish breakfast buffet of tropical fruit, cold meats and cheese, hot eggs, bacon, sausage, and variety of breads.

The other top hotels in Bahia are located directly on the beach several miles outside the city, and rates are approximately 25 percent higher. Varig Airlines has daily flights from New York, connecting through Rio de Janeiro. Round-trip economy fare is $1,412 (APEX $1,205, GV2 $979). Varig also has a direct flight to Bahia from Miami once a week on Sunday, returning Friday. For further information contact the Brazilian Tourism Authority, 230 Park AVenue, New York, N.Y. 10169 (212-286-9600).