The colours, smells, flavours and echoes of Caribbean sounds blend with the Portuguese soul and the Amazonian essence of the streets and the people of Belém. The jungle peers around the corners of Portuguese colonial houses, French-style manor houses and skyscrapers. Rivers broaden to enter the Atlantic. The Indians arrive laden with fruit, crossing themselves in front of churches. Carimbó invades the squares and mangroves, loosening bodies in a return to ther iroots. This is Brazil at its purest. A delicate mix of cultures and words that have blended to create a new world. Just kick back and enjoy it!
1 – Gateway to the Amazon
Perhaps carimbó, the indigenous dance with influences of Portuguese folklore and African rhythms, is the best example of authentic Paraense culture. In Pará, which is the second largest Brazilian state, the rivers are gigantic and easily mistaken for seas (“pará” means sea in Tupi-Guarani), and the exotic Amazon is omnipresent, marking the cycles of nature at its own pace, including the human. Belém, the largest city on the equator, was created in the 17th century from the struggle between the Portuguese, British, French and Dutch for control of the Amazon River mouth. This wonder of nature, which, after coming together with other rivers, forming various bays and a massive delta, assumes almost epic proportions here! The city, which was born both Portuguese and indigenous, and was heavily influenced by the French during the rubber boom and modernised with an American look, is an enigmatic metropolis that is unveiled in the early morning markets, in the Portuguese colonial heritage made of monuments and faith, in the colourful fruit, animals and indigenous handicrafts, the mixed languages of the people, and in the city culture of its nearly two million inhabitants. It’s impressive seeing it for the first time, arriving by boat down the Amazon! After several days sailing on the edge of the jungle, coming around the corner, a tropical Manhattan appears on the horizon which, as we approach, reveals all its character. Beyond it lies the mysterious world of the jungle. A world to discover in the tranquility of rural landscapes with buffalo from Marajó Island, in the natural beauty of the Atlantic Amazon and the riverside village resort of Alter do Chão, or in the shot of pure adrenalin which is surfing the pororoca bore, the largest and fastest river wave in the world.
2 – New Worlds
Set against the backdrop of the bay of Guajará and by the Amazon, Maguari and Guamá rivers, Belém was founded in 1616 in territory occupied by Tupinambá Indians. On 12th January of that far-off year, the Portuguese captain Francisco Caldeira Castelo Branco laid the first stone of the Presépio Fort, which was essential for its defence after the conquest of the Amazon estuary for the Portuguese crown. The settlement that formed around the fort was originally named Feliz Lusitânia, later being named Santa Maria do Grão Pará, Santa Maria de Belém do Grão Pará and, finally, Belém do Pará. At that time, along with collecting so-called drugs from the interior (spices), the local economy was based on small-scale subsistence agriculture, livestock and fishing. Far from the decision-making centres in Brazil and with closely ties to Portugal, Belém only recognized Brazil’s independence on 15th August, 1823, almost a year after it was proclaimed. Between 1835 and 1840, the city was at the centre of the Cabanagem War, a popular independence movement. Ever since the political emancipation of Brazil, in 1822, Grão-Pará endured a tense atmosphere. Independence did not change the economic structure nor the poor living conditions of the majority of the population, who were Indians, blacks and mestizos. As for the plantation elite, they resented their lack of participation in the decisions of central government, which was dominated by the provinces of the Southeast and Northeast of Brazil. The war lasted five years and about 30% of the population of Grão-Pará was wiped out, including whole tribes. During the so-called Rubber Cycle, from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, Belém became commercially important internationally and was dubbed “Paris in América”, experiencing its very own Belle Epoque. At that time, it was considered the most developed city in Brazil and one of the most prosperous in the world. Some of its most important buildings date back to this time, like the magnificent Theatro da Paz. Today, given its strategic location and the importance of mining industries, Belém remains a city in flux, wavering between the rich heritage of the past and the foundations of the future.
3 – Jungle culture
With its European-style squares and exotic vegetation, its old tiled houses and colonial mansions, walking the streets of Belém is an intense cultural experience, observing four centuries of architecture and all the history and religion of its people. We start our tour of the Old City and the lovely Siqueira Campos square, which boasts a replica of Big Ben and the palaces that house the Art Museum of Belém (Palácio Antônio Lemos) and the Pará State Historical Museum (designed by the famous Italian architect António José Landi). Before continuing to the Praça Frei Brandão, and entering what they call Núcleo Cultural Feliz Lusitânia, take a look at the Guajará baron’s manor house. In the square, which has buildings dating back to origins of the city, enjoy the attractions of the Sé Cathedral (Igreja de Santo Alexandre) and the interesting Sacred Art Museum (all Baroque splendor, although termites have devoured part of the original structure), which, alongside other city churches and various religious events, such as the Círio de Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, are good examples of the local people’s faith. Back to earthly existence, visit the beautifully restored Forte do Presépio (where the city began) the adjacent Museu do Encontro (where, among other objects, visitors can see thongs are actually rather old fashioned) and the attractive Espaço Cultural Casa das Onze Janelas, which possesses a rather fine contemporary art collection. Other cultural spots include the Polo Joalheiro, where you can see the Amazon’s mineral wealth, and the fabulous Theatro da Paz, a legacy from the golden age of rubber.
Theatro da Paz
One of the most beautiful opera houses in Brazil, it was built with the money of the rubber barons, bringing the luxury of large European cities to the Amazon. 134 years old, its interior architecture incorporates European glamour with Amazonian heritage. For example, the chandelier is French, but the patterns are of rubber and passion fruit leaves and there are statues heralding the arrival of the arts in the Amazon.
Praça da República, Belém
Tours from 10h to 17h (except Mondays)
Círio de Nazaré
The world’s largest Catholic procession and a spectacle of colour and devotion, it has been staged for over 200 years and takes place in Belém on the second Sunday in October. About two million faithful walk the 4.5 kilometers that the virgin travels annually between the Sé Cathedral and the Basílica Santuário de Nazaré.
4 – Natural cocktail
When it comes to fruit, Pará is quite something. Apart from the Brazil nut, it’s the largest coconut producer in South America and the world’s largest producer of açaí (85%), the strange fruit of the açai palm, which is now very popular because of its many benefical qualities. “Healthy” fats, high energy content and its “cleansing” properties made açai popular first in Brazil (where it is eaten as a pulp with fruit and cereals) and then worldwide. In Pará, it has long been a staple, eaten on its own or mixed with cassava flour. It’s worth getting up early to take a look at the Açai Fair (between the Ver-o-Peso market and the Presépio Fort), watching the barges arrive loaded with small dark fruit that wirey and agile men transport in baskets, auctioning lots in the hustle and bustle: “This is like the stock market,” explains Rosângela, “one basket is only enough for three litres of juice after the berries are pressed.” From here, açai is exported the world over, but there are other exotic regional fruits that the locals take pride in, such as bacaba, cupuaçu, pupunha, tapereba and tucumã. Despite the concrete, Belém is a city where the lush green of the jungle infiltrates streets and squares where, on Sundays, whole families parade, dance and enjoy cool drinks after church. And those without the time to venture into the surrounding forests can observe Amazonian flora and fauna in the Emilio Goeldi Museum zoo-botanical park or the Bosque Rodrigues Alves botanical garden. Another ode to nature in the city is the Mangal das Garças ecological park, where, besides the mangrove vegetation, the orchid and butterfly garden, as well as the iguanas wandering the lawns, visitors can see herons and the most beautiful and famous bird of the region: the Scarlet Ibis.
Point do Açaí
Esquina da Rua Veiga Cabral com a Travessa Bom Jardim
Banca da Neuza
The best juices in Belém
Mercado de Ver-o-Peso
Museu Emílio Goeldi
Avenida Magalhães Barata, Belém
Bosque Rodrigues Alves
Avenida Almirante Barroso, 2, Belém
Mangal das Garças
Passagem Carneiro da Rocha, Belém
5 – Above these rivers
Pará looks like a map of the human body full of arteries: the rivers. These are transformed into new rivers, into bays, seas, into “furos” (bores) and “igarapés” (tributaries), local names given to waterways that link rivers, and “igapós” permanently flooded areas … The river people, simple lives we see on a boat trip down the River Guamá, live in wooden “malocas” (long houses) built on stilts and their main source of income is the açaí fruit. Along the way, passing the furo da Paciência, we follow various tributaries. The edges of the jungle reach out and touch the water, barefoot children play in doorways, where cocoa dries, churches of various faiths follow dance halls, basic canoes meet passenger boats. The river is like a road. The source of life. Beyond it lies the unfathomable forest that we approach in the middle of the trip, following Rosângela, our guide. As we enter the forest, Rosângela gives us a veritable botany lesson with a touch of zoology thrown in for good measure. “This is mimosa pudida, which closes its leaves when we touch it”; “if you get lost in the forest, don’t worry, what the birds and the ants eat, you can eat”; “because the soil is poor, the very tall trees survive on the intertwined roots”; “this is the quinine plant for malaria”;“Corallus caninus is the only snake whose venom has no antidote”; “here you can find are all the vitamins and supplements that the pharmaceutical industry could ever want.” We can believe it, as we look up at the endless Ceiba pentandra tree, whose trunk is covered with a strange insect called galos do mato. Here, you feel the power of nature. It’s creativity! The trail ends near the long house of “seu” Ladi, who, smiling timidly, huge knife in hand, cracks open Brazil nuts. Then, at 70-something, he climbs a 20-metre tall açaí palm with the agility of a young boy, teaching us how to do it as he tells the story of a tourist from Rio de Janeiro who suggested he try to survive in the city alone for a day. “Seu” Ladi answered: “In Rio, is there anyone to help? So, I’ll leave you in the jungle … “
Amazon Star Turismo
Boat trips and other adventures
+ 55 91 3241 8624
Evening shore trip
Boat trip that leaves the Estação das Docas and travels along the city shore at dusk with folk show included
6 – Gastronomy
Jambu rice, bacuri prawn, muçuã de botequim, duck in tucupi, maniçoba, pirarucu de casaca, caldeirada de filhote, tacacá and filé marajoara are some of the culinary delights that make the food here the most authentically Brazilian (or so the locals say). This originality is due mostly to its strong indigenous character and Amazonian ingredients. These are recipes that are based on roots, leaves, fruits, fish, birds, mammals, and seeds found in abundance in the forests, fields, rivers and wetlands of the region and which, recently, have attracted chefs from around the world in search of new and exotic flavours. Having the colours, flavours and aromas of the largest forest in the world on the table is like entering a new, mysterious and exciting world of tastes and textures. As for us, we tried a bit of everything. From the simple flavours of hake with beans, rice and farofa (manioc flour mix) eaten in the long house of “seu” Orlando – in the Arapari tributary- to the roquefort pupunha from the creative cuisine of Lá em Casa, in the very trendy Estação das Docas. In Belém, which is proud of its food, there are many and varied gastronomic options. Much like any modern city, there is international cuisine (Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Indian …) alongside local choices, which range from bars, where the speciality is crab fritters, to sophisticated restaurants which mix gourmet with tacacá. Among regional dishes, the most celebrated are the duck no tucupi and muçuã de botequim, although the seafood and river fish are not far behind. Great desserts include sweet cassava cake and cupuaçu sorbet. Serve with a stupidly cold Cerpa, the excellent local beer.
Boteco das 11 Janelas
Praça Frei Caetano Brandão, Belém
+ 55 91 3224 8599
Manjar das Garças
Passagem Carneiro da Rocha, Belém
Rua Siqueira Mendes, 263 – Orla do Cruzeiro, Icoaraci
+55 91 3227 0853
Restaurante Lá em casa
Estação das Docas, Belém
Restaurante Remanso do Bosque
Travessa Perebebui, Belém
7 – 7 – Markets, handicrafts and folklore
The View-o-Peso market, on the Belém shore, is one of the city’s major picture postcard attractions. There are nearly 400 years of history written in the comings and goings of sellers and buyers in a trade that dates back to the beginnings of Lusitânia Feliz. The biggest outdoor market in Latin America is a seething mass of colours, smells, sounds and tastes to enjoy while listening to the voices of the caboclos. It’s here that the city has woken up for over three centuries, with the arrival of the boats, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and fresh buffalo cheese in the Guajará bay. There’s a bit of everything here. From pots and pans to remedies for all ills, from the arts of divination to the colours of regional handicrafts. This handicraft, which uses local materials like clay, seeds, bark and even pirarucu scales, can be enjoyed at the fair held every Sunday in front of the Theatro da Paz, in the Praça da República, where traditional and contemporary craftspeople display their art: bags and jewellery made from fruit seeds, toys made from miriti, bowls, baskets and the famous Marajoara and Tapajo ceramics (of indigenous origin). These ceramics can also be purchased from potters in Icoaraci, a neighbourhood on the outskirts with a lovely riverside area. Handicraft and folk are combined in the twirls of carimbó, “a dance that has Indian steps, African swing and Portuguese turns”, which has a straighter version in xote bragantino and a “hotter” style in the sensual lundu marajoara. Forró, boi-bumbá and tecno-brega are also popular in the riverside dance clubs, which are full during the Sunday matinée sessions.
8 – Tapajós
Roughly halfway between Manaus and Belém, following the course of the Amazon, one of nature’s most amazing spectacles can be seen: the meeting of the clear waters of the Tapajós river with the muddy Amazon, before the quiet town of Santarém. What is remarkable about this encounter is that, due to their different densities, the waters do not mix for many miles, forming strange sights that are traversed by rafts and barges loaded with everything you could imagine, from cattle to wood, to processions . Lost in time, in the middle of the Amazon, Santarém is a city with distinctly Portuguese traces, where one really feels the exuberance and biodiversity of the forest and the influence of indigenous culture. Far from everything and everyone, apart from Alter-do-Chao, a lovely town and river beach popular with tourists for combining the wild beauty of the Amazon with the Portuguese anatomy of the organised streets and the white sand of the beautiful beach that appears between August and December, when the waters of the Tapajós subside. In the region, where there are plenty of towns with Portuguese namesakes (Santarém, Alenquer, Óbidos, Almeirim, Monte Alegre), as well as historical and natural heritage, there is a rich cultural heritage with European, indigenous and African influences, which can be found in the popular festivals, in the food and handicrafts.
9 – Marajó Island
Welcome to the largest fresh water island in the world, a place out of time and one that has changed little since the priest António Vieira was here in 1659, writing about what he saw: “A great island situated at the mouth of the Amazon River, crossways, longer than the entire realm of Portugal. It has excellent land for agriculture. Rich in plant species. Vast plains stretching to the horizon and beyond.” Those arriving by boat are suddenly taken back in time and overwhelmed by the beauty of nature in its purest state and man’s experience of it. The simple and rustic life of farms and cowboys, the patient look of the buffalo roaming the fields (Marajó Island has the only mounted police in the world who use buffaloes), small towns that seem to have stood still for 50 years, when life wasn’t so fast, abundant flora and fauna that can be discovered on trails, canoeing or riding Marajó buffalo and horses. Other attractions include the magnificent river beaches, deserted sands that intersect with tributaries, coconut palms, mangroves and virgin forest. Of the ones we visited, the beaches at Joanes, a small village near Salvaterra where there are still traces of the Jesuits (who arrived in the 17th century), Pesqueiro and Araruna, near Soure, are exotic places where you can enjoy the sun, warm and transparent waters, crab and dormant time. A real must is doing one of several trails that local farms offer tourists. Our adventure was at Fazenda São Jerónimo, famous for being the location of the programme No Limite and the friendliness of its hosts. Jerónima Brito serves us freshly-baked sweet cassava cake and a delicious tepereba juice, before we go single file, behind senhor Brito, on the trail that leads to the Tucumandubinha tributary. Every six hours, because of the tides, the tributary dries up completely, but now the water level is rising and we have to get a move on. The canoe trip is an unforgettable experience where the sounds of the jungle and the birds enter our body when there is a respectful silence. Even more so when we enter the mangroves, a world of trees on tiptoe that look like they’re ready to walk and small unnameable animals. We land on the beach at Limite, a white stretch of sand between the mangroves and coconut palms, where herons and macaws fly above our heads, returning to the farm on buffaloes, enjoying the beauty of the landscapes. At the extreme north of the island and the archipelago, surfers can enjoy the thrill of surfing the pororoca bore, a huge wave formed by the violent meeting of the river and the Atlantic Ocean.
10 – The other Parás
Occupying an area the size of Angola, it’s no wonder that the State of Pará has a great diversity of landscapes. In addition to Belém, the Marajó Island and Tapajós, there are other Parás to discover in historical cities and the beaches of the Atlantic Amazon, in the fisherman’s paradise that is Xingu, or in the valleys and grazing fields of Araguaia-Tocantins. Finely sculpted by the force of the ocean, the Atlantic Amazon is a region of beaches dotted with historical towns, where Portuguese heritage merges with tropical nature. There is Bragança, with its fishing port, the churches of São Benedito and Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário (18th century), its distinctly colonial look and a religious and pagan culture which blends with modern times that can’t be missed! Make sure you buy flour from Bragança (the best in the area) and experience the waves of crystalline water and the white sandy beach of Ajuruteua, 36 kilometres away, but a world apart surrounded by mangroves, where herons and flamingos nest. Other beaches whose sands are worth seeing are those on the island of Algodoal – a landscape of dunes, bucolic carts and bicycles (there are no cars), of a time that is felt in the ebb and flow of the tides that form small natural lagoons when the waters subside – and those in the Salinas area, one of Parás’ most popular seaside resorts. The Xingu region, where the largest indigenous reserves and various protected areas are located, is wonderful for sports fishermen in search of adventure, landscapes of great beauty and “trophies”, whose names are as exotic as the waters they live in: cachorra, tucunaré, surubim, trairão, piraíba, and pirara. In the Xingu basin, which stretches for over two thousand kilometres, there are hotels that specialize in sports fishing, helping enthusiasts to discover the lakes and canals where they can try their luck and catch fish that weigh up to 150 kilos. As for the Araguaia-Tocantins region, the biggest attraction is its cattle culture, with rodeos and even horse-riding tournaments.
by Patrícia Brito
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