Chapter 9 Belém & Marajó
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In this chapter:

  1. Introduction to Belém and Marajó
  2. Exploring Belém and Marajó

Introduction to Belém and Marajó

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The capital of the state of Pará in the northern reaches of the Brazilian Amazon, Belém is the 11th most populous city in Brazil and is located around 100 km upriver from the Atlantic Ocean, on the banks of the Pará river. The Pará is a major waterway of the Amazon network, separated from the Amazon itself by the enormous Marajó Island.

An historic city with a busy port, Belém is famed for its abundant mango trees, and is the starting point for many Amazon river trips. It’s renowned as one of the culinary capitals of Brazil, and many of the nation’s top chefs come here to learn about Amazonian ingredients, such as the many endemic species of fish, fruit and vegetables. There are some truly excellent restaurants in Belem, and foodies will find yet more treats at the city’s market and gentrified docks.

The city sits on an archipelago that is part of the vast estuary system created by the Amazon discharging into the Atlantic. The biggest and most famous of the islands is the truly vast Marajó, a river island the size of Switzerland and home to gorgeous beaches in dry season.

Visitors usually make a beeline for the islands, and Marajó is a far more compelling destination than the city itself. Famous for its beaches, water buffalo (local lore holds that they came here when the ship they were being transported on was washed ashore) as well as the many indigenous bird species and other native animals such as black caiman.

Belém is not a long-stay destination in itself for luxury travelers, but there are some interesting things to see and do here for those starting or ending a cruise in the city. There are some fine squares – the largest of which is the Praça da República, and wide avenues flanked by handsome historic buildings.

Top of the list of tourist attractions is Mangal das Garças – a very well-maintained park with a bird sanctuary and a butterfly enclosure that allows visitors to admire some of the many beautiful, colorful and intricately-patterned species that live in the jungle. Take the lift up the park’s tower, which offers sweeping views over the park, city and out to the rainforest, before crossing the wooden bridge that joins the park complex with ‘Manjar das Garças’ – the park’s acclaimed restaurant, which specializes in sophisticated dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, such as grilled lobster with shrimp risotto, or Red Angus steak with crisped potatoes and snail butter.

Foodies in Belem will also enjoy the Docas – Belem’s restored port area, which makes for a pleasant late-afternoon stroll thanks to its good selection of restaurants and food-focused bars. Even the drinks offer a wealth of new tastes, with all manner of tropical fruits blended into delicious – and potent – cocktails. For real gastronomic treats, gourmands should pay a visit to Remanso do Bosque – manned by talented young Chef Thiago Castanho, and cited among the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. Here, indigenous ingredients are presented in an ultra-contemporary fashion that has wowed many food critics. The seafood-focused Remanso de Peixe serves what is considered by many to be some of the most delicious fish in the world.

Belem’s market is interesting enough to merit an hour or so trying local foods and shopping for keepsakes, while the cathedral, basilica and neoclassical theater are other key attractions.

Despite Belem’s charms, the islands surrounding the city remain the main attraction for most visitors. The largest, Marajó, is the biggest river island in the world, and the second largest island in South America. Located between the Amazonas and Tocantins rivers, the island really is a world unto itself, with a buffalo-mounted police force, fewer cars than bicycles, and a slow-pace of life in the small towns and villages that dot the island.

Descendents of the Marajoaras indigenous culture now run farms on the island, and many are open to family visits. There are some culinary treats to be enjoyed here too – most notably buffalo cheeses, and buffalo steak.

The most accessible part of the island is the eastern shore, where the small towns of Joanes, Salvaterra and Soure provide access to cafes, convenience stores and a couple of ATMs, but it’s best to bring plenty of cash as the ATMs are not always in working order.

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Exploring Belém and Marajó

The entire navigable network of Amazonian rivers and tributaries spans out from Belém, offering almost unlimited scope for exploration. It is possible to use the city as a departure point for adventures far upriver, but the nearby archipelago of river islands offers plenty of reasons to hang around and spend a few days exploring.

Belem is one of Brazil’s most important gastronomic centres, and foodies can dine on delicious Amazonian ingredients prepared with great flair at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country. Food aside, there are some interesting sights to be found in and around the city, including a good park with bird and butterfly-watching opportunities at Mangal das Garcas, and some eye-catching neoclassical architecture – its grandeur a legacy of Brazil’s rubber boom.

The city’s neoclassical buildings – including a fine theater and a handsome public square that regularly hosts free classical music concerts – are eye-catching, and during the dry season there are dozens of pristine beaches nearby. Some of which can be reached by ferry journey from Belem’s busy downtown boat terminal – others only by private yacht.

The waterfront market, known as ‘Ver-o-Peso’ (literally, ‘see the weight’ as products are sold according to weight) is notable for its towers and for its abundance of fresh fish, seafood and other local produce such as medicinal herbs, talismans and even supposed aphrodisiacs. Be sure to try acai from a market specialising in the Amazonian ‘power berry’ used to make energising juices and smoothies. The once-rundown port area known as Docas is now a fashionable area packed with bars and restaurants, and is a popular spot for an afternoon stroll and a bite to eat.

If you’re on a tight schedule you might choose to bypass the city altogether and head straight to the many islands in the surrounding archipelago. At Belém, the Amazon river splits into endless channels, creeks and two great estuaries which separate Marajó, the largest river island in the world, from the mainland. The Tocantins river joins the southern estuary, offering many opportunities for exploring.

The archipelago surrounding the city can be explored in days, weeks, or even longer. Where you go and what you see depends very much on the season, as the landscape differs enormously during the wet and dry seasons.

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Whatever time of year, a trip from Belém to Marajó is essential on any trip. By ferry, it’s a journey of just over three hours from Belem’s main boat terminal, arriving at the town of Salvaterra on the eastern shore of the island. At over 40,000 square kilometres, Marajó is comparable in size to Switzerland with all the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems to match.

The dry season reveals two distinct landscapes, the eastern highlands, covered in mangrove swamps, shrubs and farmlands and the jungle-covered lowlands.

Flooded during the wet season, these lowlands become grazing territory for the water buffalo that have become a symbol of the island. Marajó easily merits a couple of days’ stay, and can be reached by boat or small plane from Belém.

Visits to buffalo farms are popular with families and kids, while the abundant bird and animal life makes for some good nature-spotting and photo opportunities.

Other key destinations within reasonably easy reach of the city include the beach island of Algodoal, an unspoiled resort popular with backpackers. The traditional village of Icoaraci, around 25 km north of Belém on the Praia do Cruzeiro in Marajó Bay, is famous for its Marajoara pottery, a famous craft from the region.

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