Belém: Colonial, Mysterious and Tropical

Founded in 1616, Belém was the Amazon’s first Portuguese colony. It became the centre for the rubber trade during the 19th Century, and later transformed itself into a tourist attraction. Not only does the city harbour many treasures of architecture and culture, it is also known as a perfect departure point for a journey into the “lungs of the world”.

Echoes from the Former Colony

 The capital of Pará, a Brazilian state, has had its identity defined by geography and History. On 1616, Portuguese navigator Francisco Caldeira Castelo Branco arrived to this area, close to the Amazon river’s estuary, which at the time was inhabited by the Tupinambá native tribe. It was here that a new colony was founded: Feliz Lusitânia (“Happy Lusitania”, Belém's curious original name). These events have left their mark on the local landscape, culture and traditions.

A good example of this is Cidade Velha (“Old Town”), the historic centre where one can find the façades of old colonial buildings, built between 17th and 19th Centuries. The highlight goes to Casadas Onze Janelas (“House of the Eleven Windows”), a former hospital recently turned into a contemporary art museum, and Forte do Presépio, a public monument that dominates the oldest part of Feliz Lusitânia. Houses covered in typical Portuguese tiles can be seen everywhere.

The 19th Century was a prosperous time due to the success of the rubber trade. The Theatro da Paz, a neoclassical theatre from the late 1800’s, is a true symbol of that era: it was financed by the local elite and is still up and running these days. Another example of this style of architecture is the Belém Art Museum, one of the city’s main cultural institutions.

The Portuguese legacy is also present in the strong local religious traditions, which peak during October with the year’s main religious event: Círio da Nazaré, Brazil’s largest Catholic procession, has a history going back to the 18th century and attracts roughly two million participants every year! It is a gargantuan sea of people pushing and elbowing each other to get a good spot to follow a religious statue that is carried from Belém’s Cathedral to the Basilica of Nazaré. Visiting Belém during this time of the year is always an intense experience!!

Renewal, Flavours and Culture

During the last few decades, a wave of urban renewal hit the city. The results can be seen everywhere: several sections of the city have been restored and there are new landmarks and attractions. The former São José prison has been transformed into the cultural centre Pólo Joalheiro, which houses the Museu das Gemas do Estado (the “State Precious Stones Museum”) and Casa do Artesão (“Craftsman’s House”). In Old Town, the Baroque Church of Saint Alexander has also been repaired and is now home to the Pará Sacred Art Museum.

Along the coast, several old port warehouses were transformed into Estação das Docas (“Docks Station”), a place filled with restaurants, bars, art galleries, a theatre and nightlife spots for live music and dancing. However, one of the city’s landmarks remained unchanged — the historic Mercado Ver-o-Peso, an old marketplace instantly recognised by its towers. Here, Belém’s citizens (and tourists) gather to enjoy the region’s peculiar flavours and aromas: dried shrimp, tucupi duck, tacacá (cassava soup), fruits such as the mango and the inevitable açaí, and many other surprising delicacies which you will find nowhere else in the world!

Set a Course for the Amazon

The charm of Belém is not limited to its History and architecture. In the city’s parks and woodlands, the diversity of Brazil’s natural wonders is plain for all to see: it is evident in the local plant species and the huge variety of coloured birds that live in the trees. Hundreds of species can be found at Mangal das Garças, a natural park in the Old Town with a view to the Guamá river. Even in the busy streets of this city with 1.4 million people, you can find relief from the heat under the shade of a mango tree or an açaí palm.

This biological variety tells us that we are close to the Amazon rainforest. The city of Belém stands on the estuary of the Tocantins river and a few kilometres south of the Amazon river estuary. It is a doorway into this amazing world. If you sail these rivers and dive into the great forest, just buy a ticket and board one of the boats that makes the Belém-Manaus connection. The trip will take several days, and boats are usually crowded and with few spaces left for comfortable sleeping, but the experience is rewarding: you will get to see the richness of the river’s wildlife, the boat will occasionally dock in villages with indigenous population, and you will marvel at the awe-inspiring beauty of the planet’s largest forest.

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