A marble statue flanked by praying angel statuettes is perched in front of a fresco of the birth of Jesus.

One of the biggest and most spectacular religious and popular festivals in Brazil begins at the Catedral de Sé. Photo © Celso Abreu, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Pará’s river capital is an intoxicating mélange of faded elegance, dilapidation, and revitalization. One of Brazil’s most interesting capitals (and the only “historic” city in the Amazon), Belém was settled by the Portuguese, who were worried about colonial rivals having access to the possible riches that lay up the Amazon. After constructing a formidable-looking fort that defended their claim to the territory by guarding the Amazon’s estuary, the Portuguese set about exploiting the forest’s treasures—timber and spices—while exploiting the local Indians as labor. In the area surrounding Belém, forest was cleared to make way for sugar and rice plantations similar to those in neighboring northeastern states. Due to the mixture of European, Indian, and African influences, [Belém] also boasts one of Brazil’s most distinctive regional cultures, elements of which are present in everything from the flavorful delicacies of Paraense cuisine to popular festas such as Círio de Nazaré.Thought to be hardier than local Indians (who easily fell victim to European diseases), African slaves were imported to work the plantations. Despite the creation of a small elite, Pará’s colonial economy never took off like that of neighboring Maranhão. In fact, by the late 1700s, the population had stagnated to the extent that the Portuguese crown was actually offering incentives for Portuguese settlers to marry and procreate with Indian women (the result of this miscegenation is Pará’s significant caboclo population).

Belém only came into its own in the late 19th century when the onset of the rubber boom brought fabulous wealth to the city. Nothing was too good for the filthy rich rubber barons, who poured their profits into making their city a best-of-Europe hybrid with grand Parisian-style avenues and squares, splendid Italian-influenced theaters and basilicas, and state-of-the-art English streetlamps and electric trolleys. The city went into fast decline when the Amazon’s rubber industry went belly-up, but most of the ornate edifices from this grand era survived. Despite the decay that set in during the mid–late 20th century, Belém remains the Amazon’s most important port. And, in recent years, the city’s downtown experienced a successful revitalization, with the restoration of architectural treasures and the inspired revamping of its historic center and riverfront. As a result, Belém is a compelling city to explore. Due to the mixture of European, Indian, and African influences, it also boasts one of Brazil’s most distinctive regional cultures, elements of which are present in everything from the flavorful delicacies of Paraense cuisine to popular festas such as Círio de Nazaré.

Belém Nightlife

Much of Belém’s nightlife is centered on the Estação das Docas as well as the area near Avenida Souza Franco, confusingly known as “Docas.” On the weekends the bars along Avenida Almirante Wandenkolk, in Umarizal, get pretty lively.

For years, Belém’s bohemians have been congregating at Rubão (Travessa Gurupá 312, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/9122-4232, 7 p.m.–close daily), a classic boteco with cheap icy beer, simple tasty snacks (the crab is excellent), and a warm unpretentious atmosphere presided over by owner and local institution, Rubão. The tables out in the street are great for people-watching.

Beer connoisseurs who have grown weary of Brahma and Antarctica will appreciate Amazon Beer (Estação das Docas, Boulevard Castilho França, Campina, tel. 91/3212-5401, 5 p.m.–1:30 a.m. Mon.–Thurs., 4 p.m.–3 a.m. Fri., 11 a.m.–3 a.m. Sat., 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Sun.), which brews its own beer without the use of additives. Among the six varieties are “forest,” a traditional pilsner, “black,” an aromatic dark malt beer, and the exotic “bacuri,” flavored with subtle hints of this delicious local fruit. An ideal accompaniment is a portion of bolinhos de pato (crunchy balls stuffed with shredded duck, jambu, and tucupi). The bar fills up during happy hour as well as on Saturday afternoon, when feijoada (R$36 pp) is accompanied by live samba.

Located in a fabulous art deco building, the Roxy Bar (Av. Senador Lemos 231, Umarizal, tel. 91/3224-4514, 7:30 p.m.–1 a.m. Tues.–Thurs., 7:30 p.m.–close Fri.–Sat.) is a favorite haunt for those in search of a quieter, more intimate scene that continues into the wee hours. The walls are decorated with images of classic Hollywood stars. A newer fixture, Maricotinha (Rua Domingos Marreiros 279, Umarizal, tel. 91/3225-0125, 6 p.m.–close Tues.–Sat., cover R$4–10) occupies three f loors of a 1920s house. Hangout spaces range from a garden adorned with potted ferns to a lounge whose ceiling features hanging umbrellas and another where walls are papered in photos of the owner’s female relatives, many of them named Maria. Marias are present on the menu as well; chase a portion of “maria da graça”—cashew encrusted shrimp with passion fruit sauce—with a “maria sapeca,” a cocktail combining ginger, champagne, and strawberry juice.

One of the most seductive and popular bars in town, Boteco das Onze (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/3224-8559, 6 p.m.–close Mon., noon–close Tues.–Sun., cover R$6–8) occupies the historic Casa das Onze Janelas. Outside, a wide terrace gazes out over the Baía de Guajará. The terrace is popular during happy hour when Belenenses gather to drink chope or killer tangirsoscas (vodka and fresh tangerine juice), and nibble on petiscos such as casquinha de caranguejo com jambu (a fresh crab salad seasoned with jambu). For a full-fledged meal, head inside, where stone walls, wooden beams, and candles create a romantic atmosphere enhanced by jazz, pop, and MPB standards.

Performing Arts in Belém

It’s always worth taking a look to see what’s on at the beautiful Theatro da Paz (Praça da República, tel. 91/4009-8750). If you’re in the mood for a film, check out the schedule at the Cinema Olympia (Av. Presidente Vargas 918, tel. 91/3230-5380). Built in 1912, Belém’s (and Brazil’s) oldest movie theater still in operation received a recent and timely overhaul, and it now screens independent and art films.

Belém Festivals and Events

One of the biggest and most spectacular religious and popular festivals in Brazil is Círio de Nazaré. It’s held the second Sunday of October, and millions of Paraenses throng the streets of Belém to join in the procession carrying the statue of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré from the Catedral da Sé to the Basílica de Nazaré.

Considered the patron saint of all Paraenses and protectress of Belém, the cult of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré dates back to 1700, when a caboclo named Plácido found a statue of the Virgin lying in a creek located in the present-day bairro of Nazaré. Plácido took the statue home with him. But when he woke up the next morning, he was astonished to discover that it had returned to its original spot. After taking the statue home once again, it reappeared at the creek. The amazed caboclo built a small chapel (later replaced by the Basílica de Nazaré) to house the Virgin. Word of the miracle got around and pilgrims and supplicants from all over Pará came seeking Nossa Senhora’s blessing and divine intervention.

By the end of the 1700s, her popularity had become so great that a public festa, the Círio de Nazaré, was organized so that the entire city could pay homage to the Virgin. The first procession took place in 1793. The image of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, splendidly arrayed and covered in flowers, was carried in a chariot through the muddy streets by bulls. By the 20th century, Belém’s streets had become paved and bulls were no longer necessary. Instead, the thick rope attached to the carriage—measuring 350 meters (1,150 feet)—was now pulled by penitents who, to this day, jostle ferociously for the chance to grip their hands around the rough sisal and literally bleed—by the procession’s end, there is blood in the streets—for the honor of transporting the Virgin.

Although the Sunday procession constitutes the most important event, the festa actually kicks off on Friday afternoon with Nossa Senhora de Nazaré’s departure from the Basílica to a church in the nearby town of Ananindeua. As the Virgin glides by in an open car, Belenenses hovering in decorated windows and spilling into the streets toss rose petals and confetti. The following dawn, the Virgin once again takes to the road, this time in an open truck, surrounded by a cavalcade of cars and motorcycles, en route to the town of Icoaraci. Here, the image is loaded onto a spectacularly decorated boat. Since Nossa Senhora de Nazaré is also the patron saint of river navigators, the Virgin’s crossing of the Rio Guamá to Belém is accompanied by a fleet of hundreds of festively adorned wooden boats. This river spectacle is best viewed from the ramparts of the Forte do Presépio. The Virgin’s arrival in Belém is greeted with a fireworks display. Much merrymaking then ensues throughout the Cidade Velha, lasting all night until the climactic procession that takes place on Sunday morning. The Virgin’s return to the Basílica is usually completed by midday. Afterward, people get together with family and friends and feast on favorite dishes, such as pato no tucupi and maniçoba. If you want to be in town for Círio, make sure to book a hotel far in advance.

Shopping in Belém

Belém is a great source for Amazonian artifacts ranging from beautiful indigenous art to more practical items such as energy-boosting guaraná powder and woven hammocks (essential for any boat trip or backyard porch). You’ll find a wide sampling of the best the Amazon has to offer at the Mercado Ver-o-Peso (Blvd. Castilhos França, 6 a.m.–2 p.m. daily). The best hours for both browsing and buying are 6–9 a.m., when wares are at their most abundant and the sun isn’t too strong.

More about the Mercado Ver-o-Peso can be found in: “What to See in Belém, Brazil”

In Cidade Velha, Rua Gaspar Viana is home to lots of interesting little stores where you can find hammocks for that boat trip up the Amazon. For local crafts, books, and CDs, stop by the Armazém do Tempo (Passagem Carneiro da Rocha, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/3242- 5052, 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Tues.–Sun.), located in the Parque Mangal das Garças. For beautiful jewelry crafted from precious and semiprecious Amazonian rocks by local artisans, head to the Museu das Gemas located inside the Centro Cultural São José Liberto (Praça Amazonas, tel. 91/3230-4452, 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Sun.).

For more contemporary items, try the city’s most fashionable mall, Shopping Pátio Belém (Travessa Padre Eutíquio 1078, Batista Campos, tel. 91/4008-5800, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 3–9 p.m. Sun.). Aside from national boutiques, you’ll also find fast-food joints, cinemas, and cybercafés.

Recommended for anyone with a sweet tooth are the chocolates filled with Amazonian fruits such bacuri, cupuaçu, and açai sold at Bombom do Pará (Av. Presidente Vargas 702, Campina, tel. 91/3212-4212, 8 a.m.–7:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) along with jams and jellies.

Belém Hotels

Surprisingly, in view of the recent sprucing-up of the city for tourists, Belém doesn’t have many decent hotels. Many of the more centrally located options are pretty down-and-out, and even standard mid- and upper-range options are disappointing. Fortunately, there are a few exceptions.

Apart from its ideal location on Praça da República, Hotel Grão Pará (Av. Presidente Vargas 718, tel. 91/3321-2121, R$90 d) is a spotless and recently renovated mid-1960s-era hotel that offers excellent value. The sizable air-conditioned guest rooms are rather bland but well-maintained, and the staff is helpful.

Another terrific deal is Le Massilia (Rua Henrique Gurjão 236, Reduto, tel. 91/3222-2834, R$120–150 d). One of Belém’s only intimate hotels, the standard but comfortable air-conditioned guest rooms are housed in low-slung brick villas with cool tile floors and polished wooden fixtures. Aside from a refreshing pool and courtyard, there is a very decent French restaurant (the hotel’s owner is French) serving excellent steak au poivre and escargots. The hotel also organizes city tours and fishing and boating excursions. On the same street is a new modern hotel, the Machado’s Plaza Hotel (Rua Henrique Gurjão 2000, Reduto, tel. 91/4008-9817, R$220 d). The spotless, attractively furnished guest rooms lack views but have welcome splashes of color, nice lighting, and Wi-Fi access. There is also a small pool and a fitness room.

With easy access to Centro and surrounded by lots of restaurants, Belém’s most upscale hotel, the Crowne Plaza Belém (Av. Nazaré 375, Nazaré, tel. 91/3202-2000, R$480–590 d) is a gleaming if somewhat stark new behemoth whose massive guest rooms boast comfy beds, large-screen plasma TVs, and large bathrooms. Geared more toward execs than leisure travelers, the hotel is efficient and friendly, although the decor lacks personality. Amenities include a small pool, a sauna, a fitness center, and Internet access.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.