What to See in Belém, Brazil

Soaps and bottles of perfumes are strung up in a column for sale under a tent.

Synonymous with Belém itself is the sprawling Mercado Ver-o-Peso which stretches out along the river. Photo © Claudio Careca, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Belém sits at the intersection of the Rio Guamá with the Baía de Guajará. The river defines Belenense life, and along its banks you’ll find many of the city’s most interesting sights. Fanning out from the Forte do Presépio, the historic quarter known as Cidade Velha is rife with an unusual mishmash of old buildings that range in style from baroque to art deco. Cidade Velha’s northern boundary is Avenida President Vargas, Belém’s main boulevard, which stretches up from the waterfront to Praça da República, the city’s elegant main square.

For tours of Belém and the surrounding region, there are two reputable tour operators that have lots of experience with foreign tourists. For tours of Belém and the surrounding region, there are two reputable tour operators that have lots of experience with foreign tourists. Their outings and excursions are all interesting and nicely priced, and many of the staff and guides speak English. Aside from the day outings listed below, they offer trips and packages to destinations such as Ilha de Marajó and Santarém.

Amazon Star Turismo (Rua Henrique Gurjão 236, Reduto, tel. 91/3241-8624) offers a variety of tours, including half-day walking tours (R$70) to the city’s major historic attractions. Also popular are the full-day hiking tours that take you across the Rio Guamá to a patch of rain forest. Aside from spotting wildlife, you get to visit a traditional caboclo community and a stop for a refreshing dip in the river. The trip, including a guide and lunch, costs R$235. For bird-lovers who can deal with getting up at the crack of dawn, Amazon Star offers a unique excursion (R$100) to Ilha do Papagaio (Parrot Island), an island off the shore of Belém that is the roosting spot for hundreds of brightly colored parrots. After a hotel pickup, you sail to the island to watch the birds awaken and fly away, their bright plumage merging with the gaudy colors of the sunrise.

Valverde Turismo (Estação das Docas, tel. 91/3212-3388) is another reputable tour operator. Aside from a similar half-day city walking tour, Valverde offers half-day tours to the beach town of Icoaraci (R$75). Romantics should definitely take the two-hour “sunset” boat tour (R$40) that departs at 5:30 p.m. nightly from the Estação das Docas and navigates the river as the sun sinks below the horizon and the city lights come twinkling on.


Belém Sights

Cidade Velha

Cidade Velha is Belém’s oldest neighborhood. To this day, it retains many colonial buildings with adobe walls and red-tiled roofs. Wandering around its narrow, atmospheric streets is a pleasurable experience, although the area should be avoided at night and on Sundays. It was here—around the early-17th-century Forte do Presépio (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão 117, tel. 91/4009-8828, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2, free Tues.)—that the city sprang to life. From this fortress overlooking the Rio Guamá, the Portuguese jealously guarded the entrance to the Amazon while launching conquests deeper and deeper into the rain forest. The enormous cannons perched on the ramparts are proof of their defensive zeal. Inside the fort, a small but interesting museum somewhat ironically pays homage to the local Tapajós and Marajoara Indians that thrived here before the arrival of the Portuguese. Among the artifacts unearthed in archaeological sites are some wonderful examples of pre-Columbian pottery, notably vessels made by the indigenous peoples of Ilha de Marajó.

With the wealth earned from the sugar trade, aristocrats built sumptuous mansions along the waterfront.It wasn’t long before the Portuguese had settled in. With the wealth earned from the sugar trade, aristocrats built sumptuous mansions along the waterfront. One of the grandest was the Casa das Onze Janelas (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão, tel. 91/4009-8821, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2, free Tues.), built by sugar baron Domingos da Costa Bacelar in the late 1600s. From the onze janelas (11 windows) of his pale yellow mansion, Bacelar and his rich cronies sipped tea and watched as slaves loaded up boats with sugar and unloaded European goodies that would allow them to live in the jungle without sacrificing style and comfort. Today, the mansion is a cultural center that juggles a permanent collection of Brazilian modernists with temporary exhibits of contemporary art. The sweeping balcony once haunted by sugar barons is now occupied by a fashionable bar, Boteco das Onze (tel. 91/3224-8559), where Belenenses and tourists alike snack on coxinhas de carangueijo (tender crab pastries) and watch the sun set over the river.

The picturesque Praça Frei Caetano Brandão (also known as the Praça da Sé) is anchored by the twin-towered Catedral da Sé (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão, tel. 91/3223-2362, 8 a.m.–noon Mon., 8 a.m.–noon and 2–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 7–10 a.m. and 4–8 p.m. Sat., 6:30 a.m.–noon and 4–8 p.m. Sun.). It was designed by Italian architect Antônio José Landi, who had numerous commissions in Belém. The interior is an unremarkable mishmash of baroque and neoclassical styles with a lot of glossy marble imported from Italy. Also on the praça is the early baroque Igreja de Santo Alexandre. Built by local Indians, it features some delicate woodwork. The church, along with its annex, the former archbishop’s palace, houses the Museu de Arte Sacra (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão, tel. 91/4009-8802, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$4, free Tues.), which exhibits a collection of religious paintings and carved wooden saints.

Just around the corner, on a pretty little street, the Museu do Círio (Rua Padre Champagnat, tel. 91/4009-8846, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2) conjures up the pageantry and frenzy (both sacred and profane) of Círio de Nazaré, Belém’s most important popular and religious festival. Aside from gazing at photographs of the processions, you can also admire the artistry of emblematic objects such as embroidered banners, images of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, and feather-light toys made of miriti, an Amazonian palm, made especially for the festa by caboclo artisans from a tiny town in the Paraense interior.

Nearby, on Praça Dom Pedro II, you’ll see two magnificent palaces that conjure up Belém’s late-19th-century days of rubber glory. Once the city hall, the Palácio Antônio Lemos is an elegant neoclassical construction with a striking powder blue and white facade. After being abandoned, it later underwent restoration. It currently houses municipal government offices along with the Museu de Arte do Belém (Praça Dom Pedro II, tel. 91/3114-1028, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$1), whose permanent collection of paintings is less impressive than the palace itself. The interior is a Versailles-worthy series of courtyards and grand salons decked out in crystal chandeliers, bronze and marble statues, and belle epoque furniture. Slippers are provided so you won’t scratch the glossy parquet floors.

Next door, the gleaming white Palácio Lauro Sodré is another edifice that was designed by Antônio Landi in the 1770s. The former residence of Pará’s governors, it now lodges the Museu do Estado do Pará (Praça Dom Pedro II, tel. 91/4009-8838, 1–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$4, free Tues.). Once again, aside from some exquisite furniture, the rather musty historical artifacts are less interesting than the palace interior. The ground floor reception salons overlooking the praça (where good temporary exhibits are often held) are particularly opulent, as is the grand marble staircase leading upstairs to older and more sedate rooms where you’ll find the permanent collection.


Mercado Ver-o-Peso

Synonymous with Belém itself is the sprawling Mercado Ver-o-Peso (Blvd. Castilhos França, 6 a.m.–2 p.m. daily), which stretches out along the river. Just as Belém is the gateway to the Amazon rain forest, the market serves an essential link between the city and the jungle. For over 300 years, boats have sailed down the river from the depths of the Amazon to unload their wares at the Mercado, whose name, Vero-Peso (“See the Weight”), is derived from the Portuguese habit of weighing all merchandise in order to calculate tributes to the crown. The main building, with its twin neo-Gothic towers and cast-iron structure imported from Scotland in the late 1800s, was originally known as the Mercado de Ferro (Iron Market). Today, it is only one section of the immense bazaar, which also includes hundreds of barracas as well as a tented area containing bars and restaurants where you can sample Paraense specialties such as fried fish, maniçoba, and açai.

The liquid gold of bottled tucupi clashes with the deep green of ground manioc leaves, the soft rose blush of a jambu fruit, and the rich purple of açai.The market is somewhat ramshackle and chaotic; keep an eye on your belongings at all times due to pickpockets. But the colorful jumble adds to the adventure of wandering through the labyrinth of stalls, where you’ll encounter exotica ranging from cobra teeth and pirarucu tongues (used by Indians as a food grater) to herbal potions guaranteed to make you filthy rich or lucky in love. The initial assault on your senses is a little overwhelming. The liquid gold of bottled tucupi clashes with the deep green of ground manioc leaves, the soft rose blush of a jambu fruit, and the rich purple of açai. There are also the smells: the sweet perfume of bacuri and graviola mingling with the pungent saltiness of cured beef and fresh fish. And the noises: the snip of scissors separating seeds from the pearly flesh of a cupuaçu, the crack of Brazil nuts being removed from their shells, the singsong cries of merchants touting their wares. Aside from the gorgeous jumble of fruits, fish, spices, doces, and ceramics, one of the most interesting sections is the area devoted to indigenous herbal remedies that will cure whatever ails you—physically or spiritually. The women who hawk these potions, known as mandingueiras, swear by the miraculous recipes that have been passed down through generations. They range from powdered vulture’s liver (great for a hangover) to the bottled genitalia of a boto, or pink river dolphin, which is purported to be a foolproof love potion. Although it has no curative properties, a Ver-o-Peso best-seller is extract of pau-rosa, an Amazonian tree whose bark is one of the main ingredients in Chanel No. 5 perfume.


Estação das Docas

In 2001, an inspired renovation transformed the 19th-century steel cargo warehouses that lined Belém’s seedy riverside port area into an airy and modern complex known as the Estação das Docas (Blvd. Castilhos França, tel. 91/3215-5525, 10 a.m.–midnight Tues.–Wed., 10 a.m.–3 a.m. Thurs.–Sat., 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.). Aside from a cultural center with a theater, a cinema, and galleries, the three warehouses contain boutiques and bookstores as well as a bar, a café, the famous Cairu sorveteria, and a cluster of gourmet restaurants. Featuring large glass walls overlooking the docks and the river, the Estação das Docas has become one of Belém’s most happening hangouts. By day, it’s a nice place to walk around (there is a scenic view of the bay from the boardwalk), quaff microbrewery beer, nibble on buffalo kebabs, and watch the sunset. At night, live music shows are often performed on a movable stage that has been fashioned out of a former loading trolley. Tourist excursions along the river depart from the dock’s small hidroviária.


Praça da República and Theatro da Paz

Belém’s main square is the leafy Praça da República, an elegant green park with a small amphitheater that offers respite to Belenenses of all ages. On one side of the praça sits the Theatro da Paz (Praça da República, tel. 91/4009-8750), a deep-rose-colored, white-pillared, neoclassical theater inaugurated in 1878. Inspired by Milan’s La Scala, Belém’s rubber barons financed the splendid building, whose interior is decked out in precious woods, gilt mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and glossy Italian marble. In the auditorium, note the ceiling mural of Apollo on his chariot being pulled through the Amazon. The guided tours (every hour 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Tues.–Fri., R$4) are recommended. In August, the theater hosts the prestigious Festival de Ópera.


Nazaré

From Praça da República, Avenida Nazaré cuts through the upscale neighborhood of the same name. Belém is renowned for its centuries-old mango trees, and Nazaré’s streets are lined with a dark-green leafy canopy. Keep a lookout for the bright yellow pulp on the sidewalks (much more slippery than a banana peel) and for the possibility of mangoes falling on your head, particularly October–December. Aside from mangoes, Nazaré possesses many pastel-colored historic buildings, some of which house chic boutiques and restaurants.

Every October the church and the statue of the saint are the focal point for Círio de Nazaré, one of Brazil’s most lavish religious and popular festivals.On the corner of Avenida Nazaré and Avenida Generalíssimo Deodoro lies Belém’s most famous church, the Basílica de Nossa Senhora de Nazaré (Praça Justo Chermont, tel. 91/4009-8400, 6 a.m.–7:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 6 a.m.–noon and 3–9 p.m. Sat.–Sun.). Completed in 1908, it was modeled after Rome’s Saint Peter’s Basilica. Aside from its spiritual importance (this is where the image of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, the patron saint of Pará, is housed), this majestic white church is a stunner. The exterior is impressive for its simplicity, offset by the giant samauma tree in front. More awe-inspiring is the marble interior, which is accessorized with stained-glass windows, wooden ceiling carvings, and colored tile mosaics reminiscent of Moorish architecture. Every October the church and the statue of the saint are the focal point for Círio de Nazaré, one of Brazil’s most lavish religious and popular festivals.

After the basilica, Avenida Nazaré turns into Avenida Magalhães Barata. Two blocks farther is the not-to-be-missed Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi (Rua Magalhães Barata 376, tel. 91/3219-3369, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2). Founded in 1895, the museum was the world’s first research center devoted to the flora, fauna, and cultures of the Amazon. To date, it is also considered one of the best. Located on a vast estate, the museum has an impressive collection of Indian artifacts, including a great display of the distinctive and delicate pre-Columbian ceramic vessels made by the indigenous groups that once inhabited the Ilha de Marajó. Better yet is the introduction it provides to the rain forest itself. Simply strolling amid towering mahogany and rubber trees, past lagoons strewn with giant Victoria amazonica water lilies, will get you in a jungly frame of mind. The art nouveau–style aquarium is chock-full of electric eels, flying fish, matamata turtles, and black piranhas. And you can familiarize yourself with mammals you may never see in the actual jungle, such as spider monkeys, tapirs, anteaters, and ultrarare spotted jaguars as well as more common but surreally Day-Glo toucans and macaws.

Two blocks from the museum, the Parque da Residência (Av. Magalhães Barata 830, tel. 91/3229-8000, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) is a small but very pretty park surrounding the former governor’s residence. This handsome mansion is now headquarters to the Secretary of Culture. It functions as a cultural center with a gallery space, a theater, and the excellent Restô do Parque. Reward yourself for walking in the heat with a refreshing ice cream at the 100-year-old train wagon that has been converted into a sorveteria.


Centro Cultural São José Liberto

A short cab ride from Cidade Velha, 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.) occupies an early-18th-century Franciscan monastery on Praça Amazonas. Back in the day, the square was a former execution ground, and the neighboring monks routinely accompanied criminals to their hangings. In the 18th century, the monastery was converted into a prison, which was abandoned before a major overhaul in the 1990s gave it a happier reincarnation as a cultural complex. Most of the Centro’s exhibits and activities revolve around Pará’s abundance of precious and semiprecious stones (for this reason it is also known as the Pólo Joalheiro, or Jewelry Zone). The colonial part of the complex houses the Museu das Gemas do Estado (R$4), which boasts a dazzling collection of Amazonian rocks and minerals in rough and polished states.

Having whetted your appetite for jewels, check out the Casa do Artesão, a series of ateliers where you can watch local artisans hard at work cutting, polishing, and creating intricate and original jewelry from the stones you saw in the museum. If you’re struck by the urge to buy, the final products can be purchased in on-site boutiques. In an adjacent modern annex, you’ll find a café and a Cairu sorveteria outlet as well as exhibition areas and some stands selling handicrafts, including some very attractive ceramics in the tradition of Marajoara pottery.


Parks

Belém has a number of parks that conspire to give you a foretaste of what’s in store if and when you embark on a trip into the depths of the Amazonian rain forest. The most central of these, Parque Mangal das Garças (Passagem Carneiro da Rocha, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/3242-5052, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2, R$6 for a passport to all attractions), is located along the edge of Cidade Velha, on the banks of the Rio Gaumá. The park is yet another example of the inspired renewal projects that have taken hold of Belém over the last decade. Strolling around is very pleasant. The landscaping mixes plants and trees from different Amazonian ecosystems as well as lagoons dotted with bright white herons and scarlet ibises.

Birders will have a field day at the Aviário das Aningas. At the entrance to the aviary, you’re given an illustrated guide to all the feathered creatures inside. The fun part is walking around the jungly atmosphere, keeping score of who can catch sight of a giant stork or bright red guará first. Once you’ve checked off all 150 birds, go for a rematch at the Borboletário Márcio Ayres. Upon entering this pavilion, you’ll once again be furnished with an illustrated guide—only this time, your eyes will be peeled for the resplendent Amazonian borboletas (butterflies) and jewel-like beija-flores (hummingbirds) that flap and dart amid the misty environment.

The park’s main complex, an indigenous structure of ipê wood and palm fibers, houses the Mangal das Garças restaurant and the Museu Amazônico de Navegação, a small museum that traces the Amazon’s tradition of boat-building as well as the history of river transportation in Pará. For a terrific view of the river looking toward the Cidade Velha, walk along the wooden walkways that lead out to a viewing platform suspended above the muddy banks. For even better views, take the elevator to the top of the Farol de Belém, the rather odd-looking modern lighthouse located in the middle of the park. On your way out, stop by the Armazém do Tempo, a renovated shipbuilding warehouse converted into a gallery where you can purchase books and CDs by local musicians. You’ll also find a good mix of local artesanato, ranging from indigenous jewelry, made from the seeds of fruit such as açai and pupunha, to delicate toys made from miriti palm fibers.

More untamed Amazonian foliage can be found at the Bosque Rodrigues Alves (Av. Almirante Barroso 2305, Bairro do Marco, tel. 91/3276-2308, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$1), an untamed 19th-century botanical garden filled with 2,500 regional species, most of which are typical of virgin rain forest. Meandering trails lead past a lagoon brimming with fish and turtles to an orchidarium and a small aquarium. Among the rare and very weird mammals you can glimpse up close are the jupará—which resembles a cross between a cat, a bear, and a monkey—and the Amazonian manatee, whose Portuguese name, peixe boi (“fish-cow”), says it all. Although this sausage-like creature could never win any beauty contests, in the water it moves with all the grace of Esther Williams.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.


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