A colonial building with a sign that reads Casa Historica de Alcantara.

Photo © Fernanda Gonçalves, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Across the Baía de São Marcos from São Luís—about 1.5 hours by boat—lies the hauntingly beautiful colonial town of Alcântara. Founded in 1648, its picturesque hilltop was the favored dwelling place of Maranhão’s wealthy sugar and cotton plantation owners. During its 18th–19th-century heyday, it was one of Brazil’s most sumptuous colonial towns. The abolition of slavery resulted in the end of the high life. The ruined plantation owners decamped to São Luís, leaving their freed slaves in the abandoned town. Subsequently, like a city out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, Alcântara slipped into oblivion. The road leading to São Luís (an eight-hour drive) became overgrown, as did the town itself. Indeed, its dilapidated baroque treasures—many now in ruins—seem to be on the verge of slowly being swallowed up by steamy tropical jungle. What Alcântara lacks in lost grandeur it more than makes up for in atmosphere. It is an alluring place to while away a day.

Sights in Alcântara

Approaching Alcântara by boat is an experience in itself as you view its church domes, red tile roofs, and lithe imperial palms slowly emerge from a swathe of emerald jungle. Despite the many ruins, there are over 300 mansions, dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, spread around the hilltop in various states of disrepair. The main square of Praça da Matriz is truly impressive. Lined on three sides by once-grand palaces and with a splendid view overlooking the bay, the heart of the square is dominated by the rust-red brick ruins of the Igreja Matriz de São Mathias. In the center stands the pelourinho (whipping post used for slaves) tattooed with the Portuguese crown’s coat of arms. On one side of the praça sits the Museu Histórico (9 a.m.–2 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$1). Occupying an azulejo-covered mansion that belonged to of one of Alcântara’s aristocratic families, the museum displays a small collection of engravings, furnishings, and objects that evoke the city’s days of glory. Included is the iron bed specially made for the visit of Emperor Dom Pedro II.

On Rua da Armagura (Street of Bitterness), you can see the ruins of the Palácio Negro, which served as the slave market, and of the Casa do Imperador. Alcântara’s leading families fought tooth and nail over who would have the privilege of building the house that would lodge Imperador Pedro II during an official visit. To the townspeople’s eternal disappointment, despite the lavish welcome they had prepared for him, the emperor never made it to Alcântara; rumor has it he was waylaid by a seductive Indian maiden. Rua Grande is also full of treasures, including the 17th-century Igreja do Carmo (8 a.m.–1 p.m. and 2–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat.–Sun.), whose original baroque splendor has been restored to its former glory.

A short walk from the town brings you to the fairly primitive Praia da Baronesa. Framed by jungle, the beach is a nice place to sit at a barraca and feast on fresh fish and icy beer while watching for guarás (scarlet ibises). A diet of pink shrimp explains the lipstick-red plumage of these birds, and their appearance against the canopy of green foliage presents a shocking contrast. Also in the vicinity of Alcântara is Brazil’s satellite-launching center, home of the Brazilian space program (visitors aren’t allowed).

Festivals and Events in Alcântara

One of Maranhão’s most legendary popular celebrations, the Festa do Divino mobilizes Alcântara’s entire population during two weeks in May. A colorful fusion of African and Catholic elements, the festa also provides a resolution to the no-show of Dom Pedro II with celebrations revolving around the figures of a sumptuously attired emperor and empress (two local children) who are paraded through town to much fanfare. Commemorations include fireworks, music, and dancing to the pounding drums played by matriarchs of Tambor de Mina terreiros. Moist coconut tarts shaped like tiny tortoises, known as doce-de-especies, are distributed to all the children.

Accommodations and Food in Alcântara

Most people visit Alcântara as a day trip. Should you be very struck by the place, there are several pousadas where you can spend the night, including the Pousada dos Guarás (Praia da Baronesa, tel. 98/3337-1339, R$85 d). Located right on the beach, these palm-thatched bungalows are simple but utterly tranquil. A seaside restaurant-bar serves up delicious fresh fish. For food in town, Restaurante da Josefa (Rua Direita 33, tel. 98/3337-1109, 6:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. daily) is a cozy home-style eatery presided over by Dona Josefa, whose tasty homecooking includes generous portions of fish, seafood, and chicken dishes with myriad fixings.

Getting to Alcântara

Ferries to Alcântara (R$10) depart from São Luís’s Terminal Hidroviário (tel. 98/3232-0692) on Praia Grande’s main waterfront. Departure times can be affected by the tides. In fact, during low tide, you may need to depart or return via the Yacht Club in Ponto d’Areia (check first at the terminal). Be aware that sometimes the crossing can be a little choppy. Alternatives are to take a faster but more expensive motorboat or a slower but more scenic catamaran. All boat and information schedules are available at the terminal.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.