Somewhat crumbling but terribly charismatic, Maranhão’s island capital has a flavor quite unlike any other of Brazil’s northeastern cities. Its very origins are unique in that São Luís was the only Brazilian city to be founded by the French. While the Portuguese were busy taking care of business farther east in Olinda, Recife, and Salvador, in 1612 the French commander Daniel de la Touche sailed into the Baía de São Marcos with 500 men. After erecting a fortress and forging an alliance with the local Tupinambá Indians, the French began building a city, which they named in honor of King Louis XIII. France’s foothold in Brazil was short-lived; it wasn’t long before the Portuguese got wind of the new colony, and by 1615 the French had been sent packing, the Tupinambá had been punished, and Portuguese settlers claimed the city as their own.
São Luís is a seafood lover’s paradise. Both the ocean and the region’s many rivers yield abundant fish, oysters, crab, and jumbo-size shrimp.By the 18th century, São Luís was thriving as a result of cotton, sugar, and rice plantations whose great output was assured by Indian labor and vast numbers of slaves imported from Africa. The city boasted one of the Northeast’s busiest ports, and wealthy aristocrats and shipping magnates poured their riches into building magnificent palaces overlooking the Baía de São Marcos. To deflect the hot sun, protect against dampness, and simply to impress their neighbors, the upper classes plastered the facades of buildings with gleaming azulejos (ceramic tiles) imported from Portugal. The most traditional were embossed with intricate motifs in hues of yellow and blue.
Although its palaces and azulejos survived—albeit often in a dilapidated state—São Luís itself never fully recovered from the decline that followed the abolition of slavery and the demise of its plantation economy. Only recently have the city’s fortunes begun to improve somewhat. The mining of iron ore in the interior coupled with an important aluminum industry and a new deepwater port have given a small jump start to the economy. Meanwhile, in the later 1990s, the beginnings of tourism—combined with the recognition of São Luís’s colonial center as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—were instrumental in launching Projeto Reviver, a project that has been responsible for slowly recuperating São Luís’s architectural treasures and bringing its historic heart back to life. Aside from cobblestoned praças and restored palácios, the city is bursting with cultural riches, a legacy of slavery that transformed São Luís—along with Rio and Salvador—into one of the Brazilian cities where African religion, culture, music, and cuisine are still strong. This influence is apparent in the city’s many popular festas as well as the music that regularly fills the streets, be it the powerful drumming of tambores de crioula or the slower, more mellow rhythms of reggae.
Sights and Beaches in São Luís
São Luís is a sprawling city spread out along an island peninsula. However, the oldest and most interesting parts are concentrated on the island’s tip, at the point where the Rio Anil flows into the Baía de São Marcos. Within the old city center, known as Centro, lies the neighborhood of Praia Grande. This colonial ensemble of cobblestoned streets and restored (and still crumbling) palaces falls under the jurisdiction of the Projeto Reviver (which is why you’ll often hear the bairro referred to as “Reviver”). Almost all of São Luís’s sights, and most of its action, are concentrated in this dense, fascinating, and easy-to-wander-around area. The only confusing aspect is that many streets have more than one name.
Centro Histórico (Praia Grande)
The centro histórico, a neighborhood known as Praia Grande or Reviver, is a long area bordered by Rua Afonso Pena to the east and Avenida Beira Mar to the west. A good place to begin exploring is at its northernmost edge, where you’ll find two magnificent squares. Praça Benedito Leite is an elegant green park dominated by the Igreja da Sé (Praça Dom Pedro II, tel. 98/3222-7380, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 8 a.m.–noon and 3–6:30 p.m. Sat., 8 a.m.–noon and 4–7 p.m. Sun.). The city’s main cathedral, it was built in 1690 by Jesuits in honor of Nossa Senhora da Vitória, who had supposedly helped the Portuguese oust the French from São Luís. Inside, the main baroque altar is awash in gold, and you can detect some local babaçu palms depicted in the painted ceiling frescoes.
Adjacent to Praça Benedito Leite is the much grander Praça Dom Pedro II, whose far end gazes out over the Baía de São Marcos. Two particularly majestic palaces line the square. The Palácio dos Leões (Av. Dom Pedro II, tel. 98/3232-9789, 2–5:30 p.m. Mon., Wed., and Fri., free) was constructed in 1766 as the state governor’s residence, on the site of the original Fortaleza de São Luís erected by the French. Guided visits (in Portuguese) allow you to view the elegant salons filled with 18th- and 19th-century paintings and furniture. Next door, the stately Palácio La Ravardière, built in 1689, is one of São Luís’s oldest edifices. Still exercising its original function as City Hall, its name and the statue on its threshold pay homage to São Luís’s dashing French founder, Daniel de La Touche, also known as the Sieur de la Ravardière.
On the opposite side of the praça from the palaces, a flight of steep limestone steps leads down the picturesque bar-lined street known as Beco Catarina Mina. Near the end of the stairs is the mansion of Catarina Rosa Ferreira de Jesus, an African slave of great beauty who, after purchasing her freedom, became a wealthy and successful merchant by supplying manioc flour to the Portuguese. The staircase marks the descent into the heart of colonial Praia Grande, where block after block of azulejo-encrusted mansions alternate with peeling buildings in blistered and faded pinks, blues, jades, and saffrons. Running parallel to each other are three main streets that cut lengthwise through the bairro and are home to most of its treasures: Rua da Palma, Rua do Giz, and Rua da Estrela.
Beco Catarina Mina ends on Rua Portugal, a street whose buildings showcase a dazzling array of colorful tile work. Close by, the arches of the early 19th-century Casa das Tulhas (Rua da Estrela, Praia Grande, 6 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 6 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat., 6 a.m.–1 p.m. Sun.) give way to the Mercado Praia Grande, a traditional and very charming market hidden away behind the Casa’s colonial facade. It’s worth wandering past the stands selling dried shrimp, medicinal herbs, exotic fruit, cotton hammocks, and Indian basketry. Make sure to stop for a drink in order to take in the surrounding activity while you quench your thirst. At 7 p.m. on Fridays there are performances of traditional tambor de crioula dancing.
Compared to other historical cities in Brazil, São Luís is bereft of splendid colonial churches. Apart from the cathedral, the most interesting one is the striking early-18th-century Igreja do Desterro (Largo do Desterro), whose onionlike Byzantine domes are a strange but beautiful surprise. The Convento das Mercês (Rua da Palma 502, tel. 98/3231-0641) was founded in 1654 by celebrated Jesuit preacher Antônio Vieira, whose sermons are highly regarded as Brazil’s early literary writings. The hibiscus-colored exterior is quite arresting. However, you can skip the museum inside—a worshipful collection of memorabilia honoring a former Brazilian president (1985–1990) and all-powerful former governor of Maranhão, José Sarney. On the edge of Praia Grande, the Igreja do Carmo (Praça João Lisboa) dates to 1627. It has suffered various modifications over time, including the 1866 addition of the white-and-yellow Portuguese azulejos covering its facade.
São Luís has an impressive number of small but interesting museums. Most are located in Praia Grande’s historic mansions and palaces. Many of the visits are guided, often only in Portuguese.
The Casa do Maranhão (Rua do Trapiche, tel. 98/3218-9955, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free) is a must-see museum if you want some excellent insight into Maranhão’s spectacular Bumba-Meu-Boi festivities. Housed in a 19th-century customs building on the waterfront, the museum traces the history of this festa from pagan times and early Christianity up to the rich syncretic makeover it received in northeastern Brazil, where it was influenced by African and indigenous cultures. Even if your knowledge of Portuguese is nil, musical instruments, videos, and sumptuous costumes and accessories will whet your appetite to see the real thing. The Centro de Cultura Popular (Rua do Giz 221, tel. 98/3218-9924, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free) goes one step beyond the Casa do Maranhão. Also known as the Casa da Festa, it boasts four floors of colorful displays that provide a wonderful overview of rich cultural traditions from around the state. Aside from a refresher in Bumba- Meu-Boi, captivating photographs and regalia provide you with an indelible impression of festivals such as Carnaval, the Festa do Divino, and rituals linked to Tambor de Mina, Maranhão’s important Afro-Brazilian religion (similar to Candomblé).
Lodged inside a splendid azulejo-covered house, the Casa de Nhôzinho (Rua Portugal 185, tel. 98/3218-9953, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free) showcases Maranhão’s typical artesanato with a beguiling array of objects from daily life, including pottery, fishing implements, wonderful toys made from scrap materials, and artifacts from numerous indigenous groups. A special gallery is devoted to the works of Mestre Nhozinho (1904–1974), a Maranhense artisan renowned for the wood carvings he sculpted out of buriti palm. The toys he made and gave to poor children are quite ingenious.
The Museu de Artes Visuais (Rua Portugal 273, tel. 98/3218-9938, 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$2) serves up an artistic mishmash culled from private collections that mixes centuries (17th–20th) and genres (baroque religious art, Brazilian modernism, works by contemporary Maranhense artists). The most interesting part of this museum is its overview of azulejo manufacturing, illustrated by some fine samples of glazed tiles from Portugal, Spain, Germany, and France.
The Cafua das Mercês (Rua Jacinto Maia 43, Desterro, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., R$2) consists of a small house and courtyard, with a replica of a whipping post, that was formerly São Luís’s slave market. The haunting, claustrophobic atmosphere and handful of chains and torture instruments leave more of an impact than the sprinkling of West African artifacts that aspire to constitute the Museu do Negro.
Beyond Praia Grande’s frontiers lie a couple of other interesting museums. Occupying a gracious early-19th-century mansion, the Museu Artístico e Histórico do Maranhão (Rua do Sol 302, tel. 98/3218-9922, 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$5) conjures up the lifestyles of the rich and powerful in São Luís’s economic heyday. Furnished as if people were still living in them, rooms are replete with lots of dark, gleaming wooden furniture, crystal chandeliers, and delicate English and French porcelain, most of which was donated by descendants of the former proprietors. Just around the corner, another grand mansion houses the Museu de Arte Sacra (Rua 13 de Maio 500, tel. 98/3218-4537, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 2–6 p.m. Sat.–Sun., free), which possesses a fine collection of 17th–19th-century religious art rescued from churches throughout Maranhão.
On the same street as the Museu Artístico e Histórico, you can’t help but notice the coral-colored neoclassical facade of the Teatro Arthur Azevedo (Rua do Sol 180, tel. 98/3218-9900, visits at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Tues. and Thurs., R$2). Built in the early 19th century with money from local cotton barons, the second-largest theater in Brazil is a grand imitation of European theaters of the time. It is worthwhile taking a guided tour to observe the opulence of its interior.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, São Luís had many public fountains that supplied water to the populace. Two that are still in existence are the Fonte das Pedras (Rua São João) and Fonte do Ribeirão (Largo do Ribeiro). The latter is truly splendid, with water pouring out of bronze spigots that are set into the mouths of a quintet of fierce-looking heads. The heads are set into a bright blue wall, behind which a series of subterranean tunnels lead to underground wells. According to local legend, these tunnels are inhabited by a giant serpent that, one day, will rise up with its tail and smash the city, causing it to sink to the bottom of the sea.
Beaches in São Luís
Unlike in other northeastern cities, beaches are not a main attraction in São Luís. Although clean, sweeping, and wide, the sands are an uninspiring beige, and the water is murky. Due to the configuration of the sea and coastline, the city’s tides are enormous. As a result, when the tide goes out, you have to walk for ages just to feel the ocean lapping against your knees. When the tide is high, rough waves and currents make swimming dangerous. Nonetheless, the beaches do offer a relaxing break. Crowded on weekends, they’re almost deserted during the week.
It’s easy to get to the beaches by bus or car from Centro. All you need to do is cross the Ponte José Sarney that spans the Rio Anil, on the other side of which is the modern commercial district of São Francisco. From here, Avenida Ana Jansen leads past the Lagoa de Jansen to Ponta d’Areia, the first of many tony but completely characterless beach neighborhoods that serve as residences and playgrounds for São Luís’s middle class and elite. The main drag, Avenida Litorânea, then follows the ocean past the long beaches of São Marcos, Calhau, and Olho d’Agua. São Marcos has a pleasant boardwalk lined with animated bars that are popular with surfers. Equally nice is Calhau with its many barracas where you can take refuge from the sun (or rain). Vendors sell various snacks, including fresh oysters, which they will open right in front of you and douse with lime juice. You can easily feast on dozens.
São Luís is a seafood lover’s paradise. Both the ocean and the region’s many rivers yield abundant fish, oysters, crab, and jumbo-size shrimp. Maranhão’s most characteristic specialty is arroz-de-cuxá. This rice-based dish is made with the mildly pungent leaves of a local plant called vinagreira, to which dried shrimp, toasted sesame, and manioc flour are added. Also try the torta de camarão, a type of frittata stuffed with dry or fresh shrimp, a recipe that was originally invented by slaves. Maranhão’s proximity to the Amazon explains the presence of a couple of the most ambrosial fruits you’ll ever taste: cupuaçu (whose popularity has spread throughout Brazil) and the much rarer bacuri. Savor them as thick juices or for dessert as mousse-like cremes, or else stop by any drugstore of the Extra Farma chain, which sells a local brand (Blaus) of picolé (popsicle) made using the aforementioned native fruits as well as muruci and taperaba.
Instead of Coca-Cola or guaraná, Maranhenses swear by Jesus. The name of this bright pink soft drink has no connection to the Son of God. Instead, it pays homage to local pharmacist Jesus Norberto Gomes, who invented it back in 1920. Jesus’s ingredients include cinnamon, cloves, and the jolting presence of guaraná. In markets and bars, you’ll also see plenty of bottles of a distilled substance that ranges in color from pale lilac to ultraviolet. Known as tiquira, this popular Maranhense version of cachaça is made from fermented manioc, and it packs quite a wallop.
Located on the second floor of a colonial building, the lavish spreads at the Restaurante Senac (Rua de Nazaré 242, Centro, tel. 98/3198-1100, noon–3 p.m. Mon. and Wed.–Thurs., noon–3 p.m. and 7–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat., R$20–30) are prepared and ceremoniously served by local students of the Senac restaurant school. The lunch buffets change daily, but all allow you to sample regional dishes. Nearby, in a colonial palacete that also shelters a lounge and a lively Mexican sidewalk bar, the upstairs bistro Espaço Armazém (Rua da Estrela 401, tel. 98/3254-1274, Praia Grande, 11:30 a.m.–close Thurs.–Fri., 7 p.m.–close Sat.–Wed., R$25–35) seduces local socialites and visitors alike with tiled floors and exposed stone walls along with its refined menu featuring dishes such as snapper bathed in cajá sauce.
A local institution that recently migrated from Praia Grande to the beach but whose recipes remain intact is Base de Lenoca (Av. Litorânea 16, Bloco 9B, São Francisco, tel. 98/3235-8971, noon–close daily, R$20–30). This is a good place to savor Maranhense specialties such as torta de camarão, caldeirada maranhense, a stew of jumbo shrimp swimming in coconut milk, and casquinhas de carangueijo, in which crab meat sautéed with garlic, tomato, and lime juice is served in its shell. Another popular, and swankier, beach address is Maracangalha (Rua Mearim 13, Calhau, 11:30 a.m.–midnight Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., R$25–35), a charming eatery whose walls are decorated with colorful works by local artists, including the restaurant’s chef, Melquíades Dantas. Dantas is the inventor of an addictive geleia de pimenta (pepper jelly) that accompanies the beef pastéis, which is a great starter. Entrées feature seafood dishes such as anchovy fillets topped with shrimp with arroz-de-cuxá, and a celebrated caldeirada maranhense. The breezy veranda is an ideal spot to sample the extensive menu of cocktails and cachaças.
Information and Services in São Luís
You’ll find tourist offices at Praça Benedito Leite (Rua da Palma 53, Centro, tel. 98/3212-6211, 8 a.m.–7 p.m. daily) as well as at the airport (tel. 98/3244-4500) and the Rodoviária (tel. 98/3249-4500). On the Internet, the state government has a good bilingual website (www.turismo.ma.gov.br). The municipal website is in Portuguese only. Lotus Turismo e Aventura (Rua Marcelino Almeida 25, Praia Grande, tel. 98/3221-0942) offers tours of the coastline around São Luís as well as trips to Alcântara and the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses.
For banking, you’ll find a Banco do Brasil in Praia Grande (Travessa Boa Ventura 26‑B) and an HSBC in Centro (Rua do Sol 105). The main post office is on Praça João Lisboa.
Livraria Poem-Se is a bookstore that also sells magazines and CDs and has Internet access. It has a location in Praia Grande (Rua Joao Valberto 52, tel. 98/3232-4068, 8:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. Sat.).
In an emergency, dial 193 for the fire department, 192 for an ambulance, and 190 for the police. The special tourist police headquarters is in Praia Grande (Rua da Estrela 427, tel. 98/3214-8682). For medical assistance, try the Santa Casa de Misericórdia (Rua do Norte 233, tel. 98/3232-0144).
Getting to São Luís
Air fare to São Luís is not that cheap, but the alternative is long hours spent on buses. There are few direct flights from major Brazilian cities. You’ll often need to make a connection in Fortaleza or Brasília. The Aeroporto Marechal Cunha Machado (Av. dos Libaneses, Tirirical, tel. 98/3217-6100), is 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the centro histórico. A taxi to Centro and Praia Grande costs R$35–40.
Long-distance buses to São Luís are much cheaper but take forever. There is no direct service along the coast from Fortaleza—instead you have to go via Piauí and change in Parnaíba or Teresina (ultimately, you’ll spend 15 hours on the road). Coming from Recife, Salvador, or Brasília also usually entails a connection in Teresina. The long-distance Rodoviária (Av. dos Franceses, Santo Antônio, tel. 98/3249-2488) is 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Centro. A cab will cost R$25–30. You can also take a municipal bus to the Terminal de Integração, the local bus station located along the waterfront at Praia Grande.
In terms of buses, the only ones you’ll really need to take are those that shuttle between the Terminal de Integração (marked “Praia Grande”) and the beaches (marked “Ponta d’Areia” or “Calhau”). Bus fare is R$1.90. For other destinations, and after sundown, you should resort to taxis, which are easy to hail. You can also reserve one by calling Cocoma (tel. 98/3231-1010). Renting a car is not really necessary, unless you want to drive to the Lençóis Maranhenses. If so, Avis (tel. 98/3245-5957) and Localiza (tel. 98/3245-1566) both have offices at the airport.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.