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. 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 really only came into its own in the late 19th century with the onset of the rubber boom, which 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 decadence that set in during the mid–late 20th century, Belém still 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 fascinating city to walk around. Due to the mixture of European, Indian, and African influences, it also boasts one of Brazil ’s most distinctive regional cultures, whose elements are present in everything from the flavorful delicacies of Paraense cuisine to popular festas such as Círio de Nazaré.
Most visitors coming from southern Brazil  choose to fly to Belém. There are many flights (although few are direct) from major cities; however, airfare is quite costly. If you’re traveling along the Northeast coast , you can easily hop a bus, which is comfortable and far more affordable. And if you have time (and patience) to spare, you can indulge in the classic river journey—a 4–5-day voyage down the mighty Amazon—from Manaus .
By Air: Flights from cities around Brazil (including Manaus and Santarém ) arrive at the Aeroporto Internacional de Val-de-Cães (Av. Júlio César, tel. 91/3210-6039), which is around 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the center of town. A taxi to downtown costs between R$35–40. You can also take a municipal bus. Buses marked “Pres. Vargas” head to Praça da República, while those marked “Ver-O-Peso” head to Cidade Velha .
By Bus: Long distance buses arrive at the Rodoviária São Brás (Av. Almirante Barroso, São Brás, tel. 91/3246-7442), just east of Nazaré . Taking a bus to Belém inevitably involves a long haul. The closest Brazilian capital, São Luís , is a 12-hour ride. Boa Esperança (tel. 91/3266-0033) provides service to cities along the Northeast coast such as São Luís, Fortaleza , Natal , and Recife while Itapemirim (tel. 91/3226-3458, www.itapemirim.com.br ) operates buses to southern cities such as Salvador , Rio , and São Paulo .
By Boat: Taking a boat up the Amazon to Manaus  is on many people’s journey-of-a-lifetime lists (although sailing down the Amazon is actually faster). The reality is certainly not quite as romantic as you might have envisioned. Boats keep to the middle of the river, which makes seeing wildlife or even vegetation up close an exceptional occurrence. However, if you don’t mind crowds, lots of basic rice-and-beans-style cooking, and a landscape that after five days can grow a little monotonous even to the most botanically inclined, you should definitely consider this trip.
If you treat it less like a sightseeing excursion and more as an authentic insight into life along one of the world’s great waterways—complete with swinging hammocks, blaring music, idle conversations, and lots of loading and unloading of exotic wares—you will certainly be in for an adventure. Riverboats generally charge around R$500 for a private cabin. Outfitted with bunks that sleep 2–4 people, cabins offer privacy, security, and the luxury of your own bathroom, but can be cramped and stuffy.
A cheaper alternative is to buy a hammock and string it up among those of the other passengers on the ship’s deck. An upper deck hammock space (with more breeze and less motor noise) costs around R$300. Try to purchase your ticket in advance (you can often negotiate a discount) and arrive on board early to stake out hammock space.
For information about departures and tickets, visit the Terminal Fluvial (Av. Marechal Hermes, Centro, tel. 91/3224-6885). Located 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) downstream from the Estação das Docas , this is where all the riverboat companies have their offices. Boats also depart from here. Although the terminal is safe by day, be careful at night and always take taxis. Different companies operate boats that travel upstream on different days of the week. Macamazon (tel. 91/3222-5604) and Amazon Star (tel. 91/3241-8624, www.amazonstar.com.br ) operate riverboats (including some more comfortable, air-conditioned vessels) to various destinations up the Amazon, including Santarém  (2.5 days away) and Manaus .