These days, there’s nowhere else on Earth that the lyrics “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam…” apply to better than Ilha de Marajó. Bathed by waters of the Rio Amazonas, Rio Tocantins, and the Atlantic Ocean, this Switzerland-sized island some 90 kilometers (56 miles) northwest of Belém  boasts lovely beaches, mangrove swamps teeming with exotic cranes, herons, ibises, and thousands and thousands of water buffalo.
On the largest river island in the world, buffalo are a major source of food (succulent steaks and creamy cheese) and transportation; they are far better than horses or cars at wading through muddy wetlands—for this reason, buffalo tow the municipal garbage trucks.
They are also a major source of livelihood—aside from food, their hides supply the local leather industry. In fact, they outnumber the human population by a ratio of 3:1. Although at first glance, they might appear a little ornery, the buffalo are actually very docile. Moreover, those that serve as transportation vehicles receive special training to deal with tourists.
There are various stories surrounding the water buffalo’s arrival on Marajó. One version credits their introduction to 18th-century Franciscan monks, while another claims they were survivors of a capsized boat that was transporting buffalo from India to French Guyana.
Buffalo aside, Ilha de Marajó is a fascinating place. Despite its relative accessibility, Ilha de Marajó is also somewhat of a secluded world unto itself. Geographically, its vegetation is split between the flat wetlands of the eastern coast, which conjure up the Pantanal  of Mato Grosso  (particularly during the floods that occur between February and May) and the tangled forests of the remote western coast.
Historically, the island possesses a rich heritage. Between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1300, it was inhabited by a group of Indians that was believed to have had a very sophisticated culture. Evidence of this lost civilization came to light in the 19th century when, after the annual floods, local farmers began to find shards of finely-wrought pottery and funeral urns stuck in the thick matting of their buffalos.
The pottery, which came to be known as cerámica marajoara, consisted of highly original vessels made of local white clay mixed with substances such as ground tree bark and tortoise shells. Color was added via charcoal (black) and urucum (an ocher colored powder used in cooking to this day). Before being baked and varnished, the pottery was decorated with intricate designs illustrating scenes from life such as marriage and hunting ceremonies. To this day, the island has maintained this ceramics tradition, with local artists continuing to create exquisite pieces inspired by the ancient Marajoara techniques and motifs.
Visitors to Ilha de Marajó stay on the island’s eastern coast (closest to Belém). If you’re traveling independently and without a car, your best bet is to base yourself in one of the picturesque villages of Soure, Salvaterra, or Joanes. It is difficult to get around the island on public transport (although you can easily rent a bike). If you want to see more than beaches, it’s best to arrange a tour out of Belém  that includes a stay at a working buffalo fazenda,  a number of which operate as ecotourist pousadas.
Getting to Ilha de Marajó from Belém  is quite easy. Araparí Navegação (tel. 91/3212-2492) operates daily ferry service (6:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m. Sun., R$14) from Belém to Salvaterra. Departing from Portão 15 at the Docas do Pará (right near the Estação das Docas), the journey takes three hours. Another alternative is the car ferry that leaves from the nearby town of Icoaraci. Operated by Henvil (tel. 91/3249-3400), boats leave at 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. daily. Tickets (R$70 per car) can be purchased in advance at the Henvil kiosk at Belém’s rodoviária.
On Marajó, all ferries dock at the Porto de Camará. From here you can easily get a bus or van to take you to Joanes and Salvaterra, 30 minutes away. From Salvaterra, a five-minute boat takes you across the river to Soure. If you confirm your arrival in advance, most pousadas or fazendas will agree to have someone pick you up at the docks.
Since public transport is sketchy, if you’re without a car, the best way to get around is the island by taxi or moto-taxi (available in Soure and Salvaterra). You can also rent a bike (a service offered by many pousadas).
In Belém, specialized travel agencies offer complete packages that include all accommodations, meals, and excursions on Marajó, as well as transportation to and from the island from Belém. More information about these, check with Amazon Star Turismo (Rua Henrique Gurjão 236, Reduto, tel. 91/3241-8624, www.amazonstar.com.br ).