A herd of water buffalo rest in a pool of water surrounded by short grasses.

Water buffalo are a common sight on Ilha de Marajó. Photo © Celso Abreu, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

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-size island, some 90 kilometers (56 miles) northwest of Belém, boasts deserted beaches and 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—apart 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.

Despite its relative accessibility, Ilha de Marajó is also somewhat of a secluded world unto itself.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 February–May) and the tangled forests of the remote western coast. Historically, the island has 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 pottery and funeral urns stuck in the thick matting of their buffalos. The pottery, which came to be known as cerámica marajoara, consisted of finely wrought 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 distinctive 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 There and Around

Getting to Ilha de Marajó from Belém is quite easy. Araparí Navegação (tel. 91/3242-1570) operates daily ferry service (6:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m. Sun., R$16) from Belém. 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$65 per car) can and should 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, van, or taxi 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 the island is 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. For more information about these, check with Amazon Star Turismo (Rua Henrique Gurjão 236, Reduto, tel. 91/3241-8624). For online info, visit ilhadomarajo.com.

Ilda de Marajó Sights

The two main towns on Ilha de Marajó are Soure and Salvaterra. Soure is the largest and liveliest of the two. Founded in the 17th century on the mouth of the Rio Paracauari, it is an enticing place with pastel-painted houses shaded by palms and mango trees. Most of the island’s hotels, restaurants, and services (including the island’s Banco do Brasil with an ATM that should accept international cards) can be found here along with the closest semblance to nightlife. During the second weekend of November, Soure hosts its own small but enchanting Círio de Nazaré.

Surrounding the town are some alluring beaches. A 3-kilometer (2-mile) walk or bike ride north brings you to Praia Barra Velha, and a little farther on, across the Rio Araruna, is the even more striking Praia de Araruna. Popular Praia do Pesqueiro, 9 kilometers (6 miles) away (accessible by bus), has blue-green waters dotted with fishing boats whose daily catch is served at palm-thatched beach barracas.

On the other side of the Rio Paracauari, facing the Baía de Marajó, equally pretty Salvaterra has a more languid air and boasts proximity to Praia Grande, a sweeping ocean beach backed by palms. Around 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Salvaterra is Joanes. This tiny village is known for its golden-sand beach and the atmospheric ruins of a 17th-century church built by Jesuits, who were the first Europeans to settle the island. A historic source of contention between Spain and Portugal revolves around the fact that, in 1500, Spanish navigator Vicente Yáñez Pinzón landed on Joanes’s beach—two months before Pedro Álvares Cabral “discovered” Brazil and claimed it as Portuguese territory.

Although you can see examples of cerámica marajoara in Belém’s Museu Emílio Goeldi and the Forte do Presépio, the largest and most splendid collection of these unique 1,000-year-old pieces is housed in the Museu do Marajó (Av. do Museu 1983, tel. 91/3758-1102, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, R$2) along with other vestiges of Marajoara culture. Located in the pretty town of Cachoeira do Arari, 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Salvaterra, the museum can be reached by boat, car, or van (1 hour) along a bumpy dirt road.

Buffalo Farms

On Marajó, numerous buffalo fazendas, or farms, are open to visitors. Aside from a chance to get firsthand insight into the daily lives of Marajoanos and a behind-the-scenes look at a working buffalo farm (you can often ride the buffalos), many of these farms are located on plains and wetland areas that are rife with wildlife. Among the creatures you’re likely to see are monkeys, capybaras, jacarés (caimans), and the flamboyantly pink and scarlet ibises, known as guarás. In all cases, advance reservations are necessary.

Located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from Soure, Fazenda Bom Jesus (4a Rua Km 8, tel. 91/3741-1243) is owned by Eva Abufaiad, a veterinarian and agricultural engineer who really knows her buffalo as well as birds such as blue storks, parrots, and guarás, all of which can easily be spotted here. During the day, three-hour visits cost R$45 and include a home-cooked Marajoara snack. Only 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from Soure, Fazenda Araruna (tel. 91/9605-8674) has its own lovely river beach that is popular with guarás and can be reached by a two-hour ride on the back of a buffalo. Those who are buffalo-shy can explore the area by horseback or canoe. Outings cost R$20–40.

Some fazendas offer accommodations as well. Although no longer a working farm, Fazenda São Jerônimo (Rodovia Soure-Pesqueiro Km 3, tel. 91/3741-2093, R$110–130 d) is a picturesque estate (close to Soure) with lots of creeks and a private beach where you can swim. You can take a guided hike through groves of coconut palms and native fruit trees, or a canoe trip through mangrove swamps. Each two-hour activity costs R$40 pp. Accommodations, in a low-slung ranch house, are simple but appealing, with regional furnishings and air-conditioning. The restaurant (for guests only; reservations required) serves delicious home-cooked food, including buffalo, for both lunch and dinner.

A 45-minute boat trip and buffalo-cart ride away from Soure, the Fazenda Sanjo (tel. 91/9116-3291 or 91/3228-1385, R$350 pp for an all-inclusive 3-day package) is an authentic family-run ranch where you’ll be made to feel so at home that before you know it, you’ll be rustling up the buffalos on horseback. Once you’ve finished helping out with milking and making cheese, you can savor some delicious dishes made from the farm’s herds. Lodgings in the main farmhouse are simple but cozy and comfortable. Relaxing mud baths are sold separately. While you can make reservations directly with these fazendas (often cheaper), several agencies in Belém sell packages to them, including Amazon Star (tel. 91/3241-8624) and Valverde (tel. 91/3212-3388).

Food in Ilha de Marajó

Abundant fresh fish and seafood aside, Marajó is renowned for two very distinctive culinary specialties. The first, of course, is water buffalo, which comes in many guises. More tender and flavorful than beef, buffalo meat is also lower in cholesterol. As a main course, two of the most popular buffalo recipes are filé marajoara, in which a prime cut of succulent meat is topped with creamy melted buffalo cheese (which resembles a fine mozzarella), and frito de vaqueiro (“cowboy fried”), in which less noble parts are cut into cubes, sautéed, and eaten with pirão de leite (a puree of milk and manioc flour). You’ll also find more refined inventions such as buffalo steak in cupuaçu sauce. Meanwhile, buffalo milk shows up in everything from butter and cheese to desserts such as the classic doce de leite, a rich caramel pudding. The second Marajoano delicacy is more rarefied and also more likely to repulse squeamish gringos. It consists of a type of mollusk, known as turu, that can be found living inside dead trees located around the island’s mangrove swamp. Milky white in color and gelatinous in consistency, turu is treated like an oyster. Locals are prone to eat them raw with a spray of lime. In bars and restaurants, however, you’ll come across caldo de turu, in which the mollusk is added to a broth of coconut milk, lime juice, garlic, and cilantro.

One of the best places to sample local fare in Soure is at Paraíso Verde (Travessa 17 2135, Umarizal, tel. 91/3741-1581, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, R$15–20), an aptly named restaurant set amid ferns and native fruit trees, where the filé marajoara is pretty divine. On the road leading from Soure to Praia de Pesqueiro, Delícias da Nalva (4a Rua 1051, tel. 91/8238-7705, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, R$15–20) also has a lovely garden setting. Recommended for local dishes, it is a particularly good place to try caldo de turu.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.