Maranhão is where the Northeast and Amazônia collide. Although classed as a northeastern state by Brazilians, its climate, landscape, history and capital of São Luís are all amazônico rather than nordestino. Maranhão is the only state in the Northeast to which more people migrate than emigrate from. Drought is not a problem here; the climate is equatorial – humid, hot and very wet indeed. The rainy season peaks from January to April, but most months it rains at least a little, and usually a lot – although only in concentrated, refreshing bouts for most of the year. This is one of the main rice-producing areas in Brazil.
Further west begins the tropical forest and savanna of Amazônia proper, as you hit the eastern boundary of the largest river basin in the world. The coast also changes character: the enormous beaches give way, from São Luís westwards, to a bewildering jumble of creeks, river estuaries, mangrove swamps and small islands, interspersed with some of the most remote beaches in Brazil – almost five hundred kilometres of largely roadless coastline with towns and villages accessible only from the sea.
Like most zones of geographical transition, Maranhão also marks a historical and cultural divide. The people are a striking contrast to the ethnic uniformity of the states immediately to the east: here blacks, Indians and Europeans form one of the richest cultural stews to be found in Brazil. Catch the great popular festival of Bumba-meu-boi in June and you’ll get some idea of how different from the rest of the Northeast Maranhão really is.