Clearly once a lovely colonial city, SÃO LUÍS has really been left behind by the rest of Brazil. A poor city even by Northeast standards, it’s the most emphatically Third World of all the state capitals in this region. It has a huge black population, a legacy of plantation development during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and responsible for the reggae music for which the city is increasingly famed. It is also far larger than it seems from the compact city centre; almost a million people live here, most of them in sprawling favelas, with the middle classes concentrated in the beach areas of Ponta da Areia, São Francisco and Olho d’Agua, linked to the rest of the city by a ring road and the bridge built out from the centre across the Rio Anil.
But, for all its problems, São Luís is a fascinating place. Music, street theatre, food and beaches are the city and region’s main pull, along with the impressive colonial centre. Built across the junction of two rivers and the sea, on an island within the larger delta formed by the Pindaré and Itapicuru rivers, it has the umbilical connection with rivers that marks an Amazon city, but is also a seaport with ocean beaches. The latter are magnificent, and for the most part have been spared intrusive urban development. Above all, try to visit in June, when you can enjoy the festival for which the city is famous, Bumba-meu-boi: here, it counts for more than Carnaval.
São Luís is blessed with a chain of excellent beaches, all of which can be reached by bus from the Terminal de Integração. The surf can be dangerous and people drown every month, so take care. Swimming after sunset is not a good idea, as there are occasional attacks by sharks attracted by the kitchen waste dumped by ships offshore.
Ponta da Areia is the closest beach to the city centre, located by the ruins of the Forte São Marcos. Some 8km out of town, the dune beach of Calhau is larger and more scenic than Ponta da Areia: when the tide is out there is a lovely walk along the sands to Ponta da Areia, two hours’ leisurely stroll west. After Calhau comes Olho d’Agua, equally fine, close to the dunes but a bit windy and well developed with houses and beach kiosks. Araçagi, 19km out of town, is the loveliest beach of all, an expansive stretch of sand that’s also studded with bars and restaurants. It’s served by hourly buses, but unless you rent a car you won’t make it back the same day; there is a small hotel, though, the Araçagi Praia (t 98/3226-3299; R$121-180), which offers smart rooms.
Bumba-meu-boi, which dominates every June in São Luís (generally starting on Santo Antônio’s day, June 13) is worth making some effort to catch: there’s no more atmospheric popular festival in Brazil. A dance with distinctive music, performed by a costumed troupe of characters backed by drummers and brass instruments, it blends the Portuguese, African and Indian influences of both the state and Brazil. It originated on the plantations, and the troupes the maranhenses rate highest still come from the old plantation towns of the interior – Axixá, Pinheiro and Pindaré. To mark the day of São João on June 24, the interior towns send their bands to São Luís, where at night they sing and dance outside churches and in squares in the centre. Seeing the spectacular dances and costumes, and hearing the spellbindingly powerful music echoing down the colonial streets, is a magical experience.
Although the climax comes over the weekend nearest to June 24, bumba takes over the city centre at night for the whole month. Dozens of stalls spring up in the areas where the troupes rehearse before setting off to the two churches in the centre around which everything revolves: the Igreja de São João Batista, on Rua da Paz, and the Igreja de Santo Antônio, four blocks north. Along the waterfront, stalls go up selling simple food and drinks, including lethal batidas with firewater rum – try the genipapo. Many choose to follow the bois, as the troupes are called, through the streets: if you feel less energetic, the best place to see everything is Praça de Santo Antônio, the square in front of the church where all the bois converge, in which you can sit and drink between troupes.
Bumba-meu-boi has a stock of characters and re-enacts the story of a plantation owner leaving a bull in the care of a slave, which dies and then magically revives. The bull, black velvet decorated with sequins and a cascade of ribbons, with someone inside whirling it around, is at the centre of a circle of musicians. The songs are belted out, with lyrics declaimed first by a lead caller, backed up only by a mandolin, and then joyously roared out by everyone when the drums and brass come in. Bumba drums are unique: hollow, and played by strumming a metal spring inside, they give out a deep, hypnotically powerful backbeat.
The troupe is surrounded by people singing along and doing the athletic dance that goes with the rhythm. There are certain old favourites that are the climax of every performance, especially São Luís, the unofficial city anthem: São Luís, cidade de azulejos, juro que nunca te deixo longe do meu coracão – “São Luís, city of azulejos, I swear I’ll never keep you far from my heart”, it begins, and when it comes up there is a roar of recognition and hundreds of voices join in. The sound of the people of the city shouting out their song radiates from Praça de Santo Antônio across the centre, turning the narrow streets and alleys into an echo chamber.
Bumba-meu-boi starts late, the troupes not hitting the centre until 11pm at the earliest, but people start congregating, either at the waterfront or in the square, soon after dark. Bois don’t appear every night, except during the last few days before the 24th: ask at the place where you’re staying, as everyone knows when a good boi is on. Bumba-meu-boi troupes are organized like samba schools; towns and city bairros have their own, but thankfully the festival hasn’t been ruined by making them compete formally against each other. Informal rivalries are intense, all the same, and maranhenses love comparing their merits: most would agree that Boi de Madre de Deus is the best in the city, but they are eclipsed by the troupes from the interior, Boi de Axixá and Boi de Pinheiro. The best day of all is June 29 (St Peter’s Day), when all the bois congregate at the Igreja de São Pedro from 10pm until dawn.