Although less well known than Manaus, BELÉM, the only city in the Amazon that is truly old, has much more to offer: an unspoilt colonial centre, one of Brazil’s most distinctive cuisines, a stunning collection of architectural survivals from the rubber boom and, to cap it all, an urban revitalization over the last decade that has seen new parks, imaginatively restored historic buildings and leisure complexes transform its centre and riverfront into easily the most attractive city for tourism in the Amazon.
The Cabanagem Rebellion ravaged the region around Belém for sixteen months between January 1835 and May 1836, in the uncertain years following Independence and the abdication of Pedro I. What started as a power struggle among Brazil’s new rulers rapidly became a revolt of the poor against racial injustice: the cabanos were mostly black and Indian or mixed-blood settlers who lived in relative poverty in cabaña huts on the flood plains and riverbanks around Belém and the lower Amazon riverbanks. Following years of unrest, the pent-up hatred of generations burst in August 1835. After days of bloody fighting, the survivors of the Belém authorities fled, leaving the cabanos in control. In the area around the city many sugar mills and fazendas were destroyed, and their white owners put to death. Bands of rebels roamed throughout the region, and in most settlements their arrival was greeted by the non-white populations spontaneously joining their ranks, looting and killing.
The rebellion was doomed almost from the start, however. Although the leaders attempted to form some kind of revolutionary government, they never had any real programme, nor did they succeed in controlling their own followers. A British ship became embroiled in the rebellion in October 1835, when it arrived unwittingly with a cargo of arms the authorities had ordered before their hasty departure a couple of months previously. The crew were killed and their cargo confiscated. Five months later, a British naval force arrived demanding compensation from the rebels for the killings and the lost cargo. The leader of the cabanos, Eduardo Angelim, met the British captain and refused any sort of compromise; British trade was now threatened, and the squadron bombarded and blockaded Belém. In May 1836 a force of 2500 Brazilian soldiers under the command of Francisco d’Andrea drove the rebels from Belém. Mopping-up operations continued for years, and by the time the Cabanagem Rebellion was completely over and all isolated pockets of armed resistance had been eradicated, some 30,000 people are estimated to have died – almost a third of the region’s population at that time.
Cirio climaxes on the second Sunday of October, but for weeks beforehand the city is preparing itself for what in Belém is by far the most important time of year, easily outstripping secular rituals like Carnaval. The centre is swept and cleaned, houses and buildings on the image’s route (much of the centre of town) are decorated and festooned with bunting and posters in the saint’s yellow and white colours, and hotels fill up while anticipation builds. On the Friday night before the climax hundreds of thousands of people accompany a cortege with the image borne aloft on a flower-covered palanque down Avenida Nazaré from the Basílica, through Praça da República to a chapel where it spends the night. It is something to see; hundreds of thousands of people quietly and in perfect order walking along with the image, residents of buildings applauding and throwing flowers as it passes, with choirs stationed at improvised stages en route serenading it with hymns. Saturday morning is, in some ways, the visual highlight of the entire period. The image is put onto a decorated boat for the procissão fluvial and sailed around the riverfront, accompanied by dozens of boats full of devotees, so the sailors and riverboats so central to the life of the city get a chance to show their devotion too. This is best seen from the battlements of the fort or the walkway next to it, but get there no later than 10am or the places will be taken. The next part of the festivities is secular; around 1pm a riotous procession dominated by young people, with bands and drummers, wends its way through the Praça da Sé, down Rua Siqueira Mendes and ends up at the Largo do Carmo, where groups set up on stage and entertain the multitude with excellent regional music until the evening. Sunday morning is the climax, when the decorated palanque makes its way back through the centre of town and up Avenida Nazaré to the Basílica. The crowd tops a million, but is very non-intimidating: the atmosphere is saturated with devotion and everyone is very orderly – at least away from the cortege. The self-flagellating side of Catholicism is much in evidence: the image is protected on its travels by a thick anchor rope snaking around the cortege, and those with sins to pay for or favours to ask help carry the rope, where the squeeze of bodies is intense – at the end of the day the rope is stained red with blood from the hands of devotees. The especially devout follow the cortege on their hands and knees, with equally bloodstained results after several miles of crawling on asphalt. The image is usually back at the Basílica by noon, when families unite for the paraense equivalent of a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, with turkey being substituted with pato no tucupí, duck in tucupí sauce, and maniçoba, a fatty, smoky-tasting stew of pork and manioc leaves, which takes days to prepare. All in all, the largest and most spectacular religious festival in Brazil is worth going to some trouble to catch – but be sure to book your hotel well in advance.
As you might expect from the richest freshwater ecosystem in the world, fish takes pride of place in Amazonian cooking, and you’ll come across dozens of species. There are many kinds of huge, almost boneless fish, including pirarucu, tambaqui and filhote, which come in dense slabs sometimes more like meat, and are delicious grilled over charcoal. Smaller, bonier fish, such as surubim, curimatã, jaraqui, acari and tucunaré, can be just as succulent, the latter similar to a large tasty mullet. Fish in the Amazon is commonly just barbecued or fried; its freshness and flavour need little help. It’s also served no escabeche (in a tomato sauce), a leite de coco (cooked in coconut milk) or stewed in tucupí.
The other staple food in Amazônia is manioc. Farinha, a manioc flour consumed throughout Brazil, is supplied at the table in granulated form – in texture akin to gravel – for mixing with the meat or fish juices with most meals, and is even added to coffee. Less bland and more filling, manioc is also eaten throughout Amazônia on its own or as a side dish, either boiled or fried (known as macaxeira in Manaus and western Amazônia or mandioca elsewhere). A more exciting form of manioc, tucupí, is produced from its fermented juices. This delicious sauce can be used to stew fish in or to make pato no tucupí (duck stewed in tucupí). Manioc juice is also used to make beiju (pancakes) and doce de tapioca, a tasty cinnamon-flavoured tapioca pudding. A gloopy, translucent manioc sauce also forms the basis of one of Amazônia’s most distinctive dishes, tacacá, a shrimp soup gulped from a gourd bowl and sold everywhere from chichi restaurants to street corners. Other typical regional dishes include maniçoba, pieces of meat and sausage stewed with manioc leaves, and vatapá, a North Brazil version of the Bahian shrimp dish.
Finally, no stay in the Amazon would be complete without sampling the remarkable variety of tropical fruits the region has to offer, which form the basis for a mouthwatering array of sucos and ice creams. Most have no English or even Portuguese translations. Palm fruits are among the most common; you are bound to come across açai, a deep purple pulp mixed with water and drunk straight, with added sugar, with tapioca or thickened with farinha and eaten. Other palm fruits include taperebá, which makes a delicious suco, bacuri and buriti. Also good, especially as sucos or ice cream, are acerola (originally it came over with the first Japanese settlers in the 1920s, although Amazonians swear it is regional), peroba, graviola, ata (also called fruta de conde) and, most exotic of all, cupuaçú, which looks like an elongated brown coconut and floods your palate with the tropical taste to end all tropical tastes.
There are interesting places near Belém, although you should mostly resist the temptation to swim at the river beaches anywhere close to the city. The locals, indifferent to high fecal counts, regularly do, but it plays havoc with the unaccustomed. We’ve listed a number of places you can visit below but the best bet for a day at the beach, if a day is all you have, is Mosqueiro. If you have longer, head for the altogether more enticing destinations of Algodoal and Marajó – further afield but worth the effort.