Originally founded in the seventeenth century, based around a large sugar plantation, Maceió, the state capital of Alagoas, fronts the Atlantic Ocean with several attractive beaches; it also faces onto the Lagoa Mundaú, an inland lake accessible from the sea that offers a wide natural harbour. In the 1930s and 40s, Maceió was an elegant city of squares and houses nestling under palm trees. Today, while it is still attractive in places, the city has suffered in recent years from the attentions of planners, most notably in their wrecking of a once-famous waterfront promenade that faced the harbour and around which Maceió grew. An early nineteenth-century customs house once stood here, framed by offices and the fine houses of traders – all now gone and replaced by grimy concrete boxes.
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Lampião was born Virgulino Ferreira da Silva in 1897 in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. As Virgulino grew up, he and his family got involved in local feuding and they ended up on the wrong side of the law. Virgulino’s father was killed in a police raid on his home, turning Virgulino, only 25 years old, into a bandit gang leader and a deadly threat to the local establishment for the next fifteen years. The Robin Hood of Brazil image he cultivated belies the reality of a complex, vain and brutal man. It is perhaps his boldness that made him stand out, often fighting battles when his gang was outnumbered more than three to one.
The law finally caught up with Lampião in 1938. The police detachment that shot him, his wife, Maria Bonita, and his closest lieutenants preserved their heads in alcohol so that they could be shown in market towns in the interior, the only way to convince people he really had been killed – even today, the Brazilian media occasionally publish pictures of an old man who died in 1996 and bears a striking resemblance to Lampião.
The main city beach is at Pajuçara, whose curving road and wide mosaic promenade are studded with palm trees. The water is not always the cleanest here and many people hire jangadas (around R$15–20 an hour) and head 2km out to sea to swim in the natural pools that form at low tide.
Ponta Verde and the neighbouring beach of Jatiúca are the beginning of a series of fine sands to the north of Maceió. The best way to get to them is to take buses marked “Mirante” or “Fátima” from the centre, which take you along the coast as far as Pratagi (also called Mirante da Sereia), 13km north, where there are coral pools in the reef at low tide. You can get off the bus anywhere that takes your fancy; the main beaches, in order of appearance, are Cruz das Almas, Jacarecica, Guaxuma, Garça Torta and Riacho Doce, all of them less crowded than the city beaches during the week, but very popular at weekends.
Most visitors to Maceió flood north to the beaches, which leaves the coast to the south in relative calm, though the crowds are now beginning to make their way here, too. Hourly buses marked “Deodoro” leave from the bus stop in front of the old train station, near the harbour, passing out of the city over the Trapiche bridge into a flat, swampy coastline.