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.