Belém can be an eye-opener for most visitors from the United States, who typically envision the Amazon as a vast, jungle-covered region with only a few primitive villages. Like Manaus to the north, Belém is a major city. It is also quite old — 2016 marks its quadricentennial. Though not in the state of Amazonas, it’s the gateway to the lower Amazon, and thus may be your embarkation or disembarkation port for a Brazilian Amazon cruise.
What We Love
Estação das Docas: Belém's old dock warehouses have been reinvented as this riverfront shopping, dining, and entertainment complex. Completely tourist-oriented and safe — and with higher prices than elsewhere in the city — the restaurants are good and the brewery is even better (if beer's your thing). There are plenty of shops, mainly in the first warehouse, called Boulevard of Arts.
Bosque Rodrigues Alves Botanical Garden of the Amazon: This nicely preserved little patch of rain forest is a great initiation to the region. A lush jungle landscape surrounds several exhibits and installations, which do still include some caged animals — though most now live in either natural enclosures or semiwild on the grounds. You’ll likely see monkeys and sloths in the treetops, parrots in the palms, and perhaps even an enormous iguana trundling down a footpath.
Best Known For
Religious Tourism: Every October, Belém sees an influx of 2 million people who arrive to attend Brazil’s largest religious festival: the Círio de Nazaré. In the 200 years since its inception, it has grown from a simple gathering of believers to a multiweek celebration that includes a river pilgrimage and fireworks. The highlight is the main foot procession from the Catedral da Sé to the Basílica Santuário de Nossa Senhora de Nazaré on the second Sunday of October.
Cuisine: Brazilians consider this area a gastronomic capital, showcasing all the fresh and abundant ingredients of the Amazon prepared with a mélange of cultural influences from the countries that have traded here over the centuries. The result is a truly distinctive regional cuisine. Ver-o-Peso is a busy open-air market complex on the riverfront that makes for a wonderful culinary adventure into the world of local fish, vegetables, herbs, and fruits — including "superfruits" in their raw, natural form.
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Who It's Best For
Catholic Tourists: Círio de Nazaré is a much bigger deal here than Christmas, and is on par with other Brazilian cities’ Carnival celebrations. It’s a bucket list experience for many Catholics, and even if you can’t be here the second Sunday of October, you’ll get some of the festive vibe if you visit any time between late September and the end of October. The rest of the year, the Basílica is quieter, but still a very holy and special place.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
It's a Concrete Jungle: With its skyscrapers and population of 1.4 million, Belém is an intimidating urban environment — even to a lot of Brazilians. Add in the language barrier and the fact that Americans get approached more aggressively by hawkers, and this city can be overwhelming if you leave the cruise-friendly riverfront areas.
Lena Katz is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Brides.