The capital of the state of Pará in the northern reaches of the Brazilian Amazon, Belém is the 11th most populous city in Brazil and is located around 100 km upriver from the Atlantic Ocean, on the banks of the Pará river. The Pará is a major waterway of the Amazon network, separated from the Amazon itself by the enormous Marajó Island.
An historic city with a busy port, Belém is famed for its abundant mango trees, and is the starting point for many Amazon river trips. It’s renowned as one of the culinary capitals of Brazil, and many of the nation’s top chefs come here to learn about Amazonian ingredients, such as the many endemic species of fish, fruit and vegetables. There are some truly excellent restaurants in Belem, and foodies will find yet more treats at the city’s market and gentrified docks.
The city sits on an archipelago that is part of the vast estuary system created by the Amazon discharging into the Atlantic. The biggest and most famous of the islands is the truly vast Marajó, a river island the size of Switzerland and home to gorgeous beaches in dry season.
Visitors usually make a beeline for the islands, and Marajó is a far more compelling destination than the city itself. Famous for its beaches, water buffalo (local lore holds that they came here when the ship they were being transported on was washed ashore) as well as the many indigenous bird species and other native animals such as black caiman.
Top of the list of tourist attractions is Mangal das Garças – a very well-maintained park with a bird sanctuary and a butterfly enclosure that allows visitors to admire some of the many beautiful, colorful and intricately-patterned species that live in the jungle. Take the lift up the park’s tower, which offers sweeping views over the park, city and out to the rainforest, before crossing the wooden bridge that joins the park complex with ‘Manjar das Garças’ – the park’s acclaimed restaurant, which specializes in sophisticated dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, such as grilled lobster with shrimp risotto, or Red Angus steak with crisped potatoes and snail butter.
Foodies in Belem will also enjoy the Docas – Belem’s restored port area, which makes for a pleasant late-afternoon stroll thanks to its good selection of restaurants and food-focused bars. Even the drinks offer a wealth of new tastes, with all manner of tropical fruits blended into delicious – and potent – cocktails. For real gastronomic treats, gourmands should pay a visit to Remanso do Bosque – manned by talented young Chef Thiago Castanho, and cited among the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. Here, indigenous ingredients are presented in an ultra-contemporary fashion that has wowed many food critics. The seafood-focused Remanso de Peixe serves what is considered by many to be some of the most delicious fish in the world.
Belem’s market is interesting enough to merit an hour or so trying local foods and shopping for keepsakes, while the cathedral, basilica and neoclassical theater are other key attractions.
Despite Belem’s charms, the islands surrounding the city remain the main attraction for most visitors. The largest, Marajó, is the biggest river island in the world, and the second largest island in South America. Located between the Amazonas and Tocantins rivers, the island really is a world unto itself, with a buffalo-mounted police force, fewer cars than bicycles, and a slow-pace of life in the small towns and villages that dot the island.
The entire navigable network of Amazonian rivers and tributaries spans out from Belém, offering almost unlimited scope for exploration. It is possible to use the city as a departure point for adventures far upriver, but the nearby archipelago of river islands offers plenty of reasons to hang around and spend a few days exploring.
Belem is one of Brazil’s most important gastronomic centres, and foodies can dine on delicious Amazonian ingredients prepared with great flair at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country. Food aside, there are some interesting sights to be found in and around the city, including a good park with bird and butterfly-watching opportunities at Mangal das Garcas, and some eye-catching neoclassical architecture – its grandeur a legacy of Brazil’s rubber boom.
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