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An Amazonian city with bustling markets and spectacular colonial architecture – an expert guide to Belém

Chris Moss
Belém serves as both an Atlantic ocean and an Amazon river cruise port - luoman

Why go? 

Belém is the ultimate port city, on the edge of the Atlantic and at the entrance to the mighty Amazon. As well as occasional cruises, passenger riverboats heading west to Manaus/Iquitos depart from here and the city’s docksides are a whirl of activity. As it lies some 60 miles inside the delta, Belém is used more by Amazon-bound cruises than those passing the rivermouth on Atlantic voyages.

Cruise port location

Just one degree south of the equator, Belém – the capital of Pará state – is a tropical river port and freight port for the Atlantic. Most ships and all large vessels dock 20km (12 miles) north of the city’s historic centre, in the district of Icoaraçi. Riverboats and local ferries dock much closer to the city. Cruise traffic is slender – one vessel per fortnight or per month is typical – and there’s not much in the way of a terminal.

Can I walk to any places of interest?

There’s little to be seen in the area around the port and it’s not the safest in the city. The bus ride downtown is interesting. If you’re on a riverboat docking in the city-centre ports you can step off into the thick of things. 

Getting around

Belém is best explored on an organised excursion or by taxi. The main city-centre sights are walkable, but the year-round temperature is tropical and humidity can make it heavy going.

Stunning colonial-era architecture can be seen all over Belém Credit: istock

What to see and do

Belém is Portuguese for Bethlehem – the city was founded by the Portuguese a few days after Christmas in 1616. It is a hub for the diverse produce of the Amazon, from timber, nuts and fruits to fish, jute and orchids. This mercantile buzz gives the city a special energy.

What can I do in four hours or less?

Take the city at a leisurely, tropical pace, as you wander – either on an arranged tour or on your own – to see the highlights. The city’s golden age was the late 19th century, during the rubber boom. The neoclassical 1874 Theatro da Paz, on the Praça da República, is testament to the opulence of those days when Belém was dubbed ‘the tropical Paris’.

The city also boasts a good number of 17th and 18th-century colonial-era buildings – look out for the red-tiled roofs – some of which house excellent museums, as well as public squares shaded by mango trees. Must-sees include the cathedral, the imposing Forte do Presépio (city fort and museum) and the Estaçao dos Docas, the refurbed old river port, now a great place for dining and shopping. Inside, there’s a small museum recounting the history of the port.

Next door is the busy Ver-O-Peso market (Av Blvd Castilhos França, overlooking Guajará Bay), said to be the largest open-air market in Latin America. The name means ‘check the weight’; tax-gatherers used to be posted here. Stallholders hawk tropical fruits, traditional medicines, quackish health fixes, scents, Brazil nuts and handicrafts. Fresh fish are sold inside a prefabricated German-looking iron building, meat from a Art Nouveaux-influenced structure. Boats come and go all day long.

The Ver-O-Peso market is said to be the largest open-air market in Latin America Credit: istock

What can I do in eight hours or less? 

Holland America explores Belém’s dizzyingly diverse food produce on its chef-led market tour (seven and a half hours), taking in the Ver-O-Peso Market before hooking up with a chef at the Brazilian-Amazonian Gastronomy Institute for a two-hour culinary workshop. Here guests prepare and taste their own dishes. The company also has riverboat tours around the Amazon’s waterways in the delta as well as an easy coach tour of the city – both of these options last approx five and a half hours.

P&O Cruises and Hurtigruten offer their passengers boat trips along the Guama River, affording them the opportunity to see some of the region’s flora and fauna, including Brazil nut and rubber trees, parakeets and macaws. On Boa Vista do Acará island, they get to meet native Cabloco residents, who live in stilted houses on the riverbanks.

What can I do with a bit longer?

Those boarding for Manaus-bound vessels or returning from the Amazon might like to use Belém as a base for visiting the lha dos Papagaios ('Parrot Island') to view a huge roost of orange-winged amazons (referred to locally as 'mangrove parrots').

Eat and drink

Belém locals drink açai most days. Try this so-called superfood as a beverage or with tapioca for breakfast. The city is also the place to try ice creams and juices made from rarely exported fruits such as cupuaçu, murici and graviola. When it comes to lunch and dinner, the restaurants aroud the Estaçao dos Docas showcase sophisticated new-fangled Paranese cuisine. Fish and shellfish are excellent.

Estaçao dos Docas, the old port, is now a great place for dining and shopping Credit: istock

Don’t leave Belém without… 

Unsuprisingly, the hammocks are pretty good here, ranging from cheap stringy things to lace-edged 'matrimonial' swinging beds. Original artwork is colourful and pretty.

Need to know

Flight time from the UK

No direct flights from the UK. One stop with British Airways or Latam via São Paulo, or two via Lisbon/Porto or other European cities. 15-20 hours is typical.

Safety

The FCO general advice for Brazil is, 'levels of crime including violent crime are high, particularly in major cities. You should be particularly vigilant before and during Carnival when a large number of people gather in parties on the street. Bank card fraud including credit card cloning is common.' Safer than Rio or São Paulo, Belém can still be dodgy after dark, especially in the historic centre.

Best time to go

Ocean-going cruises usually visit December-March, riverboats embark and disembark year round. Carnival is very busy in Brazil’s bigger cities. Also, every October, Belém hosts the Círio de Nazaré festival, attracting huge crowds. The main procession concludes the festivities on the second Sunday of October, when a wooden image of Our Lady of Nazareth is carried from the cathedral to Sanctuary Square, but the celebrations start in August and run until fifteen days after the procession. Almost the entire city participates and vast numbers of pilgrims travel from all over Brazil.

Opening hours

Most museums close Mondays. Shops close Sundays.