We might be in the middle of a lockdown on travel, but that doesn’t mean we can’t plan where to go post-COVID. Plus, selfishly, finishing off these posts about our cruise is keeping me entertained. Here’s one day in Belém, Brazil…
We arrived in Belém on New Years Day and the cruise director in his port talk was quite clear that it might not be service as usual. We had a whole day in Belém, the first European colony in Brazil, and it was certainly quieter than some of our other Brazilian stops. This was also our last Latin American destination before a few days at sea heading back towards the Caribbean.
One day in Belém Brazil
Belém hugs the mouth of the Amazon, known for its mango trees which grace the park and boulevards. In some respects it does have some similarities to Portugal, many of its buildings sport the colourful azulejo tiles and the Cathedral is neoclassical baroque in style – it wouldn’t look out of place in Lisbon.
We were signed up for the Ver-o-Peso food market tour – which is the largest open-air market in Latin America. It was New Year’s Day, so we really only got a flavour of what the market would have been like at full throttle. A few hardy and dedicated stallholders had braved their New Years Eve headaches to take advantage of the boatload of visitors coming in from the port.
The Ver-o-Peso market translates to ‘see the weight’, a reference to the colonial practise of weighing the merchandise to determine payment and tariffs. For over 300 years market traders have been bringing products foraged from the Amazon including acai berries and medicinal herbs. It’s divided into several sections with dedicated fish, meat, fruit and vegetable, live animals and traditional handicrafts woven by local craftspeople. Each street is clearly labelled – manioc, no prizes for what they sell there.
From the Ver-o-Peso market we ambled towards the 18th century, Our Lady of Grace cathedral. As it was January 1st, it was also the inauguration of the governor. We’d earlier spotted the military parade in honour of the occasion and whilst we were in the cathedral, the celebrations moved on to an epic fireworks display. I think we all thought we were under attack in the cathedral, and the guide gave up trying to explain what we were seeing.
With the fireworks still going we walked over the square to the Castle Fort, also known as Presepio Fort, which dates back to 1616 and was the fortress on which Belém was built.
We were on quite an early tour, so had the afternoon to wander around Belém ourselves. The Estacao Das Docas, is a former dockyard rejuvenated into a cultural and shopping centre. What’s nice is that it is clearly an area that is used by both locals as well as tourists. It has three or four large zones given over to restaurants and independent boutique shops. There’s even live music that travels down the length of the room on a giant moving platform.
Knowing no Portuguese we opted for a buffet lunch, one of several on offer, where we could take a look at the menu. We then discovered Amazon Beer, the craft beer movement had even reached Belém. The micro-brewery was set up in 2000 and specialises in creating beers using exotic ingredients from the Amazon region. It builds on Brazil’s long beer heritage since German settlers began brewing over 200 years ago. We spent most of the afternoon working our way through the menu.
This was one of my favourite days in Brazil, chilling out with the local populace, but I do think that it was also one of those days that sharply through into focus the discrepancies between the haves and the have nots. Our guide casually dismissed those living on the streets as immigrants from neighbouring countries and the garbage collecting in the mouth of the dockside. Perhaps it was more noticeable because the streets were emptier.
It was also the only place we visited where you felt mildly more alert to the crime levels. Our tour had both a guide and a minder, a burly bloke who brought up the rear and was keeping an eye on all the stragglers in the group.
My mum and dad’s tour group also received a police escort at one point when the tour group needed to make a detour to avoid some of the governor’s celebrations. There was a large police presence on the day we were visiting, but I suspect that was also in connection with the governor’s inauguration. It was also worth remembering that the period in which we were visiting Brazil, was also the same period where the country had just elected Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right president, and if he’s anything like Mr Trump, I imagine that he divides opinion, which can get heated.
All that aside, it was still one of my favourite days.