With a population of 700 thousand, the capital of Maranhão State is a city of unique historical and cultural interest sadly forgotten by the majority of tourists. The second largest state in Northeast Brazil, Maranhão in fact represents a transition between the Northeast and Amazonia in several respects. The south and east are largely semi-arid sertão and vast areas of babaçu palm, whilst the north and northeast are covered with equatorial forest and enjoy regular rainfall. The city of São Luís itself is a mixture of Amazonian riverport and northeastern seaport blessed with fine beaches. Culturally speaking, nowhere in Brazil is the mixture of European, African and indigenous traditions so intense or so richly reflected in folklore.
São Luís shares with Rio de Janeiro its French origins, having been founded in 1612 in homage to King Louis XIII. Despite an alliance with the Tupinambá indians, there was little interest from France and the settlement capitulated to the Portuguese two years later. A brief occupation by the Dutch between 1641 and 1644 made São Luís the only city in Brazil to have been occupied by three nations. Under the Portuguese, the port of São Luís grew with the export of sugar and cotton until the plantation system, based on African slaves and indian labour fell into decline in the 19th century. Nowadays Maranhão's rural economy depends heavily on the processing of the babaçu palm's many derivatives, whilst rice farming is of importance on the floodplains of the state's Amazonian portion.
Recent years have seen the development of several major projects in Maranhão: the Serra dos Carajás venture, in which iron ore from the world's largest deposit is brought to the coast by rail, a giant aluminium plant south of São Luís and the strategic satellite-launching station at Alcântara. These initiatives, together with the discovery of oil, have reinvigorated the state's economy and attracted migrants from other regions.
Built on an island between two rivers, overlooking the bay of São Marcos, central São Luís is compact, enabling the city's main attractions to be appreciated on foot. The colonial architecture of São Luís is considered to be among the finest in Brazil, especially in its extensive use of Portuguese tiles, present in a splendid array of designs and colours. The Reviver (Renovation) project, initiated in 1989, has done much to halt the decay of this precious historical treasure through the restoration of some 200 buildings.
Among the most interesting are the Catedral da Sé, built by the Jesuits in 1726 and the Palácio dos Leões, originally a French fortress with a hint of Versailles and now the state governor's residence and office. The Igreja do Desterro, built between 1618 and 1641, has an outstanding facade and is the only Byzantine church in Brazil. The gargoyles of the legendary Fonte do Ribeirão (1796) guard the entrance to escape tunnels that once led to the city's churches.
São Luís has a number of good museums that cover all aspects of the city's rich history and culture, from Sacred Art and African religions to contemporary art and the Salão de Bens Culturais, which houses an extensive exhibition on Bumba-meu-boi. This unique cultural tradition blending Portuguese, African and Amerindian influences culminates in the late June festivities, in which numerous troupes from the interior descend on the capital and dance through the streets in a colourful musical spectacle.
Across the bay of São Marcos lies another architectural treasure: Alcântara, the first capital of Maranhão, on the first stretch of Brazilian coast the Portuguese planted with sugarcane. Once the richest town in Brazil, most of the older buildings are now in ruins, in stark contrast with the space-age rocket base nearby.
Although the sea offers the only route to much of the long, unspoilt coast of Maranhão, there are fine beaches within easy reach by road. The nearest to São Luís is Ponta de Areia, whilst Calhau is the most scenic and Araçagi the most beautiful. Beyond Araçagi, through palm forests and over hills, lies the boatbuilding town of São José do Ribamar and the charming fishing village of Raposa.
370km east of São Luís, the Lençois Maranhenses National Park is a coastal desert of towering dunes, where high rainfall has created more than 200 square km of lençois (bedsheets) speckled with crystal clear freshwater lagoons. Access to this spectacular ecosystem and its unique fauna can be obtained through the town of Barreirinhas.