By Joshua Rapp Learn, Contributing Reporter
BRAZIL – Hear reggae music resound off dilapidated, ancient buildings and ceramic roof tiles as Seventeenth century Baroque architecture rolls through the winding streets while elaborate staircases give São Luís an almost ghostly feel of faded glory and conquest.
In the height of the North Brazilian heat, during the stifling hours of siesta, the streets are ripe for photographing and exploration. The Baroque buildings sit in a humid, dead air that gives the town a uniquely phantasmal vibe. Armed with plenty of water and a camera, sit on a park bench in the midst of the center and enjoy a peaceful dose of nostalgia. The historic center of São Luís was afforded a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing in 1997 and since then many of the buildings have been or currently are in the process of restoration.
If some of the architecture here seems French, it’s because they were the first Europeans there, arriving a mere three years before the Portuguese threw them out in 1615. The fort built by the French was conquered again by the Dutch in 1641, who stayed for four years before giving way to the Portuguese once more.
If the midday heat smothers your appreciation of colonial architecture, head down to one of the city beaches for a refreshing swim. Ponte d’Areia is a good place to start, and the nearby Lagoa Jansen is a great spot to go for a drink, especially on the weekends. A local specialty is São Luís’ personal take on the ever-popular soft drink guarana: the humbly named Jesus.
At night the streets come alive around drink carts haphazardly set up by the side of the road blasting reggae music. São Luís has become known as one of the best places to hear reggae in Brazil, and the Jamaican rhythms adapted to Portuguese constantly sound through the streets and cafes.
The earliest known settlement of the area was a large village inhabited by the Tupinambá Indians. The latter belong to the Tupi ethnic group, a massive population that inhabited much of the Atlantic coast of Brazil and left their stamp on the eclectic Euro-African cultural melange that began to arrive in Brazil in the 16th century.
Today São Luís’ cultural scene continues to encompass a diverse mix of dance, music and famous literary figures, among whom Gonçalves Dias is the best known. Several famous samba greats hail from here too, while theater buffs will enjoy the famed local harvest festival Bumba Meu Boi, celebrated every year shortly after Easter.
São Luís lies on the north coast of Brazil in the state of Maranhão, 2000km from Rio de Janeiro. The city of one million inhabitants lies on the island of the same name in the Bay of Saint Marcus. Flights from Rio de Janeiro can be booked via Gol at www.voegol.com.br