By Rob Sawers, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Reminiscent of Rio’s world famous Carnival with wild street parties, elaborate costumes, and loud parades playing Afro-Brazilian music, is São Luís’ Bumba-meu-boi festival. Celebrating the month of São João (Saint John), the festival lasts from June to July and attracts visitors from across Brazil and around the world.
The festival is loosely associated with the celebration of Saint John, but Christian elements are few and far between in this performance of local folklore. The troops of dancers and musicians that parade in the street wear brightly colored costumes that represent various mythical characters.
For those who can interpret the subtleties in the costumes and the songs, the Bumba-meu-boi festival weaves together legend and history to tell the story of the frontiers of northern Brazil. The main attraction of any Bumba-meu-boi street parade is the boi (Portuguese for “ox”).
Each dance troop decorates their own boi in their own style, and individual dancers will put some of their own personality into their costumes as well. It is common to see costumes displaying a mix of traditional Maranhanse details with paraphernalia from popular football (soccer) teams.
The music that the Bumba-meu-boi troops play is very lively and is the product of this mix of Amazonian and Northeastern Brazilian culture. While the percussion instruments are primarily of indigenous Amazonian origin, the rhythms and sounds of the music derive from traditional African slave hymns.
São Luís is indeed famed for its distinct Afro-Brazilian culture, and reggae from around the world can be heard at all hours of the day and night on the dilapidated colonial streets of the city.
To stay close to the sights and sounds of the festival, travelers should stay at the Pousada Portas da Amazônia. Located right in Centro Historico on the pedestrian, cobble-stone street of Rua do Giz, the renovated colonial building has multiple flowered courtyards, beautiful sitting areas, and big, clean rooms.
Breakfast in the main courtyard is very generous, with an assortment of cakes, rolls, juices, and very good coffee. Incredibly, the tree in the courtyard is home to a three-toed sloth who hangs high above while guests enjoy breakfast. Reservations can be made online or over the phone at (98) 3128-8787, and a rooms with double beds range from R$159 to R$209.
Also close to the festival action is the Lord Hotel on Rua Nazaré. Guests at the Lord Hotel might sense that this was, at one point, the pinnacle of style and class in São Luís. Indeed, the hotel has seen better days, and used to be the stop-off point for foreign journalists, anthropologists, and adventurers heading into the Amazon.
In recent decades, though, the hotel has lost some of it luster. One American traveler, Theresa Miller, 26, found that “many of the appliances in [her] room were broken” and the staff seemed “bored and inattentive.” The price, though, is unbeatable at R$80 per night for a room with a double bed, and reservations can be made over the phone at (98) 3221-4264.
A third option for visitors is the luxurious Grand São Luís Hotel on Avenida Dom Pedro II. A short walk from the Bumba-meu-boi parties, this five-star hotel offers all the conveniences that money can buy.
With a gourmet restaurant, pool, fitness center, and conference center, the Grand São Luís Hotel is the only hotel in the Centro Historico with a luxury resort feel. Double rooms range from R$235 to R$274 in July. Reservations can be made by calling (98) 2109-3500.
Flights to São Luís leave from Rio and São Paulo usually once a day, but direct flights are rare. Most TAM flights to São Luís make multiple stops along the way in Fortaleza or Belém. São Luís’s miniature airport may give the visitor the feel that they have arrived at a provincial backwater. But don’t worry, by nightfall this sleepy colonial city will come alive in the Bumba-meu-boi.