Blistering sun, steamy cobbled streets, dilapidated colonial mansions. Pastel-coloured São Luís is the capital of the state of Maranhão, in Brazil’s north.
Here we are – Dean and myself – at the very beginning of a lengthy trip around a continent we’ve barely scratched the surface of.
We’ve done Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail in Peru, circa 1998.
And that pisco sour-fueled afternoon in Santiago, Chile many years ago? We barely remember that one, thanks to blacking out and waking up the next day in our hotel – surrounded by artwork we apparently bought.
After a hard slog of money saving we’re once again doing what we love – traipsing through a foreign land and being free from the daily grind in Sydney. We’ve left work, rented the house out and each filled a backpack and daypack with the bare necessities – clothes, shoes, toiletries and a crap-load of electric devices.
2 iPhones, 1 iPad, laptop, GoPro, Nikon D3200 + 2 lenses and a Lumix DMC-TZ110.
One hop to Santiago, one skip to São Paulo and one jump up to the small island city of São Luís.
Founded by the French, occupied by the Dutch and then ruled by the Portuguese – São Luís may look a little rough around the edges, but it doesn’t take long before it captivates and draws you into its undulated grid of streets filled with charismatic buildings – many of which are adorned with colourful tiles – or azulejos.
These azulejos aren’t just about looks, either, as they help cool the interiors from the heat that’s part-and-parcel of Equatorial America. Boy does it get warm and sticky here.
Eat & Drink.
One way to cool down is to duck into Crioula’s, a por quilo (per kilo) restaurant and bar that’s all about cheap Brasileiro food – and booze – in its lofty warehouse-like space. A bain-marie island is where all the food action is – a collection of meaty dishes, some fried fish, white and green rice, crumbly bakes and a couple of simple salads.
Basically you grab a plate, scoop out whatever food you want, take it to the scales and pay for its weight. These guys charge R$38.90 per kilo, which is pretty good value when a plate of food hovers around R$18 – or about AUD$7.
What did I have? A bit of rice, salad, fried fish cake and the most divine rolled meat pancake. You could even spice it all up with some of the complimentary, ass-kicking fermented peppers that are bottled up on each table. That stuff burns!
Flanked by Rue Portugal and Rua da Estrela, Mercado Praia Grande can be found past the arches of Casa das Tulhas. On the outside of the casa are many shops peddling all sorts of tourist tat – from colourful woven cotton hammocks to hand-painted clay objects that could easily take you into excess luggage territory.
Head beneath the colourful bunting flapping overhead and you enter the small, radial space that’s a little more interesting. Medicinal herbs and tonics, Indian basketry, legumes, fruit and the occasional vegetable.
A bloke portioning up freshly caught fish, woven baskets of dried shrimp and rows of sacks of Brazil’s ubiquitous condiment – farofa. This stuff comes with just about every meal you have in this country – some are good, others are like eating coarse saw dust.
So what is farofa? It’s basically toasted cassava flour that has a variety of grades. Some can be almost powdery and unflavoured, whilst others are coarser, flecked with nubs of smoked meat and seasoned with spices. It’s an easy way to add bulk to a stew or texture up a dish.
There’s an inner atrium where you can park yourself and hang with the locals playing board games, swilling on booze and nibbling on one thing or another.
The thing you can’t miss at the mercado is the dazzling array of curious bottles lined up on counters and hanging from window grates. Some are clear, some are tinted amber or varying shades of lilac. And then there are the ones that contain whole crabs or lobsters.
This is cachaça – Brazil’s offering to the world of distilled beverages. In this part of Brazil they’ve gone one step further and fermented it with cassava, rather than sugarcane – calling it tiquira and tinting it purple.
Drink it on its own and you’re a hero. Mix it with sugar and lime and you’ve got a pretty gorgeous caipirinha.
Or maybe a bottle of fermented roquito peppers are more your thing? These little guys come from the Amazon and can easily spice up your meal.
Where did we stay for the three nights we spent in São Luís? The character-filled Pousada Portas Da Amazonia – an 1893 colonial house a few minutes walk from the centre of town. Around 30 rooms fill the old building – some of them very basic and others a bit more swanky. Our relatively low budget got us a standard room for around AUD$50, including breakfast.
The wifi is horrendously slow in general, but it can have some very hopeful moments.
Down in the centre of town on the cobbled streets by Praça Mauro Machado is where all the action takes place at the end of each day. The intersection of Travessa Marcelino de Almeida and Rua da Estrela is peppered with restaurants, bars and food carts – an ideal precinct to enjoy the breezy afternoon temperatures with plates of food and free-flowing beverages.
Be sure to try the grilled skewers of cheese from one of the guys wandering the street. He’ll plonk himself down next to your table, toss a couple of skewers over coals and put a cheesy smile across your face.
Our local hangs were at the ever-popular O Restaurante d’Antigamente for afternoon drinks on the street beneath the trees, and for espresso – Cafofinho da Tia Dica just around the corner.
Centro Histórico is a very quiet place during the day, people-wise, but when the sun goes down, out come the humans and food carts. The most popular street food cart in Centro Histórico, without a doubt, is O Rei Do Beiju Recheado.
Translation – “The King of the filled Beiju”.
On their own, beiju are bland pancakes made with granules of tapioca that come together when heated – often rolled and served alongside certain dishes. When they’re filled, however, they turn into something pretty special.
At this popular little food cart, the guys pump out beiju with more than 30 varieties of fillings – ranging from R$4.50 to R$6 each. Our favourites were the shrimp in coconut milk, cheese & catupiry (a local type of cream cheese), the chicken with calabrese & catupiry and the banana, cinnamon & cheese.
A cheap dinner, without a doubt.
In a quieter part of town in a restored mansion, although not too far away from the action, is Dom Francisco Restaurante. During the day it’s all about the R$22.90 por quilo, but at night it’s a la carte – also featuring an array of typical Maranhão food.
Many menus in Brazil are designed for two, which makes it a tad tricky when you want to try more than one main dish. They flatly refuse to do one portion, so asking is pointless. You could always order two things, but that means a crap load of food and a guaranteed doggy bag. Here at Dom Francisco they offer single portions, but we decided to make it easy and doubled up.
Our dinner for two consisted of filet de frango na chapa (R$45) – pan-fried chicken. Anything you order comes with sides, and in this case it was some delicious carrots, potatoes and choko roasted in butter, some rice and buttery mashed potato.
Very plain in the looks department, but the flavour was bang on.
The streets in the historic district are easy to walk, despite the many hills and undulating cobbles and occasional potholes. Reading about São Luís online prior to getting here revealed a few warnings regarding safety. We encountered no dodgy behaviour anywhere we went, but admittedly we did stick to Centro Histórico, the waterfront between the boat wharf and Pont José Sarney – the bridge that links the old town to the north side of the city.
CCTV covers parts of the centre of the old town and police/security are present quite a bit at night, as well. They’re clearly making sure any visitor can enjoy Centro Histórico with out being hassled or accosted.
Normal rules apply, I guess, wherever you go. Be street smart, avoid wandering about aimlessly at night and trust your gut instincts.
We found that three days in São Luís was just enough. Plenty of time to waft about its enchanting streets, visit a museum, then plonk down at a restaurant or bar and soak it all in. There’s even free wifi in the centre of town. Big bonus.
A visit to São Luís wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Alcântara – located northwest of the city. As the crow flies it’s about 20 kilometres away, but seeing it involves sitting on a boat to get there, it takes a bit longer than you’d think. Especially when there’s a 4 metre swell.
More on that here.