Getting to Alcântara from São Luís is a relatively straightforward exercise, but one thing for sure is that those of us that don’t have sea legs, dosing up on motion sickness meds needs to come first and foremost. 1½ hours traversing the very choppy Baía de São Marcos involves a lot of up-and-down motion – and in our case it was enduring a 4-5 metre swell that played havoc on many unfortunate plastic bag-clutching souls.
Not me, though, I was happily buzzing on hyoscine hydrobromide (i.e. Kwells), watching the horizon appear and then vanish with every 4-metre dip into the swell.
Leaving early to grab the first boat off the wharf meant skipping breakfast at the pousada and hoping there’d be at least one person dishing up edibles to the a.m. commuters and camera-weilding gringoes – that would be Dean and myself.
And there is. This guy.
A lean selection of Brasileiro items like the usual bolo (pound cakes), coconut cake, tapioca cakes and ham, cheese & fried egg sandwiches. Filter coffee, as well, for a very mild hit of caffeine.
Approaching Alcântara from the water doesn’t reveal much more than a dense ridge of tropical jungle, swaying coconut palms, terracotta roofs and the sun-bleached towers of 350 year-old Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a flock of red ibises – or guarás – take to the air from the marshy foreshore. Google them, they’re seriously impressive.
The sun blasts down with a ferocious bite during the dry season (July – December); at the same time a mass of humidity sits like a drenched blanket over the cobbled streets, rustic dwellings and dilapidated mansions.
In its 18th and 19th century prime, Alcântara was a hot-spot of cashed-up cotton and sugarcane plantation aristocrats buying and selling African slaves to do all the hard work as they fanned themselves on their breezy porches. It didn’t last long, though, as when slavery was abolished the aristocrats relocated to São Luís and left an abandoned Alcântara to the freed slaves.
Walking up from the boat wharf and straight up cobbled Ladeira do Jacaré gives you an immediate taste of what most of the town is like – roughly hewn, pastel coloured and dripping with intrigue. Not a great deal of people either, given its population of over 20, 000, but those that you do see seem to be in no rush for anything.
Many months prior to even getting to Brazil I came across a cookie in my online research. It was this cookie – doces de especie – that drew me to Alcântara. I simply had to visit its birthplace.
Yes I saw them at Mercado Praia Grande in São Luís – with excitement, mind you – but when I spotted doces de especie being sold on the street, in tiny grocers and from windows in people’s homes in Alcântara, it was a slightly surreal experience.
So what are doces de especie? They’re basically a soft and chewy coconut cookie on a pastry base, shaped like a turtle. And they’re damn delicious!
At the top of the hill is what appears to be the centre of the old settlement – Praça da Matriz. The square is flanked by 18th-century mansions, a few of which house museums. The imposing 17th-century Igreja de São Matias dominates the square with its ruined shell, and at it’s front is Brazil’s best preserved pelourinho (whipping post) that reminds you of what it was like for many of the slaves that were brought here.
Head about 200 metres further along Rua Grande and you see the impressive Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo facing a checkerboard plaza. Beside it are the ruins of a convent, and opposite are more ruins that provide a perfect photo frame for the churches facade.
The northern corner of the igreja is the beginning of Rua da Miritua, a road that’s more about locals going about their daily activities than sights for tourists. This commercial street is peppered with a couple of clothing and convenience stores, some food joints, and a bunch of locals sitting in chairs out on the street doing a whole lot of nothing.
At its intersection with Rua do Cemitério there’s a very small outdoor market selling a few fruits and veggies, charred corn – even dip-dyed baby chickens, just incase you needed one.
Restaurants are few and far between in Alcântara, and anything you do come across is typically Braseiro and rustic to boot.
We stumbled across this little place just north of Praça da Matriz with a simple menu set-up of meat, fish or shrimp done a variety of ways and served large enough for two.
Our carne assada de panela (55) looked incredibly dry and charred, but the divine pieces of beef had clearly been slowly braised for hours before quickly charred prior to serving. Loved it. Loved it a lot.
The usual Brazilian sides come with it – white rice, green rice, farofa, spaghetti and feijão. We absolutely adored the surprise chunks of charred and caramelised banana that went beautifully with the carne. Thumbs up from this pair.
Down near the wharf there are a few kiosks that serve up quick snacks and cool drinks, and it’s even a good place to take a load off and wait for the next boat back to São Luís.
Also a good place for us to chill with a local brew and tuck into a tray of doces de espécie.
Getting to Alcântara.
The few boats that head over to Alcântara are completely tide-dependent, so departure times can vary. Our suggestion is to head down to the wharf – Cais de Praia Grande – in São Luís the day before and look at the next days times, and even grab your tickets if you can.
There are usually two departures between 7am and 9am – but this is subjective, of course. The larger boats – Barraqueiro and Lusitania – are better options for the sea sick prone, but the Sabor de Mel catamaran was still ok with me as I was fully dosed up on pills and didn’t feel an ounce of sickness.
Check with the boat operator when arriving at Alcântara for return times.