Across the Baía de São Marcos from São Luís—about an hour and a half by boat—lies the hauntingly beautiful colonial town of Alcântara. Founded in 1648, its picturesque hilltop was the favored dwelling place of Maranhão’s wealthy sugar and cotton plantation owners. During its 18th- and 19th-century heyday, it was one of Brazil’s most sumptuous colonial towns.
The abolition of slavery resulted in the end of the high life. The ruined plantation owners decamped to São Luís, leaving their freed slaves in the abandoned town. Subsequently, like a city out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, Alcântara slipped into oblivion. The road leading to São Luís (an eight-hour drive) became overgrown as did the town itself.
Indeed, its dilapidated baroque treasures—many now in ruins—seem to be slowly on the verge of being swallowed up by steamy tropical jungle. What Alcântara lacks in lost grandeur, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. It is truly an alluring place to while away a day.
One of Maranhão’s most legendary popular celebrations, the Festa do Divino mobilizes Alcântara’s entire population during two weeks in May. A colorful fusion of African and Catholic elements, the festa also provides a resolution to the no-show of Dom Pedro II with celebrations revolving around the figures of a sumptuously attired emperor and empress (two local children) who are paraded through town to much fanfare. Commemorations include fireworks, music, and dancing to the pounding drums played by matriarchs of Tambor de Mina terreiros. Moist coconut tarts shaped like tiny tortoises, known as doce-de-especies, are distributed to all the children.
Most people visit Alcântara as a day trip. Should you be very struck by the place, there are several pousadas where you can spend the night, including the Pousada dos Guarás (Praia da Baronesa, tel. 98/3337-1339, R$60–85 d). Located right on the beach, these palm-thatched bungalows are simple but utterly tranquil. A seaside restaurant/bar serves up delicious fresh fish.
For food in town, Restaurante da Josefa (Rua Direita 33, tel. 98/3337-1109, 6:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. daily) is a cozy homestyle eatery presided over by Dona Josefa, whose tasty home-cooking includes generous portions of fish, seafood, and chicken dishes with myriad fixings.
Getting to Alcântara
Ferries to Alcântara depart from São Luís’s Terminal Hidroviário (tel. 98/3232-6929) on Praia Grande’s main waterfront. Departure times can be affected by the tides. In fact, during low tide, you may need to depart or return via the Yacht Club in Ponto d’Areia (check first at the terminal). Tickets cost R$10. Be aware that sometimes the crossing can be a little choppy. Alternatives are to take a faster but more expensive motorboat or a slower but more scenic catamaran. All boat and information schedules are available at the terminal.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition