Capital of Maranhão

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São Luís – founded by the French – is located close to the equator. Thanks to the French, Dutch, indian, Portuguese, and African influences, São Luís hosts a huge cultural variety. From bumba-meu-boi to tambor de crioula to dança portuguesa to quadrilha junina to reggae. The historic center with the buildings in colonial style has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. From São Luís, travels can be made to the immense dune landscape of Lençóis Maranhenses, the historic ruins of Alcântara as landmarks of the Brazilian empire, the huge statue of Saint Joseph in São José de Ribamar.

São Luís

The city of São Luís is the capital of the state of Maranhão. The state of Maranhão is surrounded by the states of Pará, Tocantins, and Piauí, and by the Atlantic Ocean. The state of Maranhão hosts the dune landscape Lençóis Maranhenses in the north, the eastern part of the Amazon forest in the west, and the dry highlands in the south. The state is with 331 thousand km2 slightly smaller than Germany. About 6.5 million people live in the state, of which more than one million have their residence within the city limits of Sao Luís. São Luís is located on the island Upaon-Açu (Tupi for Big Island).

Skyline of São Luís

“Nada há aí de comparável à beleza e às delícias desta terra, bem como a fecundidade e abundância em tudo o que homem possa imaginar”
“Nothing compares with the beauty and the sweet taste of this land, as well as the fertility and the abundance of everything that men may even imagine”

(Claude d’Abbeville)

Gravures of the indians and French. Left: gravure of
D’Abberville, who joined the French expedition (1614).


A few hundred indians of the Tupinambás tribes lived in the region before the first Europeans arrived. In 1500, the Spaniard Vicente Pinzón sailed along the coast of Maranhão. Spain could not claim this territory because of the Treaty of Tordesilhas, that divided the American continent into a Spanish and a Portuguese part. In 1535 the immense Brazilian colony was divided into large administrative regions – capitanias -, the capitania of Maranhão became possession of the Portuguese treasurer João de Barros, who started to colonize it. Around 1550, Nazaré was founded, more or less on the location of São Luís.

Live reggae in the center of São Luís

The settlement became abandoned, and it was not until 1612, when a French expedition landed and claimed the area as French territory: Equinoctial France. The French, led by Daniel de La Touche, founded a new settlement and named it in honor of the French king Louis XIII: Saint Louis. Three years later, the French were expelled by the Portuguese. In 1621, the Brazilian colony became divided into 2 large administrative parts: de colony of Brazil, and the colony of Maranhão, with São Luís as the capital. The Dutch, who colonized Recife and Olinda, expanded their territory until São Luís from 1641 tot 1644, until they were expelled by the Portuguese. When the state of Grão-Pará and Maranhão was created in 1737, Belém became the new capital. Maranhão became of importance for its production of suger cane, cacao, and tobacco, the labor was done by enslaved indians. In 1684 Maranhão natives revolted against the elite, and demanded the expulsion of the Jesuites, who opposed the slavery of indians. The revolt was led by Manuel Beckman, who was defeated and condemned to death.

The commerce expanded and led to the increase of slave trade from Africa. São Luís became a prosperous city, with many mansions constructed in the typical Portuguese style. When the Portuguese crown prince Dom Pedro declared the independence of Brazil in 1822, Maranhão did not join. In the following year, the Portuguese were expelled with the help of the British admiral Lord Cochrane, who became the first governor of the state of Maranhão. São Luís became once more prosperous when cotton was grown for export to the United Kingdom during the American Civil War. At the end of the nineteenth century, agriculture faced significant decay, the region became impoverished. In 1997, the UNESCO declared the historic center of São Luís as World Heritage.

Vale Festejar 2007

Economic activity

Until the end of the nineteenth century, the economic activity in Maranhão was one of the most prosperous of the Brazilian colony. Following the end of the American Civil War, the cotton trade collapsed, as did the economic activity in the state. The city remained isolated from the rest of Brazil until the sixties of the twentieth century. From then, railways and highways were constructed, linking São Luís with the rest of the nation. With the inauguration of the Port do Itaqui, economic activity increased again. Trainloads with ore coming from Serra dos Carajás are shipped to Northern America and Europe. The industrial production in São Luís is mainly focused upon the production of aluminium and food. Tourism is another important contributor of economic activity in Maranhão. At present, São Luís ranks 14th of the Brazilian capitals regarding the economic activity, and 29th of all Brazilian municipalities (2008).

Vale Festejar 2007

What to see

The best period to visit São Luís and Maranhão is between July and December, during the dry season. In July, São Luís hosts a series of cultural events, called ‘Vale Festejar’: ‘It is worth partying’. Vale also refers to one of the principal sponsors of the events. These events are held in de Convento das Mercês, in the center of São Luís. The visitor may be confronted with an interesting mix of indian, French, Portuguese, and African styles, that are incorporated in different dances: Bumba-meu-boi, Tambor de Crioula, Dança Portuguesa, and Quadrilha Junina. São Luís is also known as the Brazilian Capital of Reggae: many locations in the center host a variety of reggae music. The historic center contains a great number of historic buildings, including churches, monasteries, mansions. One of the principal monuments is the Teatro Artur Azevedo, the second oldest theater in Brazil. The Palácio dos Leões (the Lions’ Palace) originally was a fortress. In time, many reforms were applied, and now the palace hosts the government of the state of Maranhão. The Lago Ana Jansen is a location with a variety of sports activities, bars and restaurants. Ana Jansen was a noblewoman, nicknamed the “Queen of Maranhão’. Ana gained a notorious reputation for her bad treatment of her slaves: from punishment and mutilation to even death. Since her death a legend persists that her spirit still rides in a carriage at night, carried by horses and mutilated slaves. Her witch-like spirit is screaming from despair and seeking forgiveness for her bad deeds.

At the other side of the Baia de São Marcos, that can be crossed by a ferry or a catamaran during high tide, is located the historic village of Santo Antônio de Alcântara, shortly Alcântara. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the rich elite constructed their mansions and little castles. When the visit of the Brazilian emperor was announced, the elite was competing to host their emperor. Following the decay of the economic activity at the end of the nineteenth century, the village turned in an open air museum with the ruins of the one time prosperous community. Behind the village, the Alcântara Launch Base is located.From São Luis, moving eastward along the shoreline, one may encounter various beaches. The most popular beaches are Ponta d’Areia, São Marcos, Calhau, and Olho d’Água. More eastbound, one may reach the city of São José de Ribamar, where a huge statue of its patron, Saint Joseph and his son Jesus, is erected.

Three hours (about 270 km) east of São Luís, one may visit Barreirinhas, gateway to the immense dune landscape of Lençóis Maranhenses. The small village hosts some pousadas (hostels) and a variety of bars and restaurants. The dune landscape is only to be reached by 4×4 vehicles. In July, the small, crystalline freshwater lakes are filled with rainwater and are suitable for bathing. The aquamarine and turquoise lakes form a sharp contrast with the white sand of the dunes.

Useful links:

City of São Luís
State of Maranhão
Tourism in Maranhão
Virtual Tour Palacio dos Leões

City of São Luís – Island of Love

São Luís 400 years

Festa Bumba meu Boi – Boi de Morros 2009

Festa Bumba meu Boi – Boi da Maioba

Barreirinhas – Preguiças River

Lençóis Maranhenses – Uma maravilha da natureza

Travel to Lençóis Maranhenses

Lençóis Maranhenses

Lençóis Maranhenses – Record TV


São José de Ribamar

Sightings in Maranhão

Hymn of Maranhão

Maranhão – New discovery of Brazil

Maranhão, para apaixonar

Natural beauties of Maranhão – Record TV

By Adriano Antoine Robbesom

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