São Luís – Alcântara
São Luís do Maranhão was once the capital of Equinoctial France at the beginning of its history, then very briefly Portuguese and now presented as the Brazilian Lisbon. It is strong of a rich and centuries-old history and has learned to charm its visitors, or rather its explorers! Discover it with us….
“High above” the Northeast of Brazil, located on the eponymous island at the gateway to the Amazon, the city of São Luís, capital of the State of Maranhão, has survived the centuries unscathed and has kept all its influences alive much to the pride of its inhabitants. It is a real muse in their eyes and protects in its heart a historical center listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the stage of many cultural traditions which is ideal for a journey back in time without the impression of walking around in a city-museum, to the contrary!”High above” the Northeast of Brazil, located on the eponymous island at the gateway to the Amazon, the city of São Luís, capital of the State of Maranhão, has survived the centuries unscathed and has kept all its influences alive much to the pride of its inhabitants. It is a real muse in their eyes and protects in its heart a historical center listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the stage of many cultural traditions which is ideal for a journey back in time without the impression of walking around in a city-museum, to the contrary!
The city of Alcantara, the “opposite” city which is an hour away by boat, would be the cradle of all the culture of Maranhão and therefore of São Luís. This small town, frozen in time, strikes its travelers as it tells its incredibly tangible story.
São Luís is an ideal starting point to reach the Lençóis Maranhenses (see the page we dedicate to it) and discover the many ecosystems of the emotional itinerary “A Rota das Emoções” towards Jericoacoara, Fortaleza.
Geography and climate
São Luís is located on the western part of the island originally named Upaon-Açu, in a region of transition between the equatorial climate of the Amazon and the semi-arid climate of southern Brazil.
The climate is hot and semi-humid. Only two seasons punctuate the life of this city and its territory. Be careful, if you hear the inhabitants talking to you about the winter season, that’s what they call it, they are actually talking about the rainy season which sees the average temperature drop… by one or two degrees!
Summer, or dry season, is from July to December and “winter” or the rainy season is from January to May – June. The average annual temperature varies between 21°C and 34°C
Add an exceptional tide (7 to 8 meters) very influential on the island, Amazonian vegetation and mangrove forests coiled in the heart of the city and you get an island and a tropical city if ever there were one!
GPS coordinates of São Luís: 2°32’00.3″S 44°17’46.0″W
São Luís – Brazil
- Ideal > May to September
- Suitable > December and January
- Other periods > Contact us
São Luís do Maranhão in a few words
A little bit of history
On 8 September 1612, Daniel De Latouche, Lord of the Ravardière, who left Cancale with about 500 men, arrived on the island of Upaon-Açu to officially found the city of São Luís, a name that simultaneously pays tribute to Louis IX (the Saint) and Louis XIII, the King… The name “Upaon-Açu” means “Big Island” in the language of the Tupinambá Indians.
“Brazilian Athens”, “Island of Love”, “Brazilian Jamaica” or “Ilha magnetica”, all such names are proof of its cultural heritages, maintained by a generation of literary personalities, a lot of human warmth and a rhythmic diversity for which the capital of Maranhão is renowned.
A city that would have liked to remain French ?
“Why didn’t you win against the Portuguese?!”… the Ludoviscences ask us. Indeed, the romance between Equinoctial France and the natives was too short. The inhabitants of São Luís still imagine the scenario where France emerges victorious from its confrontation with the Portuguese just two years after their arrival and willingly picture themselves as heirs to the “chic” French culture.
After the French and then the Portuguese for a few decades, the Dutch also took up residence for a few years; then the Portuguese took their “due” back. This territory was strategic and destined to be highly coveted, but the procession of successive occupants stopped there.
While there is not much tangible evidence of the French heritage left in this Lusitanian city, nostalgia is still very much alive after 4 centuries… and the French are always welcome !
A population with a strong character and of various origins
The city is the result of a particular cultural mix, as you would probably say about all of Brazil…
Certainly so, yet the proximity to the Amazon and its Indian populations, which have mingled throughout its history with the African slaves landed on its coasts and successive European occupants, gives its population a unique heritage.
São Luís is one of the few cities where there are surprising ethnic combinations, including the Cafuzos, which were born of black and Indian parents.
Historic Centre and Modern City
It has more than 3,500 houses from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and includes hundreds of large colonial buildings that have been restored or are in the process of being restored.
The “reviver” houses, as the Ludoviscences call their historical center, have a particularity: their facades are covered with Azulejos. Nicknamed the “city of the azulejos“, São Luís is an authentic open-air museum that displays more than 300 different models on its facades. This earthenware is not only intended to make houses pretty, it also has the advantage of reflecting the bright sunlight, which helps to keep the temperature low inside the buildings.
Beyond the historical district, the city is growing at the same rate as its population increases. New districts with modern architecture, buildings, avenues and leisure areas are emerging, accompanied by new bridges over the Anil and Bacanga rivers.
The tradition of Bumba-meu-boi, “We prefer it to Carnaval!”
The Afro-Indo-European cultural mix has created very strong intercultural manifestations. One of them is the “Bumba-meu-boi”. This Afro-Indigenous festival is a busy time in the streets of the historical center during the month of June. It is a genuine popular street festival. It features characters dressed as very colorful oxen or dressed in indigenous ornaments.
A festivity that enchants visitors with its dances and music. A tropical celebration, whose fervor is contagious. This is regional folklore, a vibrant commemoration that is both satirical and dramatic.
The legend behind the Bumba-meu-boi: an ox was killed by a slave to satisfy the desire of his pregnant wife, who wanted to eat the tongue of the beast. It was the slave’s owner’s most popular ox. After satisfying his wife’s whim, the man fearing his master’s reaction took refuge in the forest full of remorse. Lost in the middle of the jungle, he found a tribe of Indians there. They took him in and seeing his despair, brought the ox back to life.
The festivities represent this resurrection which takes place to the rhythm of different “Sotaque” (musical accents). More than a hundred groups from the different districts of São Luís but also from remote areas of the state of Maranhão volunteer all year round to prepare for this traditional and historical event.
A few words about Alcântara
Alcântara intrigues at first sight and then reveals itself to the visitor, beautiful and welcoming. This city is worth a visit because it will introduce you to the history of the whole region. Although this small city of 20,000 inhabitants is not very popular with tourists, it is a stopover that leaves no one indifferent.
Its history is the source of many cultural traditions dear to the Ludoviscences. One of the few Holy Spirit festivals in Brazil which attracts many Brazilians every year. Dances such as Creoula’s Tambor, Cacuriá and many others, all very steeped in their African roots, are still performed there. Marvel at the colonial houses and taste coconut-based biscuits. Enjoy some local dishes while observing magnificent birds such as scarlet ibises! They have taken up residence in the surrounding mangroves. The color of their feathers, this intense and vibrant blood red offers an unforgettable, almost unreal sight when they fly over a deep green mangrove. Everything seems to have been done to produce a contrast much sought after by even the most demanding photographers.
The capital of Brazil’s most “humble” state will surprise you with its authenticity. Its clever blend of history and modernity, its welcoming population which is emblematic of a mixed Brazil beyond what you can imagine.
A night and a day may be enough unless you choose to visit Alcântara and its scarlet ibises. Before you head out on the roads to Jericoacoara, fill up on tropical sensations, take the time to dine in a good restaurant whose flavors you will remember throughout your trip.
São Luís will make you want to come back to the Amazon and go further up towards Belém and Santarém on a next trip or by extending your stay!
Why you should visit São Luis
- Stroll through a lively historic center, teeming with life during the day and festive at night
- Visit one of the most authentic historical centers in Brazil
- Discover the culinary traditions of Amazonia such as the famous Açaí juice, called Jucára here, but also the Guarana da Amazônia
- Come feel and experience the life in the tropics
Some ideas for a successful stay in São Luis
- Stroll through the historical centre and its narrow streets full of colorful azulejos
- Watch football players on the beach continuously adapting their playground to the tide
- Admire the sails of the fishing boats that return with high winds and rising tides.
- Adapt to the rhythm of the locals, take it easy during the hot hours to enjoy fresh coconut water, or a Guarana da Amazônia
Information and anecdotes
Reggae, yes, but not by yourself !
São Luís, the Brazilian reggae capital, has reinvented this culture by offering its fans the opportunity to dance together. The view of these couples embracing while adopting an elegant and respectful attitude is worth going to one of the cult nightclubs where this dance is practiced !
The Kennedy family and São Luis bound by blood
As incredible as it may seem, the Kennedy family’s curse started at the corner of Rua Direita (Henrique Leal) and Rua Da Estrela in the heart of the historical center. It was here that JFK’s uncle, John Harold Kennedy, an accountant with a large American company that controlled the wealth of Maranhão was murdered on September 30, 1933… 30 years before the President of the United States.
São Luís, on an island
Seen from the sky, the separation of this territory from the mainland is not obvious, but São Luís deserves its title of “Island” because at high tide, it is surrounded on all sides by the ocean. Is that why it is called “Isle of Love”?
Big Brazilian stars were born in this small island
Alcione, Zeca Baleiro, Antonio Vieira…
Which translates to “Reggae-warrior” is the name we give to reggae addicts, those who have a membership card of the passionate community that allows them to enter all the reggae clubs in São Luís.
To go further….
Read Jean-Paul Delfino‘s description of São Luís et d’Alcântara in our “Travel diaries” section :