Belém Tour Opens Doors of Closed Sites

Day 10, Grand World Voyage 2020

Monday, Jan. 13, 2020; Belém, Brazil

My research before the cruise indicated that we could explore Belém, Brazil, on our own. The ship anchors in the relatively shallow Guama River and tenders us ashore in nearby Icoaraci. From there a complementary shuttle would take us to a central point in Belém, a drive of about 45 minutes or more, depending on traffic. These courtesy shuttles are more common on Holland America’s grand cruises.

But my research on seeing the city on our own didn’t account for our timing. We are here on a Monday, the day on which all the museums, gardens and forts are closed for maintenance. Most of the slides of popular sites during port guide Glenn-Michael’s talk are stamped “Closed Monday.”

Fortunately, the ship’s excursions (and some private tour companies) obtained waivers to visit those sites. So Elaine and I joined the Best of Belém tour and left the details to the experts.

After passing through the countryside between Icoaraci and Belém, we arrived in the busy city where one bicyclist appeared to be delivering a large pot of soup.

Portuguese explorers founded Belém in 1616 shortly after setting off on Christmas Day, so they gave it the Portuguese name for Bethlehem. It sits on part of the large system comprising the mouth of the Amazon River.

Our first stop was at the Basilica of Our Lady of Nazareth, a copy of St. Paul’s church in Rome built during the rubber boom era at the beginning of the 20th century. It features a beautiful central nave and stained glass windows. Outside the front fence is covered with wrist ribbons. The tradition began when the faithful tied three ribbons with prayers to their wrists and wore them until they fell off. The ribbons tied on the fence now look too new to have been worn. They make a pretty façade.

The Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi was next. Many in our group expected a museum filled with artifacts, but it is an outdoor museum of the plants and animals of Amazonia as the region is known. The 12-acre wooded site is a refuge in the middle of the bustling city. Among the 1,500 plant species and 1,600 types of fruit trees are enclosures with animals, including the Goeldi monkeys. Swiss naturalist Emil Goeldi is credited with discovering the primate and many other species in Brazil. We also saw many birds and a spotted jaguar.

Brazil’s Portuguese heritage shines through in the colonial architecture of the old city with colorful tiles on the building faces. The Ver-O-Peso Market (the largest open-air market in Brazil) stretches along the riverfront. At one end boats are selling large baskets of mangoes for about $20 each.

As we moved through the market, we found medicinal herbs and oils, produce and local crafts, especially ceramics popular here. Members of our tour group snacked on shelled Brazil nuts that cost only a couple of dollars for a generous bag.

Finally we reached the food stalls. Each seems to sell the same pan-fried fish with a dark purple, gravy-like sauce made from açaí. These stalls are popular lunch spots for workers from the nearby buildings. The vented covering allows a breeze to fight the heat and humidity.

After stopped at the Forto do Castelo fortress built by the Portuguese, we left this city of a million and half people with modern high-rises mixed with seemingly abandoned buildings.

We returned to the ship tired and hot. After a late lunch, we had a light dinner in the Lido and called it an early night. We have two sea days before arriving in Recife.