The large port city of Belem (and capital of Para state) is a good base for half-day river cruises to get a taste of the jungle. (These short cruises are really intended for people who aren't headed farther up the Amazon on longer cruises.)

Belem, which is 1,520 mi/2,445 km northwest of Rio de Janeiro, is a lovely colonial city founded in 1616 that offers enough to justify a two-day stay: the 18th-century Basilica de Nossa Senhora de Nazare; the Emilio Goeldi Museum, including a zoo, botanical gardens, aquarium and a good ethnology museum; some elegant old mansions in the Cidade Velha (Old Town); and the Teatro da Paz, built in 1874 and graced by Anna Pavlova and other famous performers at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Ver-o-Peso Market (the name means "watch the weight") is interesting: Among the fruit and vegetable stalls, you'll find vendors selling crocodile teeth, dried boa constrictors and Macumba charms, such as amulets with mysterious powers and incense to ward off the evil eye (go early in the morning to see the most action, but bear in mind that the area is plagued by juvenile thieves).

The Mangal das Garcas Park offers a sampling of Amazonian vegetation without having to leave the center of town. If possible, attend a batuque ceremony, known for colorful costumes and vivid music. Batuque is a local religion that mixes indigenous and Catholic rituals with elements from traditional African religions.

About 49 mi/82 km from the city is the Ilha de Marajo, an island the size of Switzerland at the convergence of the Amazon and several smaller rivers. It's famous for both enormous herds of water buffalo and deserted beaches. The island's buffalo ranches accept guests July-December.

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