Sao Luis



Founded by a French pirate and named after a French king (Louis XIII), Sao Luis is the bewitching capital of Maranhao and one of Brazil's most beautiful cities. It is 1,430 mi/2,300 km northeast of Rio de Janeiro.

Located on an island in the Bay of Sao Marcos, Sao Luis' claim to fame is its colonial center, with mansions covered in shiny ceramic tiles (azulejos) imported from France and Portugal during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Aside from some interesting churches and palaces, this area—known as Praia Grande—boasts several small museums (Museu de Cultura Popular, Domingos Vieira Filho and Museu de Artes Visuais) and a fantastic old circle-shaped 19th-century market. Across the Jose Sarney Bridge is a long string of wide beaches, the nicest of which is Calhau.

Although poor and rundown in parts, Sao Luis is quite small and friendly. It's best to stay near the colonial part of town so as not to have to walk around at night. Sao Luis has a charming, traditional Carnival and a famous June festival called bumba-meu-boi: a unique and colorful fusion of African, indigenous and Portuguese folk elements.

Across Sao Marcos Bay from Sao Luis is Alcantara, Maranhao's first capital. Built in the 1600s by slaves, it was once a rich town, but its 19th-century mansions and churches have fallen into ruin. There are no modern buildings at all, so traveling there (launches leave from Sao Luis' hidroviaria regularly) is like going back in time. Most of the residents are descendants of African slaves.

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