December 27, 2020: Welcome to Belem
Belem (Portuguese for Bethlehem) is a city of 2 million people in the Amazon delta. It is the capital of the state of Para. Belem was one of the first Portuguese cities in Brazil and has historically been a major center of trade.
I arrived in Belem on a 48-hour public ferry ride down the Amazon River from Santarem. Before that, I spent 3 days in Alter do Chao- a beach town in the middle of the Amazon.
My boat arrived on a crowded dock full of taxi drivers, thieves, and other nuisances. I walked past them and over to the street where I caught an Uber to my hostel. The Uber was shockingly cheap: 11 reals or 2.20 USD.
My hostel, the obviously named Belem Hostel, was the only hostel in town. It sat in a moderately-sketchy-looking neighborhood with narrow one-lane streets in the city center. As this was my first big city in Brazil, I was on extra high alert, especially because Belem is reputed to be one of the most dangerous cities in all of Brazil.
I buzzed the hotel and was greeted by an American man named Travis. He was an Iraq War veteran and was planning to travel indefinitely off a military disability check. His monthly check was not enough to live on in the US but was enough to live worry-free in a developing country like Brazil. Travis had been staying in Belem for a few weeks. He offered to walk around town with me for the day. I normally agree to these types of offers, but I was especially excited to walk around with Travis because he seemed nice, spoke English and, in general, walking in a group is exponentially safer than walking alone.
Our first stop was a leafy park called Praca Republica. The sidewalks here had the distinctive white and black Portuguese tiles. I was told that most cities in Brazil have these. There was a flea market today. The vibe here felt exceedingly calm and friendly.
We kept walking. The streets of Belem are lined with enormous trees. In general, I felt completely safe walking on these wide boulevards of the city center. Nobody was going to mug me here. Eventually we reached another gorgeous square.
Continuing on, we reached a gem museum, which was really more of a jewelry market. While exploring the air-conditioned store, I checked Google Maps and realized that all the museums in town were closing in one hour at 13:00 and were closed tomorrow.
With a sense of urgency, we Ubered to the Old City, the original Portuguese settlement which had the bulk of the city’s museums.
The museums were all laid out around a large central square, which the police had extremely well patrolled. We even saw an unattended Ferrari convertible with the engine on. The owner was a few meters away smoking a cigar chatting with friends, but considering that I was recommended to not even use a cell phone in public in this city, this was pretty shocking and definitely spoke to the safety of the area. Interestingly, despite having been in Belem for nearly a month, Travis had yet to visit the Old City.
We started by visiting the Presepio Fort, built in 1616. The entrance fee was 4 reals (0.8 USD). I was surprised when Travis said he was not going to pay the paltry fee and was instead going wait outside. After chatting with the guard, he eventually let Travis in for free.
This was a red flag for me. Either Travis was one of the best, most disciplined budget long-distance travelers out there (Belem would be the city to run into this type of traveler) or he was having some sort of money problem.
Next, we visited a religious art museum housed in an old Portuguese church and bishop’s palace. Again, Travis refused to pay the entrance fee. This time, I couldn’t get him in for free, so he sat outside. The museum was beautiful and I would highly recommend it.
Next, we visited the Belem Cathedral, which was free. This cathedral is a neoclassical beauty built in the late 1700’s. This may sound surprising, but this church was about as good as anything found in Europe from this era.
Finally, we visited the Casa das Onze Janelas, an old customs house. The first floor is a swanky restaurant, but the top floor is an okay contemporary art museum. While walking in, we ran into the hostel owner and his family.
It was now lunchtime and we just so happened to be next to Belem’s most famous attraction: the Ver-O-Peso market. It is known all over Brazil for containing many exotic items and produce from the Amazon.
It is also known for being a hotspot for pickpockets. My guidebook called the market the most dangerous spot in Belem. When I mentioned this fact, Travel revealed that it was here a few weeks ago that he got pickpocketed while drinking alone at the market one night. The thief stole his phone and the debit card linked to his main bank account. His backup card got hacked by a card cloning device at a shoddy merchant which drained his bank account. He explained that his next check is due to arrive in 5 days and everything will be fine. Based on what I heard, everything was not fine, but it was not my place to prod.
Ver-O-Peso was incredible and had many different sections. Since today was a Sunday, the market was mostly empty and I felt safe taking my phone out for pictures. This would not be case if the market were busy. The first section- a tall blue building- contained a fish market with exotic Amazonian fish.
Outside that was a produce section containing Amazonian plants such as the tingly jambu leaf and bright peppers.
Next to that was a live animal market containing mostly chickens.
Next to that were vendors selling unusual Amazonian fruit juices such as acerola, bacuri, cupuacu, graviola, and more.
Next to that were vendors selling bottled shots of jambu and sugar cane liquor.
Next to that were the prepared food vendors. There was space for about 100 stalls surrounded by tall wooden stools. At 14:00 on a Sunday, about 25 vendors were open and they were all selling the same single dish: fish and acai. The fish was fried and seasoned. The acai was the flavorless variety found all over the amazon. For those who have eaten acai bowls in other parts of the world, the thought of combining fish and acai must sound bizarre.
The wooden stools were an invitation for pickpockets to reach into pockets and disappear into the crowd of the market. I was glad that the market was pretty tame today. Eating the fish and acai was one of the most uneasy meals I’ve had since I was last on the dating market 3 years ago.
We walked back to the hostel where I rested up. Then I caught an Uber to the Mangal de Garcas, a combination park, cultural center, and zoo. Entry to the park, where you can wander the beautiful grounds and see the iguanas, is free. For 5 reals (1 USD), you can visit one of the many paid attractions: an observation deck, flamingo pond, bird sanctuary, and naval museum. The observation deck is by far the best of the bunch. The compound is highly secured by private guards and felt exceedingly safe.
Mangal de Garcas was full of people taking engagement pictures, family portraits, and (most popularly) pregnancy photos. I’ve never heard of a pregnancy photo, but they’re apparently all the rage in Brazil.
I noticed a big difference between the people here than the people walking around town. The people at Mangal de Garcas were much better dressed and lighter skinned. These were clearly rich Brazilians. Based on conversations and observations, Brazilian society appears to be quite segregated by class, and by proxy race. Rich Brazilians seem to be extremely afraid of crime and opt to take private transportation to secured locations where they feel safe. There are some notable exceptions to this such as the beach and Carnival, but I sense higher level of distrust here than in almost any other country I have visited.
For dinner, Travis and I headed to another secure location: the Estacos do Dacas. This former series of port warehouses has been repurposed into a swanky retail development with restaurants, shops and bars. The development was packed- an interesting juxtaposition to the deserted streets.
We got beer at the Amazon Brewery, one of the only microbreweries in northern Brazil (southern Brazil reportedly has some fantastic breweries due to the strong German influence). Like many countries, Brazil has unique words for sizes of beer. The smallest size is called a choppa. It is about half the size of a UK/US pint or double the size of a Spanish caña.
For dinner, we got a 3-course Amazonian feast from the famed La em Casa. All in all a fantastic day in this cool city.
December 28: The Best Restaurant Ever
I slept in and took a walk to the Ver-O-Peso to see it on a weekday. Because I was afraid of getting my phone stolen, I went without it, so sorry no pictures. The market was noticeably livelier, but realistically you could probably take pictures here without incident if you are careful.
I then went inland and visited a large church called Basilica Sanctuary of Nazareth. This famous church is home to the largest religious celebration in all of Brazil that takes place in November.
The church was fine, but the air conditioning was fantastic.
I then took an Uber down to the water. There, I caught a small ferry to Ilha do Combu.
10 minutes after leaving the busy city, we were transported into a jungle island with wooden houses and restaurants. Based on the recommendation of my friend Daran, I visited Restaurante Chalet da Ilha- the most ridiculous and awesome restaurant I’ve ever seen.
It looks more like a waterpark than a restaurant. There are tables in the water, hammocks underneath waterfalls, and a volleyball court. The menu consisted of multi-person fish plates and tropical drinks.
I got fried fish and a passionfruit (maracuja) caipifruta, which came with a popcicle!
Chalet da Ilha was pure magic and was easily my favorite thing in Belem.
I then took the ferry back to Belem.
After another walk around the more upscale Umarizal neighborhood for dinner and Cairu ice cream, I returned to the hostel to find Travis. We chatted for a little bit before I had to take a call. He was shocked that I was able to call the US without an international phone plan (Porting a number through GoogleVoice FTW!) and asked if I could help him resolve his issues with the bank.
I agreed and we called his bank. Unfortunately, the bank required a two-factor authentication which he could not do due to his stolen items. I told him that he was now in a very bad situation and suggested we call the US Embassy.
The Embassy told us that Travis’s brother had reported him as a missing person two weeks ago! Before taking any additional actions, the consular officer suggested we call the brother and reconcile. Luckily Travis knew his number by heart. Using my phone, Travis called his brother and the two of them were able to develop a plan to get Travis back to the US. Travis’s brother also was going to download WhatsApp, which would allow Travis to contact him via any Brazilian cell phone (since everyone in Brazil uses WhatsApp).
It felt good to help save the day!
It was now well past midnight and time to go to bed since I had an early flight the next morning to Recife.
Most people who visit Belem do so because it is a jumping off point for the lower reaches of the Amazon. However, the city is very beautiful and a worthy destination in its own right. Two days is probably the optimal amount of time to spend here. By far, my favorite thing was Ilha da Combu but the old city and the Ver-O-Peso market were cool too.
Belem was my first big city in Brazil. Based on what people told me, I was expecting a place so dangerous I could not even walk around outside. The truth is that the city is much safer than that. Yes, you can walk outside and exist outside of your hotel after dark, but crime here is very real and you should take precautions such as not wearing jewelry and looking vigilantly around on every street. Walking alone in quiet residential areas appeared to be risky too. If you are wondering how to behave in an unknown city, the best thing to do would be to ask the hostel/hotel for advice or consult a guidebook before traveling. They have the best knowledge of your exact situation. Asking friends from that country will not give you the accurate picture for your situation on the ground.
Misfortune can happen to anyone on the road, but there are ways to mitigate it. One thing is to have a backup plan for every piece of equipment: a lost wallet, credit card, phone, passport, etc. Split up your cash and credit cards in multiple places in case you get robbed. Another important way to stay safe is to tell people where you are going. That way if something goes wrong, help can find you. The third way to stay safe is to make sure your loved ones have WhatsApp. WhatsApp is the most-used communication app in over 170 countries.
I don’t see myself going back to Belem, but if I did return, I would take an overnight trip to Ilha de Marajo, the world’s largest river island.