Shortcut to the Lençóis Maranhenses
São Luís would probably go unnoticed if it weren’t on the shortest route to the Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil’s most exotic natural attraction. But São Luís is well worth a visit on its own right. As the Northeastern town closest to the Amazon, São Luís gets to blend both regions — as well as France and Portugal, Afro-Brazilian rhythms and Jamaican reggae, pop soda and… Jesus (!).
The capital Maranhão state was founded by French invaders in 1612, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony; it’s named after king Louis IX. The pirates didn’t stay long, though: it took the Portuguese less than three years to evict the French. They proceed to build the casarões (big houses) with colorful azulejo (Portuguese tile) façades that dot the historic center – a designated Unesco heritage site since 1997.
While in town, try to get to know the colorful traditions of the state of Maranhão, such as bumba-meu-boi – a festival that occurs in June but takes all year to get prepared – and the tambor-de-mina, the entrancing beat that is still played at Afro-Brazilian religious rituals. The ruins of the city of Alcântara across the bay also deserve a side trip.
The nightlife in São Luís is all about reggae, but with a local twist: tunes are sung in fake English, and couples dance with their bodies close together, as if it were forró (a popular Northeastern rhythm). Even Maranhão’s official fizzy drink, Guaraná Jesus, is peculiar: it’s pink and has a strong cinnamon taste.
If you want to find Lençóis Maranhenses with full lagoons amid the sand dunes, go between mid-June and mid-September.
Why Include São Luís In Your Trip
- Gateway to the Lençóis Maranhenses
- Unesco heritage site featuring casarões with Portuguese tile façades
- The gorgeous ruins of Alcântara
- Reggae nights
- Bumba-meu-boi festival in the last two weeks of June
Keep in mind:
- Beaches in São Luís are polluted
- The historic center is quite run-down and feels unsafe
When To Go To São Luís
The weather in Maranhão, home state to both São Luís and the Lençóis Maranhenses, has two main seasons: rainy in the first semester and dry from July onwards. February, March and April are the rainiest months.
The best time to visit both is from June to September, when you can take sunshine for granted and the lagoons at Lençóis Maranhenses are full. As of October – or earlier, if the wet season wasn’t rainy enough — most lagoons will be dry.
When to find full lagoons in the Lençóis Maranhenses
Sunny weather and full lagoons: June | July | August
Sunny, lagoons drying out: September
Sunny, almost empty lagoons: October
Sunny, dry lagoons: November | December
Rainy, early lagoon formation: January | February | March | April
Rainy or cloudy, full lagoons: May
The bumba-meu-boi festival takes place in the second half of June. Between 15th and 30th, the festivities are carnival-like, with group presentations (the bois, or oxen) in several places (called arraiais) around town. No need to buy tickets: it’s free (and quite safe).
In Alcântara, the great street celebration is Festa do Divino, a religious festival which takes place 40 days after Easter (in 2018: May 20th).
How Many Days In São Luís?
Minimum: 2 days. Use the first day to explore the historic center. On the second, go to Alcântara in the morning and come back in the afternoon; leave for Lençóis Maranhenses early the next morning.
Ideal: 3 days. It’s a great idea spending one night in Alcântara. Sleep in São Luís in the first day, go to Alcântara in the second and get back on the third. On the fourth, leave for Lençóis early in the morning.
In a hurry? Skip it. Go straight from the São Luís airport to the Lençóis Maranhenses, by shared van or shared taxi (see below).
Getting To São Luís
São Luís is served by nonstop flights from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasília, Fortaleza, Belém, Recife, and Belo Horizonte. The closest international gateway is Fortaleza (a 80-minute flight away), where you can fly nonstop from Miami (Latam), Lisbon (Tap), Frankfurt (Condor), Bogotá (Avianca), and Buenos Aires (Gol).
The airport is about 12km (7 miles) from the historic center and 16km (10 miles) from Ponta do Farol hotel zone.
Cab fares are fixed: you’ll spend R$ 53 for a ride to the historic center and R$ 65 to Ponta do Farol. The fare to the bus station, approximately a 5-minute ride, costs R$ 30.
Getting to Alcântara
The boats heading to Alcântara (called lanchas) leave from the Praia Grande pier, next to the historic center. Lanchas depart from São Luís between 5am and 9.30 am, and return to São Luís between 1.00 pm and 4.30 pm — the exact departure time depends on high tide. Luzitânia is the only operator that publishes its schedule online and accept reservations by WhatsApp (+55-98/988-691-062) — ask your hotel’s receptionist to do it for you. Spending the night in Alcântara is worth it. Each leg costs R$ 15, the journey takes 1 hour and the sea is usually choppy (seasickness is common).
Lençóis Maranhenses: best itineraries
Shuttle vans to Lençóis Maranhenses leave São Luís and stop by the airport on the way to Barreirinhas or Santo Amaro. If you’re not staying in São Luís, arrange to be picked up at the airport. It’s a 4-hour drive to either town.
- If you have 2-3 days: Choose between Barreirinhas (biggest town, plenty of cheap group tours) or Santo Amaro (closest town to the dunes, fewer group tours available). If you’re on to Parnaíba, Barra Grande do Piauí or Jericoacoara, you’ll have to spend your last night in Barreirinhas.
- If you have 6 days: Go straight to Santo Amaro and spend 3 nights; then go to Barreirinhas for 1 night and wrap it up with 2 in Atins. If you’re on to Parnaíba, Barra Grande do Piauí or Jericoacoara, you’ll have to spend your last night in Barreirinhas.
- If you have 5 to 6 days and want to trek the park: Stay 1 night at Barreirinhas and 1 night at Atins. Do the 2-day Lençóis Maranhenses guided trek, spending the nights at Baixa Grande and Queimada dos Britos oases. Stay for 1 or 2 nights at Santo Amaro.
Where To Stay In São Luís
Although staying in the historic center is more convenient (you are within walking distance of all attractions, including the boarding pier to Alcântara), good options at the old town are quite limited. If you aim for more comfort, consider hotels in or around Ponta do Farol, on the urban waterfront, 15 minutes away from the historic center by taxi or Uber.
The only nice-looking inn in the old part of town is the Portas da Amazônia. It’s a restored and well-kept casarão run by employees who are used to foreigners. The location is great, in the heart of the district – which means Friday nights will be noisy for those staying in the front rooms.
The other option around the old town is Grand São Luis Hotel. Despite being no grand at all (but bland and tired), it’s comfortable enough (and does boast ‘grand’ surroundings, tucked between the Cathedral and the Governor’s Palace).
Either hotel is less than a 10-minute walk to the pier of Praia Grande, from where the boats leave for Alcântara. See Historic District hotels on the map at Things to Do section.
Ponta do Farol
Brazilian business travelers usually prefer to stay at the Ponta do Farol hotel zone. The best hotel here is Luzeiros — a high-rise with large rooms, complete with a swimming pool overlooking the sea, and just one block away from the Cabana do Sol restaurant, which serves local food and is a favorite of the local elite.
If you’re on a stricter budget, the Stop Way is a good choice, with quite comfortable rooms — the clean décor is a plus. It’s closest to the bars around Lagoa da Jansen (but take a cab anyways).
Tucked away in a side street, the no-frills, inexpensive Soft Inn offers the best value of this area.
See Ponta do Farol hotels on the map at Where to eat section.
Where To Eat In São Luís
Most of the nicest restaurants and bars in town are on the strip between Ponta do Farol and Lagoa da Jansen. On the other hand, the Historic District offers limited good options.
There are two interesting places to have lunch in the old quarters. Cafofinho da Tia Dica (Trav. Marcelino de Almeida, 173, tel. 98/987-065-089; open for lunch and dinner) is definitely the most charismatic restaurant around. Arroz do Cafofo (Cafofo rice) is the signature dish: fresh seafood cooked in coconut milk. Their carne de sol (Northeastern jerk steak) is also famous. Restaurante-Escola Senac (Rua de Nazaré, 242, tel. 98/3198-1100, open Mon to Sat for lunch only), run by a hospitality school, offers an all-you-can-eat buffet filled with local specialties — do try the cuxá rice (pronounced ‘coo-SHAH’), a side dish of rice with dried shrimp and vinagreira, a local herb.
Ponta do Farol and Vicinity
The most iconic restaurant in São Luís is Cabana do Sol (R. João Damasceno, 24 A, tel. 98/3304-4235). It’s the best place to try out carne de sol (traditional Northeastern jerk steak) with all the typical side dishes: baião de dois (rice and beans combo), boiled macaxeira (yucca) and farofa (the ubiquous Brazilian side dish, a kind of couscous made out of toasted yucca flour). It’s on the expensive side but the portions are huge and can feed up to three people. You can order half a portion, in any case.
Coco Bambu (Av. Colares Moreira, 1, quadra 19, tel. 98/3268-7400) specializes in shrimp and seafood. It’s part of a very successful chain that began in Fortaleza. Be warned that most recipes mix cheese or cream (or both!) with seafood. Like Cabana do Sol, the food is expensive and portions are huge, so take a group of friends with you.
Hungry for steak? The newest place in town is Recoleta Steaks (Av. dos Holandeses, 145, tel. 98/3235-8932), serving meat Argentinian style. Right on Lagoa da Jansen, Ferreiro Grill (R. da Independência, 10, tel. 98/3227-4060), is the most traditional local steakhouse.
Next door to Ferreiro Grill, its sister restaurant Tasquinha Ferreiro (R. dos Gaviões, 11, tel. 98/3181-8362) specializes in Portuguese fare (salted cod galore).
But if your craving is just for a decent burger, try the ones at Cozinha Guidô (R. dos Guarás, 27, off av. dos Holandeses, tel. 98/3303-2377), which also offers a full-fledged menu.
Draft beer, finger food and occasional live music are found at Lagoa da Jansen. Choose between Filial (Av. Mário Meireles, 3, tel. 98/98124-1500) and Botequim Rio (Rua São José, 5, tel. 98/3268-7310).
For a closer-to-the-beach experience, there’s Biana Bistro, right at the beginning of São Marcos beach (Av. Litorânea, módulo 11, tel. 98/981-810-074). There you can eat risotto and French-like dishes in a charming, albeit noisy, environment.
Things To Do In São Luís
Fridays is the best day to do all Historic Center attractions: you’ll get to visit the Teatro Arthur Azevedo in the afternoon and around sunset may get to watch tambor-de-crioula (Afro-Brazilian drum-and-dance presentations) on the street, close to the Casa das Tulhas.
The historic district, also known as Reviver, is in dire need of restoration. But it’s worth visiting it for its casarões (big houses) which have been transformed into cultural venues – and also for the busy nightlife on Fridays.
The most interesting museum is Casa da Festa (official name: Centro de Cultura Popular Domingos Vieira Filho), where you can learn about the tambor-de-mina, the Maranhão version of candomblé, the yorubá religion from which Cuban santería is also derived. There’s a whole floor dedicated to the lovely spectacle bumba-meu-boi, the cultural symbol of Maranhão.
A great addition to your visit to Casa da Festa is the Casa de Nhozinho museum, dedicated to the work and influence of Mestre (Master) Nhozinho, a craftsman who was a great local artist.
Don’t miss nearby Casa das Tulhas market. If you visit in the morning, you’ll find the fish and meat stalls open. The dry food and craft stalls open until late in the afternoon (on Sundays, until 3pm). It’s a great place to buy gifts and mementos, like small bottles of tiquira, a type of cachaça made of yucca (it’s purple!), or bags of coarse farinha (yucca flour) toasted in way unique to Maranhão and the Amazon.
Centro Cultural Domingos Vieira Filho (Casa da Festa)
- Rua do Giz, 221 | Tel. 98/3218-9926 | Open Tue-Fri, from 9am to 6pm; Sat & Sun, from 9am to 5pm. Free admission.
Casa do Nhozinho
- Rua Portugal, 185 | Tel. 98/3218-9951 | Open Mon-Fri, from 9am to 6pm; Sat, from 9am to 5pm; Sun, from 9am to 1pm | Free admission.
Casa das Tulhas
- Rua da Estrela, between Portugal and Feira | Open Mon-Wed, from 7am to 8pm; Thu-Fri, from 7am to 9pm; Sat, from 7am to 6pm; Sun, from 7am to 3pm | Free admission.
Art & history
It’s possible to take a peek at the now defunct aristocratic life of São Luís at the beautiful Arthur Azevedo Theater. Look for the guided tour schedules, for they are your only chance to enter the theater outside concert hours.
Two blocks away from the theater is the Museu Histórico e Artístico do Maranhão (Art & History Museum of Maranhão). It is worth a visit not only for the ancient furniture and documents; the casarão where the museum is located is also very well preserved. If you want to include the guided visit to the theater in your old town tour, go in the afternoon.
- Rua do Sol, 180 | Tel. 98/3218-9900 | Guided tours Tue-Sun at 2:30pm, 3:30pm and 4:30pm | Admission: R$ 5
- Rua Portugal, 302 | Tel. 98/3218-9951 | Open Mon-Fri, from 9am to 5pm; Sat, from 9am to 4pm; Sun, from 9am to 2pm | Admission: R$ 5
Bumba-meu-boi: where’s the beef?
While Rio de Janeiro has its samba schools, São Luís has its bois (oxen): local groups who dedicate themselves all year round to perform at arraiais (official open-air party venues) in the second half of June.
This tradition originates from a fable about a slave peasant who cuts the tongue of an ox to satisfy his pregnant wife’s craving. The ox gets sick and wanders off, and the owner of the farm misses the animal. He orders his men to search for it, and the ox is found almost dead. A shaman is summoned, and the ox, miraculously healed, starts dancing with joy (the slave couple are forgiven and also join the party). At local communities the whole story is reenacted in the streets, but at the city’s arraiais, the plot is simplified to a point where one can only recognize the main characters — everybody on stage is dancing to the infectious rhythm and showing off their exquisite costumes. (It is not a mere coincidence that the greatest art director in Rio’s Carnival history, Joãosinho Trinta, grew in Maranhão.)
Even if you don’t grasp the plot, the music, the energy of the dancers, the agility of the wooden-and-fabric oxen, and the beauty of the costumes will certainly dazzle you. Arraiais are held in different parts of town and typically feature 4 to 5 different bois every night, from around 7pm up to midnight. Admission is free. All main arraiais have food plazas where you can try seasonal delicacies and are quite safe to attend: violence is nonexistent (just take the usual precautions against pickpockets). Among arraiais that have nightly presentations in the second half of June, the closest to the Historic District is Arraial Maria Aragão (at Praça Maria Aragão), and the safest to visit is Arraial do Ipem (at Jardim Renascença, in the well-off part of town). Go to either one by taxi or Uber.
São Luís beaches are straight, with a wide strip of sand and great tide variation – therefore, great for walking during low tide, when the harder sand appears. The water color varies from blue in the dry season (second semester) to tan in the rainy season (first semester).
Unfortunately, the city’s beaches have been unsuitable for bathing for a few years now. You’ll be better off choosing other destination for your Brazilian beach days.
Reggae in São Luís
Want to get to know Maranhão-style reggae? On Thursdays and Saturdays, take a cab or a Uber to Nelson’s Bar, at the far edge of Calhau beach (Av. Litorânea, 135, tel 98/988-403-196).
The 80-minute boat trip across the bay to Alcântara is shaky, but it may be the highlight of a visit to São Luís. Founded in 1648, Alcântara became a prosperous town exporting cotton. The abolition of slavery and the end of the cotton trade to Europe led to the village’s decay. The bourgeoisie chose to live elsewhere and left behind unfinished grand buildings – such as a palace meant to host the Emperor Pedro II and a pair of churches – that became ruins and are now dramatically illuminated at night. The contrast with the simpler, well-kept houses creates a magical setting. It is comforting to see that the ruins of Alcântara are indeed ruins, with the appearance, texture, and grandiosity of ruins – not just derelict buildings like the ones found in the historic center of the capital.
The vast majority of visitors take day-trips, returning to São Luís by mid-afternoon. It’s a time-efficient strategy, but not the best one. While the sun is high, only tourists are to be seen on the streets; locals take shelter in the shade. The town only wakes up after the afternoon boat leaves for São Luís as the sun starts to set.
Those who choose to spend the night take far better pictures under the late afternoon and early morning light. They can take a nap at their pousada after lunch, while the sun is high, and then watch the amazing flight of the guarás (red ibises) around sunset time.
Where to stay in Alcântara
The pousada that best embodies the historical charm of Alcântara is the Maison du Baron. Bonus points for its location, right in the center: you can walk there from the dock (less than 10 minutes on foot).
The Bela Vista hotel is also a ten-minute walk from the center and the swimming pool is a plus. The pier is a 25-minute walk away – so it’s best to arrive and leave on a cab. If you’re heading to town, you may go on foot, but at night make sure to take a taxi or motorcycle taxi.
Want to spend at least two nights and enjoy the beach as well? Consider Pousada dos Guaras, right next to the seaside. You’ll need to take a cab when arriving, leaving and visiting the town at night.
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