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krisek Sao Luis - A travel report by Krys
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Sao Luis,  Brazil - flag Brazil -  Maranhão
13408 readers

krisek's travel reports

Sao Luis. Striking place with gorgeous old town.

  7 votes
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Sao Luis, listed by UNESCO as world heritage site, is a northern coastal town with marvellous historic centre, on a tip of a small peninsula, so pleasant to wander about.

Praca Benedito Leite
Praca Benedito Leite
In Sao Luis, authorities left many signals that tourists were very much welcomed. The old town was pretty well sign posted and maps of the historical district were put on small stands around the centre, helping visitors to find their bearing. The Tourist Police was in force patrolling the alleys, passages and lanes. Day and night. Yet the people also seemed to welcome travellers, many of whom greeted me in the streets.

The first beach, Ponta d'Areia was good 5kms away from the old town, across the bridge. Not a pleasant walk along a very busy road. The Sao Marcos beach was further 5kms away, and then 5-6kms more of beaches to the point of Olha d'Agua. The last 6kms are the best. On low tide it is very pleasant to walk on the water's edge, some 200 yards from the oceanfront promenade. On high tide, certain parts of the beach were impassable, yet walking along the promenade as locals jog and run (the entire promenade is marked with distances every 200 metres, indicating how far you run), passing numerous coconut booths offering fresh coconut milk, as well as bars and seafood restaurants, many of which built on stilts, like covered terraces. Perfect for sunset meals or drinks.

After sunset, there was a very long 2.5hrs hot walk back to the historic centre! It was not a very pleasant on the entire route. There was no pavement on certain parts, some were simply large construction sites of high rise luxury apartments, many busy road crossings. Fortunately, a few shops and supermarkets en route were open late, so it was easy to find a cold drink, and that included fresh coconut milk, too.

Any third day in Sao Luis for a non-beachgoer is a bit much. The historic centre is too small, too dilapidated, too underdeveloped for tourism with too few places just to snooze, hangout or linger. Rua Grande was very animated though, like a big shopping mall. For a mile or so, both sides of this car-free alley there was nothing but shops, boutiques, department stores and touts!

Favourite spots:
Largo de Comercio
Largo de Comercio
Largo de Comercio, adjacent to the municipal market, was definitely my favourite spot in the old town. It had ?nine large trees in the centre alley, flanked with a renovated theatre, handsome facade of the Defensoria Publica palace, and arched single and double storey edifices, some of which housed cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. This sounds very glamorous, but these venues were very basic! The square was definitely an atmospheric spot with peculiar magnetism, but it was still a bit run down and the rather fabulous Le Comptor cafe had plastic tables and chairs on the untidy pavement.

What's really great:
Empty spaces around the main market, Feira da Praia Grande
Empty spaces around the main market, Feira da Praia Grande
What I found incredible about Sao Luis was that it seemed completely deserted like an empty film set! It felt like I was wandering about a very secret place completely undiscovered. How could this be? Sao Luis is proudly featured as one of Brazil's UNESCO Cultural World Herotage Sites. When I arrived on early Sunday afternoon, I had te entire historic centre to myself! Not a single tourist in sight. No-one around at all, full stop. Not even a local. Not a single soul. I had to venture into small alleys and backyards to find local inhabitants. I actually followed music. It soon became clear that Sao Luis was more Caribbean than it was Brazilian. It strangely reminded me of Cuba. Music was playing loud from massive speakers as the family partied in the street, with tables and chairs on the pavement. Tea and coffee was being drunk as the kids kicked ball.

The palmtrees by the Convento das Merces, now home to Municipal Police force.
The palmtrees by the Convento das Merces, now home to Municipal Police force.
The historic centre was packed with colonial palaces, mansions, haciendas, edifices, churches, and even an old train station. Some of them were: Palacio Laverdiere; Palacio dos Bispos; Palacio do Comercio; Casa do Maranhao; Defensoria Publica do Estado; Centro de Cultura Popular; Sede do Iphan; Solar da Pacotilha; Convento das Merces; Desterro; Palacete Gentil Braga; Biblioteca Publica; Casa de Cultura Josue Montello; Palacio Cristo Rei; Edificio Sao Luis; Igreja do Rosario; Capela de Santa Teresa; Igreja do Carmo; Igreja de Santo Joao; Igreja de Santo Antonio; Igreja dos Remedios; Igreja de Santo Pantaleao; Catedral da Se.

The centre was compact enough to cover all sights in one long afternoon. At a slow pace, stopping everywhere for photos and entering any open church, it would perhaps take an entire day.

Room no.4 of the Pousada do Porto
Room no.4 of the Pousada do Porto suggested Pousada do Porto for BRL90 (£34, $56) for a double room in the historic colonial centre of the town, not far from the river banks and the Atlantic coast, at Rua de Nazare 82. I booked it, and when arrived, I was not entirely satisfied, but did not entirely regret the choice. The location was good, and that was a main thing. But the cleanliness of the hotel was a major blow. When I looked more closely at the bed sheets, I found pubic hair of previous occupant or occupants. That was most definitely not something I would have wanted to find in my room! The bathroom (a shower) and toilet were okay and there was hot water. The room was however very small and felt like a prison cell, really. Breakfast and wifi were included in the room rate, so not a terrible deal after all, but the staff were not very helpful or professional. The hotel provided free tourist map, which was incredibly helpful for the old town, but misleading about the distance to beaches.

A street club in the old town
A street club in the old town
The old town had a small oceanfront boulevard overlooking some of the palaces standing high on the ramparts and towards the residential part of the new town on the other direction. It was an excellent place to observe the sun disappearing below the horizon. A few stone benches in the ocean wall provided resting spots for tired feet. A couple of large open round shelters gave shade as well. Sometimes locals took naps in them in the afternoon.

I liked seating at the simple Le Comptor cafe at the Largo de Comercio, at the pavement table and watch the people go by. On Sunday evening, at about sunset, the theatre nearby gave a street show, which all over sudden pulled a small crowed. Mainly young people. It featured modern or avant-garde art, as the actors bent their bodies to various styles of music, lounge music, dance and hip-hop.

The sun setting over the Sao Marcos Beach
The sun setting over the Sao Marcos Beach
Sao Luis had several beaches, multiple times larger than Copacabana. Literally miles and miles of vast sandy beach. And when I walked from Ponta d'Areia to Sao Marcos to Calhau and further, for miles I was the only person on the beach. I guess I was there early. It was Monday early afternoon and people must have been still at work. Every now and again, every 15 minutes or so of walking, there was a couple or a group of people taking a dip in the ocean or kicking football. Not enough crowd to represent almost a million people in the population of the city, though.

The ocean breeze was a bliss. No cloud in the sky and the equatorial sun had absolutely no mercy! The shore had two characteristics: a freshly asphalted road alongside; and several superb beach bars. Both an absolute must for a civilised beachlife! As the afternoon developed and the sun became less harsh, more beachgoers trickled in. Some brought surfboards, although the waves did not look big enough for any serious surfing

The interior of the Restaurante d'Antiga Mente
The interior of the Restaurante d'Antiga Mente
Le Comptor also did food. Their menu was quite comprehensive and featured pizza ranging from BRL12-BRL20 (I met the pizza chef, actually); pasta (BRL13-BRL15); chicken dishes; seafood and steaks (BRL22-BRL28); soups (BRL5); salads (BRL16); lager 0.6l (BRL6); softs (BRL2.50). I had traditional Maranhao fish in passion fruit sauce, which came with rice and green salad. Although the service was rather slow.

The next door O Restaurante d'Antiga Mente had a magnificent decor and similar menu, where prices were about 10%-20% higher than Comptor. Their staff was awfully blase and did not seem to enjoy their job at all. It was rather off putting, to be honest. The main quality of the place was their magnificent passion fruit caipirosca (BRL6) served extra cold. It might have been the best drink I had when in Brazil, actually.

Other recommendations:
One of the narrow streets of the old town of Sao Luis
One of the narrow streets of the old town of Sao Luis
Sao Luis felt completely safe. I managed to wander off to very narrow alleys in completely deserted town, occasionally meeting a local, or a couple kissing in corners of little squares or on steps of churches hidden in backyard piazzas, and no-one gave me a dirty look as my camera wither dangled from my shoulder or was being pointed at something, sometimes even in their direction. What a great experience indeed.

Yet, as the night fell, one of the local waiters told me that I ought to be careful wandering with my camera and a bag during the hours of darkness in certain parts of the south-eastern old town, where the alleys were dark. That shattered my impression of Sao Luis, I have to say.

The city was served by an extraordinarily basic airport, about 8kms from the historic centre. Pre-paid cooperative taxi to the centre cost BRL34 and could be paid for by credit or debit card with no questions asked. The hair raising ride took approximately 10 minutes.

Published on Wednesday September 21th, 2011

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Sat, Sep 24 2011 - 08:25 AM rating by jorgesanchez

After reading your report I would like to visit Sao Luis.

Wed, Sep 21 2011 - 07:45 PM rating by shervin19

your report is very useful, thank you!

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