alcãntara, maranhão

“If you find São Luís’s Zona dilapidated, you only need to visit Alcântara, said to contain the most homogenous set of colonial structures from 17th century Brazil, to see what disrepair really means, with many a tree growing through a roofless building and...”Alcântara – which Atlas and I toured one day, after a 90 minute catamaran sail from São Luis – is one of the most curious enigmas (of many) in Brazil.  Like the country, it contains both the very old and the very (even overly) new.

“Alcântara, built with the sugar and cotton wealth harvested in the wide delta crescent we had crashed through by car, was once the richest town in northern Brazil, whose former splendor is reflected in the imperial palms dominating the town’s bayside profile, as well as the colonial mansions in various states of ruin surrounding the central square.” [To Belem & Back, p.183]

The surprisingly modern part I learned about at São Luis’s visitor center, where a guide explained that “his town is home to the Centro de Lançamento, a rocket-launching facility built in the early 1990’s, where, it seems, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Five attempted launches failed in the prior decade alone, including the last a few years back (during the month of August no less), when a score of technicians died near the launching pad.”

Lourdes, the visitor center’s kindly manager – so kindly, she gave me both the office and her personal cell phone numbers – was more interested in having some fun than selling me tour packages to the island:

“Tell me when they schedule the next launch,” Lourdes joked, “so I can plan to get out of São Luís for my safety!” [p.179]

Not easily dissuaded, I decided to visit the next day. When the normal mail boat to Alcântara refused Atlas passage, we opted for the catamaran. (The Launching Center, alas, is off bounds for tourists.)  [please hover over images for captions]

About Ben

Ben Batchelder has traveled some of the world's most remote roads. Nothing in his background, from a degree in Visual & Environmental Studies at Harvard to an MBA from Wharton, adequately prepared him for the experiences. Yet he persists, for through such journeys life unfolds. Having published four books that map the inner and exterior geographies of meaningful travel, he is a mountain man in Minas Gerais, Brazil who comes down to the sea at Miami Beach, Florida. His second travel yarn, To Belém & Back, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, visit

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