Alcântara has a wealth of 17th century architecture

Alcântara no Maranhão
Alcântara in Maranhão

The streets of Alcântara, just 22 kilometers from São Luís do Maranhão, lead tourists to a dip in history.

They alternate ruins and houses that document the heyday and decline of the city, whose birth dates back to the early seventeenth century.

In the following centuries, Alcântara grew thanks to farming, especially sugar cane and then cotton, supported by slave labor – the massive presence of African descendants is a legacy of that time.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Alcântara was the third most important city in the region, second only to Belém and São Luís.

As with São Luís, the end of the slavery model contributed to its decline; unlike the capital, however, many of its buildings turned into ruins.

From its centuries of splendor, a collection of more than 300 buildings remains, which in 1948 earned it the status of a national heritage site.

The placidity of the old town contrasts with the fact that, since 1980, it has been home to a rocket launch base, 7 kilometers from the center.

Visits to the site take place on Tuesdays from São Luís, only by appointment with the State Secretariat for Tourism.

Alcântara lacks good hotels and accredited guides, so the town is worth a day trip for those in Sào Luís.

The best way to reach it from the capital is to take a speedboat from the waterway terminal: although it’s on the mainland, it can take up to two hours to reach it by car – on a road with very poor conditions – as opposed to an hour and fifteen minutes by boat.

Speedboats leave at 7am and 9am and return around 5pm, depending on tide conditions.

Video about the city of Alcântara in Maranhão

Alcântara no Maranhão

TOURIST ATTRACTIONS IN ALCÂNTARA

Alcântara was once one of the richest cities in Maranhão between the 18th and 19th centuries. To get to know this historical stronghold, you need to take a boat trip. The tours depart from the Praia Grande neighborhood, in the historical center of São Luís.

The great attraction of the city are the vestiges of past times, such as the ruins of the slave market Palácio Negro and the city hall building, where a public jail operated in the 18th century.

Other attractions are: Praça do Pelourinho, Historical Museum and the ruins of the Mother Church of São Matias, Church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo, where are the remains of two palaces built by families who rivaled to receive the emperor Dom Pedro II and the beaches of the region.

1. HISTORICAL MUSEUM

This blue-and-white tiled townhouse almost had the honor of hosting Dom Pedro II.

When it was announced that the emperor would come to Alcântara, the Viveiros family, who lived there, began to prepare to host him; the same happened with the Ferreira family, who lived on the other side of the Matriz square.

With the proclamation of the Republic, the visit was canceled. What remains in the old Viveiros residence, which has been used as a historical museum since 1977, is an iron bed that was used by the emperor.

It is one of the highlights of the house, where the jurist Clóvis Beviláqua lived. His desk, paintings, old photos of the city, jewelry from the church of São Matias and a collection of hollow wood saints complete the collection. Pça. da Matriz , s/n, Historic Center.

HISTORICAL HOUSE OF IPHAN

Its collection includes English and Portuguese objects dating from the period between the 17th and 19th centuries. A beautiful collection of tiles, paintings, furniture and porcelain are the main attractions. Pça. da Matriz, 7, Historic Center.

2. IGREJAS DE ALCÂNTARA

The postcard of Alcântara shows the ruins of a church – that of São Matias (Pça da Matriz, Historic Center). There are reports that in 1662 a chapel dedicated to the saint was already built on the site.

The church itself began to be built in 1648, but was never completed and ceased to be used in 1884.

In the church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo (lgo. Do Carmo, r. Grande, Historic Center), dating from 1665 and whose interior was restored in 2000, the high altar, sacristy, pulpit, tribune and balconies are striking for their exuberant rococo style.

The main nave houses ancient tombs and Portuguese tiles.

In the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (lgo. do Rosário, r. Dr. Silva Maia, Caravelas), the high altar stands out.

As in all of Brazil, this is also the saint of devotion of blacks in Maranhão; even today it is in its churchyard that the feast in honor of São Benedito – another black saint – takes place, celebrated on the first full moon of August.

3. PELOURINHO DE ALCÂNTARA

When the news that slavery had been abolished reached Alcântara, the pillory, which stood in front of the church of São Matias in the main square, was hammered down – and disappeared.

ALCÂNTARA PILLORY
ALCÂNTARA PILLORY

It was not until 1948 that it returned to the site, rediscovered by a team from the Rondon Project, which was working in the city when it was listed.

Made of stone, this cylindrical column almost 5 meters high and 40 centimeters in diameter is today the symbol of a time that has passed, but does not fade – like everything that is history.

4. FESTA DO DIVINO ESPÍRITO SANTO

Of Portuguese origin, the celebration of the Divine Holy Spirit arrived in Maranhão in the 17th century, brought by Azoreans. Today, it extends for two weeks always in the month of May (the date is mobile) and mobilizes the entire population, especially the descendants of Africans.

The festival, one of the most expressive in Brazil, begins on the Wednesday before Pentecost Sunday, when the 10-meter-long Mastro do Divino is driven from the port to the Matriz square, where it will remain for the duration of the festivities.

The flag of the Divine is placed at the top of the mast. On the so-called Quinta da Ascensão, a colorful and lively procession, formed by mestre-sala, caixeiras, bandeirinhas and an orchestra, goes to the Casa do Divino, residence of the emperor or empress – the characters alternate annually – who joins the group, accompanying it on the walk towards the Carmo church where mass is said and litanies are sung.

There, the sovereign is crowned, and a white dove, which symbolizes peace, is released. The procession then returns to the House of the Divine where the entourage is served the offerings: chalices of liquor, cups of chocolate, cakes and the traditional doce de espécie, made by Alcântara’s bakers, who keep the recipe secret.

The festival continues with the participation of various characters: on Saturday and Sunday, the “royal butler” receives the court and the players at home; the following week, the “low butlers” do the same.

On Friday, several oxen decorated with flowers travel through the city before being killed on Saturday morning, when the emperor or empress and the butlers distribute alms.

On Sunday, after a large mass and lunch at the sovereign’s house, the emperor or empress of the next feast is elected.

History of Alcântara (MA)

The date of Alcântara’s foundation is not precise, but what is certain is that in 1612 there was a cluster of villages of which it was part under the name of Tapuitapera (land of the Indians).

With the arrival of the expedition of Daniel de La Touche, lord of La Lavadière, and the constant infiltration of the indigenous tribes by the French, friendly relations were established between the Indians and the French. The latter built a chapel on the site.

After the expulsion of the French, Portuguese rule was established and the importance of the village was not diminished. Between 1616 and 1618, Portuguese colonisation began on the site with a small prison that the Indians destroyed years later.

The whole area – including the Indians who lived there – became the property of Matias de Albuquerque.

A garrison was set up there, which was destroyed during an Indian revolt, and in 1621, due to the economic and strategic importance of the Maranhão region, the Portuguese Crown created the Colonial State of Maranhão, made up of the independent captaincies of Maranhão and Grão-Pará.

With the subdivision of the captaincies of Maranhão and Grão-Pará, Tapuitapera became the head of the captaincy of Cumã, donated by the first governor of Maranhão, Francisco Coelho de Carvalho, to his brother Antônio Coelho de Carvalho in 1624. In 1641, during the Dutch invasion, the village was abandoned after a brief period of occupation and, in 1648, the village was elevated to the category of town, with the name of Alcântara.

By this time there was already a stone and mortar church dedicated to St Bartholomew and the first mills had been set up in the region.

Alcântara progressively prospered in all sectors and became the largest production centre in Maranhão, where the great fortunes of the time were built due to the large number of slaves.

At the end of the 17th century, it rivalled São Luís, the seat of the state, and maintained its dominance from the 18th century until the mid-19th century, when Maranhão’s economy was based on cotton.

The region also acted as a trading post for foreign products or products from other regions of the country destined for the interior of Maranhão.

The European influence was brought from abroad by the sons of the cotton plantation owners, who went to study, above all, in Coimbra (Portugal). The town only had primary schools, and this practice continued for many years.

This was due to the large number of families made up of Portuguese settlers, most of them of noble origin. Later, with the creation of the legal course in Brazil, Olinda (in Pernambuco) replaced Coimbra.

During the last years of the 18th century, the city had a population of 400, served by a Casa de Misericórdia, while São Luís, the seat of the state, had just over 1,000 inhabitants.

In 1836, it was elevated to the status of a city, when it reached the height of its greatness. Over time, Alcântara’s economy became so developed that the nobility of the region came to rival that of São Luís.

Gradually, however, Alcântara lost its importance in Maranhão’s production, with the reduction of economic activities reflected in its social life with the sharp decline due to the Abolition of Slavery and the settlement of other regions of Maranhão.

From then on, the city entered a process of irreversible decline. However, the grandeur of the past was imprinted on the valuable and beautiful 18th century architectural ensemble, in which the iron balconies and stone walls scattered throughout the city stand out. 

Tourism and Travel Guide to Alcântara in Maranhão

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