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With its 19th Century Architecture, Belém Retains Shades of the "Tropical Paris"

01/21/2016 - 10h34

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BRUNO MOLINERO
SPECIAL ENVOY TO BELÉM

Instead of seeing boatmen transporting baskets full of açaí through the port like today, a visitor to Belém at the end of the 19th century would have seen workers unloading boats from Europe, which came carrying French cheese, wine and fine clothes.

Awash with money at the height of the rubber boom, the so-called "Tropical Paris" was enjoying its belle époque. But after the end of the boom, the city went into decline.

Today, 400 years after its foundation, 86% of tourists criticize the dirty streets and 83% complain about the lack of security, according to a study by the State Secretary for Tourism in 2014.

Still, the capital of Pará received 640,000 visitors in 2015. Walking through the city, they would no doubt have stumbled across traces of its former glory, like the Theatro da Paz, built in 1878.

It was built by rubber barons and used to receive operas and foreign theatre companies. It is still in use today, hosting Brazilian companies and an opera festival. The building is open to tourists, and entry costs R$6 (US $1.46).

By the waterfront in the old city, the Ver-o-Peso open-air market is unmissable. Visitors can see women making tacacá (manioc soup) and buy chestnuts, açaí, the medicinal herb jambu and many other local products.

If hunger strikes, stalls sell fish with açaí - a local delicacy. The fruit is served unsweetened, without the sugar that tends to be added in São Paulo and Rio.

The meat market is located on the other side of the street. It dates from the 19th century, with iron structures which emulate English architecture.

A little further on is Mangal das Garças, a park opened in 2005. It is 40,000m2 and entry is free. It has flamingos and wild lizards, as well as a butterfly house - a reminder, that in spite of its rubber belle époque, Belém remains at the heart of the Amazon.

Translated by TOM GATEHOUSE

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