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Maranhão State

State Flag of Maranhão State
  1. Introduction
  2. Capital: São Luís
  3. River Parnaíba Delta
  4. Alcântara
  5. Data Table for Maranhão State


With a coastline dotted with beaches and a valued historical heritage, Maranhão is a state where the marks of the colonial and imperial past are very strong. With its narrow streets and tile-clad mansions, São Luís, the capital of Maranhão, and the latest town to be listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, comprises an architectural complex of around 3 thousand buildings from the 17th and 19th centuries, which tell part of the history of the French invasion of the territory. In 1612 France did in fact establish a colony there called Equinoctial France which was conquered by the Portuguese three years later, invaded by the Dutch in 1641 and again taken over by Portugal three years later.

The history of the European assault on the lands until then inhabited by Tupinamba Indians can be gleaned from a walk around the capital and other smaller towns in the state, such as Alcântara, listed by the National Heritage Department. However, apart from these architectural attractions, Maranhão also holds many surprises in the beauty of its nature. Among these are for example the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, the Delta of the Parnaíba River, the region of Carolina and the coral reefs of Parcel of Manoel Luís, which form the biggest bank in South America and are a fabulous location for diving.

Known as the land of palm trees, Maranhão's principal income producing assets consist in the various species of the tree. One of the most important from an economic point of view is the babaçu. Livestock farming, aluminium and aluminium oxide processing, and the food and timber industries are other important activities.

In contrast with other states in the North East region of Brazil, Maranhão does not suffer from drought. There is an extensive network of rivers in the state which do not dry up, and there is a regular rainy season. The most important rivers are the Parnaíba, the Gurupi, the Grajaú and the Tocantins, the latter of forming the southern boundary with the state of Tocantins.

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Capital: São Luís

São LuísSão Luís

The capital of Maranhão was founded in 1612 and is the latest town to be listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Beaches surround the town, such as those at Calhau, Ponta D'Areia and São Marcos, where there are the ruins of the eighteenth century São Marcos Fort. The city's greatest era of prosperity was reached in the second half of the eighteenth century, when cotton exports were at their height. During this period, the province of Maranhão furnished a considerable part of the revenues of the Royal Treasury, beating various other provinces of the Portuguese empire.

In the same period São Luís became the capital of Maranhão, with direct links to the Portuguese court. A great deal happened between its apogee and its economic decline, and some of the story can be discovered in areas like Praia Grande, a historic centre listed by the National Heritage Department. The main tourist attractions of the city are contained in an area of 107 km2, with buildings from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The capital has more than 3,000 listed buildings, most of them with facades decorated with the glazed tiles typical of the Portuguese colonial style. Among them are the Palácio dos Leões (Lion Palace), which until 1615 was a fort which protected the then capital of Equinoctial France, as São Luís was called under French rule; the Catedral da Se, built by the Jesuits in 1726; the church of Carmo, one of the oldest in the city, constructed in 1627; and the Arthur Azevedo Theatre, built between 1815 and 1817 and thought to be the first theatre to be erected in a Brazilian capital.

São Luís has been the birthplace of some important names in Brazilian literature, such as the poet Gonçalves Dias (1823-1864); the writer Graça Aranha (1868-1931), a founding member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and member of the Modernist Movement in 1922; the novelist Aluísio Azevedo (1857-1913) and his brother, the dramatist Arthur de Azevedo (1855-1908). The extensive literary output of local writers, and of writers from other regions of the country, is preserved in the Josué Montello Cultural Centre.

São Luís is the capital of the Brazilian state of Maranhão. The city is located on São Luís island in the Baía de São Marcos, an extension of the Atlantic Ocean which forms the estuary of Pindaré, Mearim, Itapecuru and other rivers. Its coordinates are 2.50° south, 44.30° west. The city proper has a population of some 998,385 people (2006 IBGE estimate). The metropolitan area totals 1,227,659 (ranked as the 16th largest in Brazil).

The city has sea ports; Ponta da Madeira, Porto do Itaqui; through which a substantial part of Brazil's iron ore, originating from the (pre)-Amazon region, is exported. The city's main industries are metallurgical with Alumar, and Vale do Rio Doce. São Luís is home of the Federal University of Maranhão.

São Luís was the home town of famous Brazilian Samba singer Alcione, Brazil's former President José Sarney, Belgian-naturalised soccer player Luís Oliveira, and Zeca Baleiro, a MPB singer.

São Luís São Luís

History: Originally the town was a large village of the Tupinambá tribe. The first Europeans to see it were the French, in 1612, who intended to make it a French colony. They made a fort named São Luís ("Saint Louis"), after Saint Louis IX of France as a compliment to King Louis XIII. It was conquered for Portugal by Jerônimo de Albuquerque in 1615, leaving little time for the French to build a city. This has led to some controversy to the actual founding of the city by the French or the Portuguese. In 1641 the city was invaded by the Dutch. They stayed until 1645 and did not manage to influence the city's archtecture or to leave any sign of their invasion, mainly because they did not build, and fucused instead on violent domination. São Luís has one of the largest and best preserved heritages of colonial Portuguese architecture.

The island is known as the "Island of Love" and "Brazilian Athens", due to its many poets and writers, such as Aluísio Azevedo, Graça Aranha, Gonçalves Dias (the most famous), Ferreira Gullar, among others.

Culture: São Luís is known for its tiles which most buildings in the historical centre are covered in. Because of it the city is also known as "The Tiles City".

It also has some cultural peculiarities namely: Tambor de Crioula: Afro-Brazilian dance in which gaily glad women court a bateria of tambors (a row of drums). Whirling and gyrating in time to the music they negotiate for prime position in the centre of the bateria.

Tambor de Mina: Not to be confused with the above, this is the local variant of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble. Bumba Meu Boi: A popular farce which takes its form as a grand musical pantomime. Practice is a public affair and begins directly after Easter reaching its climax in June when literally hundreds of groups perform on a nightly basis for popular acclaim and pure enjoyment. Set personalities and characters play out a comedic tragedy with a metaphor for social harmony at its heart. Settlers, the infamous Coroneis, Indians, witch-doctors, African slaves and forest spirits are enacted though incredible costume, original choreography and music - all performed amongst the greatest all-night revelry. The crowd joins in with singing, dancing and dependent on the groups sotaque (or style) the playing of matracas (two wooden blocks, held in each hand and struck together repeatedly). Like the festival of Sao Joao and its requisite Forro dance in the North-Eastern states further south Bumba Meu Boi is a harvest festival but with the bull as its centre-piece. Food and drinks made from local produce not only accompany the event but are a pre-requisite due to the high calorific needs of the heavily costumed dancers.

Capoeira: The São Luís form of capoeira is said to be akin to the kind of capoeira now recognized as ‘traditional bahian capoeira’ that predated the Bahian angola/regional polemic which split the capoeira world in the 1950s.

In 1997 the city's historical center was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Starting in 1989 there has been an extensive program to restore and renovate the colonial era buildings of the city's historical center.

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River Parnaíba Delta

The River Parnaíba, separating the states of Piauí and Maranhão, runs for almost 1,500 kilometres before flowing into the Atlantic. It forms the only open-sea delta in the entire American continent and is one of the three largest in the world. Like the fingers of an outstretched palm, the river divides into five channels forming more than seventy islands and an infinite number of lakes, a maze of narrow channels and ecological sanctuaries. Wonders of this magnitude are only to be seen in two other places in the world, the Mekong Delta in Vietnam (Asia) and the Nile Delta in Egypt (Africa).

The beauty of the Parnaíba Delta is enhanced by flocks of herons, toucans, yellow-crawed alligators, monkeys, wild horses, lion monkeys, foxes and deer. This rich fauna may be seen by taking a trip in one of the wooden boats called "gaiolas" that sail around the delta. One of the largest islands is Caju, an ecological sanctuary where a rare combination of ecosystems provides a haven for animals in extinction and migratory birds. As well as abundant vegetation with cashew trees and mango forests, the island has twenty five kilometres of semiwild beaches, salt-water channels, dunes and crystal clear fresh-water lakes formed by rain water.

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Alcântara Alcântara

On the other side of the Bay of São Marcos, which separates São Luís from the mainland, little Alcântara in Maranhão reveals the rich past of Brazil. It was the home of the Tupinambás indians and later the centre of the rural aristocracy. Its colonial buildings, clad with tiles, its ruins and centuries-old churches are the legacy of the period of prosperity which the region enjoyed during the mid 19th century, which was followed by a period of economic decline, overcome at the beginning of the XXth century. With its 300 houses and ruins built around three squares and along eight main roads and ten side streets, the town of Alcântara was listed in 1948 because of its historical value.

But Alcântara isn't just a testimony of Brazil's past. Since the eighties, in fact, the city also offers an example of modern space technology. Seven kilometres outside the city we find one of the most modern space bases of Latin America, where projects focused on satellite launching are carried out.

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Data Table for Maranhão State

Capital São Luís
Area 333,365.6 km2
Towns 217
Location West of the North-East Region
Population 5,642,960 inhabitants (2000)
Population in the Capital 900,000 inhabitants
Climate Tropical
Mean Annual Temperature (capital) 26º C
Time in Relation to Brasília The same
Density of Population 17 inhabitants/km2
Urbanization Index 59.5% (2000)
Infant Mortality 52.8 per thousand live-born (2000)
Illiteracy Rate 28.8% (2000)
Contribution to GDP 1%
Representation at National Congress 21 Members of Parliament
Vegetation Groves of coconut palms to the east, swamps along the coastal regions, savanna and Amazon forest to the west


  • IBGE 2000 and Projections for 2002
  • Abril Almanac
  • Gabeira, Gabriel Luiz - "Synthesis of the Brazilian Economy", Rio de Janeiro, National Trade Confederation (CNC), 1999