Belém, located some 90 miles from the open sea and slightly south of the equator, is the great port of the Amazon. The city was founded by the Portuguese in 1616 as the City of Our Lady of Bethlehem (Belém), and its original role was to protect the mouth of the river and establish Portugal's claim to the region. However, Belém rapidly became established as an Indian slaving port and a source for cacao and spices from the Amazon. Because of the export of slaves, the local population went into such decline that by the mid-18th century a royal decree was issued in Portugal to encourage and reward every white man who married an Indian woman. But not until the great rubber boom at the end of the 19th century did the city experience its great revival. This is still evident in the wide avenues that lead from the impressive Praça da Republica down to the port, past a historical sector, still replete with Portuguese colonial architecture. Belém became a very rich town from where close to half of all Brazil's rubber was exported. Thousands of poor people moved into the city from the northeast, bringing with them new cultural contributions such as music and dance, plus the Afro-Brazilian religions of candomblé and macumba. With the end of the rubber boom, Belém once again suffered a disastrous decline and tried for new resources based on lumber and Brazil nuts. During World War II, an important strategic base for the American fleet was established here.
Today's visitors enjoy an atmosphere at once welcoming and fun loving, with an intriguing and exotic ambiance as well as a surprisingly modern skyline. The city offers cultural events in the splendid Teatro da Paz, and the excellent Goeldi Museum and Zoological Gardens, which are well worth a visit. There are good restaurants to try some local cuisine, and shops and markets offer a wide variety of Amazonian arts and crafts.