Belem, 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 (Belem), and its original role was to protect the mouth of the river and establish Portugal's claim to the region. However, Belem rapidly became established as an Indian slaving port and a source for cacao and spices from the Amazon region. Because of the export of slaves, the local population went into such decline that by the mid-18th century a royal decree was issued to encourage and reward every Portuguese who married an Indian woman.
Not until the great rubber boom at the end of the 19th century did the city experience its great revival, still evident in the wide avenues that lead from the impressive Prada da Republica down to the port. This part of the city contains a historical sector, replete with Portuguese colonial architecture.
Belem became a very rich town from where almost half of all Brazil's rubber was exported. Thousands of migrants moved into the city from the northeast, bringing with them new cultural contributions such as music and dance, plus the Afro-Brazilian religions of candomble and macumba.With the end of the rubber boom, decline set in again until new resources were explored, based on lumber and Brazil nuts. During World War II, an important base for the American fleet was established here.
Today, visitors enjoy an atmosphere of intriguing and exotic ambiance plus colonial architecture mixed with a surprisingly modern skyline. Cultural events take place in the splendid Teatro da Paz, and the Goeldi Museum and Zoological Gardens 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.