Colorful Mayhem at the Mouth of the Amazon
Belém is the jumping-off point for most river trips up the Amazon, and its exuberant daily market Ver-o-Peso (whose name comes from the colonial-era sales pitch – literally, “See the weight!”) is a jumbled, seemingly endless sprawl of exotic goods. The hypnotic confusion and heady smells of dried herbs, medicinal roots, concentrated essences of the jungle’s spices and flowers, and miracle elixirs and potions hold visitors in thrall. Snakeskins, turtle soap, and dolphin eyes may be contraband articles, but they still make an occasional appearance along with other items linked to macumba superstition and voodoo folklore: aphrodisiacs, amulets, alligator-tooth charms, lizard powder, dried boa constrictor heads, and other unrecognizable things you may not want to know about.
The humid air carries the aroma of mouthwatering food being prepared by native women, who cook for the hundreds of vendors in Brazil’s largest outdoor marketplace amid a cacophony of cursing, flirting, touting, and bargaining. The market’s main attraction is its cornucopia of the river’s most unusual species of fish (piranha!), meat (armadillo!), fruit, and vegetables, many of them guaranteed to show up the same day at Lá Em Casa, Belém’s best restaurant for native cozinha brasileira.
It was at Belém that the native people first showed the colonials the wonder of the Amazon’s bounty. Today, Casa’s warm and voluble chef-owner, Ana Maria Martins, carries the torch by giving her guests the best the river has to offer. The region’s premier dish is pato no tucupi, duck in an herb sauce made from the juice of the ubiquitous manioc root, here raised to a culinary art form; only the locals seem to hanker for the minced turtle meat or frog legs. More than twenty years ago, Doña Ana went upstream to the family farm to learn from the Indian elders; she’s been entertaining her fortunate visitors ever since in this breezy colonial setting in the shade of the patio’s giant flamboyante tree.