Belém was one of the first Portuguese towns on the Amazon River. Founded in 1616, it prospered for over two centuries, relying on enslaved indigenous groups (and later enslaved Africans) to find and harvest Amazonian treasures such as cacao, indigo and animal skins, all for export to Europe. But it was a fragile success, and an economic downturn in the early 19th century helped spark a popular uprising and bloody civil war.
The rubber boom at the turn of the century sent Belém’s population rocketing, from 40,000 in 1875 to more than 100,000 in 1900. The city suddenly had electricity, telephones, streetcars and a distinctly European feel. Officials erected a few grand monuments such as the Teatro da Paz, earning the city the nickname ‘the tropical Paris.’
Rubber eventually crashed, but the ports built during the boom have remained active. Today, over a million tons of cargo pass through Belém, mostly timber, soy beans, aluminum and iron ore, as well as fish, Brazil nuts and black pepper.