BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – The city of Pirapora in the state of Minas Gerais is home to the only operating passenger steamship in the world, the Benjamin Guimaraes. The city, located 347 km (216 miles) from the state capital, Belo Horizonte, has charms and beauty due to the curves of Old Chico, the affectionate nickname given to the Sao Francisco River, which meanders through the city.
The steamboat Benjamin Guimaraes
The grand old steamboat was built in 1913, in the United States and sailed up the Mississippi River for some time. Later it traversed the mighty Amazon and its tributaries before being bought by a textile company in Pirapora to transport passengers and cargo between Pirapora and Bahia.
The boat is the only one of its kind, steam-powered using wood, active in the world and it was listed for its Historic and Cultural Patrimony for the city and for Brazil. Currently, the Benjamin Guimaraes Pirapora belongs to the County and is administered by the Municipal Tourism Company (Emutur).
The boat travels 18 km (11 miles) in the Sao Francisco River, on Sundays from 10 am to 1 pm. On board, tourists can enjoy live music, snacks and a full bar with alcoholic beverages. The steamer has 12 cabins with bunk beds, two dining rooms and eight bathrooms. She is 44 meters (144 feet) long, 8 meters (26 feet) wide and has three decks.
In 2010, according to Emutur, the ship carried 5,991 passengers. In 2011, through November, there were 6,657. “The Benjamin Guemaraes is not just transportation. It represents a cause of culture and emotion to the people of Pirapora,” said the chief executive of Emutur, Antonio de Souza Filho, in an interview with Jornal Web Minas.
The captain, Manuel Mariano da Cunha
The current captain of the steamer, Manuel Mariano da Cunha, 82, has coördinated the activities of the boat for two and a half years, but has plenty of experience. Before retiring, the captain worked for 42 years as a navigator.
The captain, impeccable in the Navy uniform he wore wile in the service stationed in Rio de Janeiro, explained that there are two types of uniforms: khaki, for the Sunday tours and white, for gala parties, birthdays, holidays and outings with dignitaries.
Pirapora’s Secretary of Culture, Sport and Leisure, Anselmo Luiz Rocha, said the city’s greatest asset is the boat. “It attracts tourists from all over the world. Most of the leisure tourists are attracted by Benjamin,” Rocha told Jornal Web Minas.
Tourism in the city of Pirapora, Minas Gerais
“Pirapora is a tourist town whose origin and development is related to the history of navigation of the San Francisco River,” said the Municipal Secretary of Tourism, Alberto Trincanato. The city, he says, has a population composed of people from various regions of Brazil, but mainly from northeastern Brazil.
“Pirapora is also called the ‘Port of Minas.’ The name ‘Pira-pore’ means the fish who jump in the Indian language Cariri,” he said. Also according to Trincanato, the city has 25 hotels and five hostels, which makes for a total of 1,300 beds, and 15 restaurants.
He also says that Pirapora gets about 250,000 visitors a year from weekend tourism and business travelers. “The main attractions are river trips and fishing on the Rio Sao Francisco, farms and ecotourism. There are waterfalls, extreme sports such as rafting, canoeing, jet skiing and motorcross,” Trincanato rattles off. Then he added other attractions: fruiticulture, production of rum, and the Stone Church, in the Barra Guaicui neighborhood.
Festivals like Carnaval, forros (a type of dance), national gathering of bikers (something like a Brazilian Sturgis), fishing championships, food and crafts festivals and the weekly gathering of artisans in Cariris Square are also highlights.
For business travelers, the city has the Jose Geradldo Honorato Vieira Convention Center, on the shores of the Rio Sao Francisco, in the city center. The center has an air-conditioned auditorium with capacity for 800 people, two halls for 200 people and a parking area.
Other tourist attractions in Pirapora
The Marechal Hermes Bridge, opened in November 1922, is a postcard perfect, 694 meters (2,277 foot) long bridge connecting the city of Pirapora and Buritizeiro. With rustic style, it is contructed of steel frame with wooden sides and flooring.
The bridge was manufactured in Belgium and by the end of the 1960s, was used by the Federal Railway for storing grain, cotton, manufactured products, kerosene and other agricultural products, which later were sent to the South and Southeast Brazil. The bridge, first of its kind built on the Rio Sao Francisco, offers the visitor a wide view of the Old Chico.
The Spa of Showers, Island of Fish and Gravel Beach, are located in the center of Pirapora and povides tourists a refreshing swim in the waters of Old Chico. Along the Avenidas Beira-Rio, Salmeron and Sao Francisco there are bars and restaurants.
The House of Carranqueiros presents the true craft of gargoyles and saints, and a replica of the steamer Benjamin Guemaraes. Also featured are works done with straw, recycles materials, crochet, clay, cloth and paintings.