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Maceio, Brazil

Northeast Brazil has a number of large cities that few outsiders have heard of; Maceió is one of them. The city comes as a real surprise to first-time visitors. Alagoas, the state it's in, is traditionally cowboy country: dusty and dry. But Maceió is on the coast, and its name is an indigenous word meaning "spring waters." The coastline here is marked by fine beaches, lagoons, reefs and vast mangrove swamps with manatee reserves, all of which are just beginning to be discovered by travelers to the country. The city's economic development was long centered on the region’s production and export of sugar, and in recent years it has been the engine of Brazil’s ethanol boom; tourism here has just recently started to gear up.

On the cultural front, you’ll soon learn about Lampião, a cowboy bandit who fought landowners in the 1920s and 1930s and has become a folk hero. If you happen to arrive in mid-June, you’ll experience the Festas Juninas, including the São João festival—the holiday is much like Europe’s midsummer celebrations, but here it's the middle of winter. As with Carnival celebrations elsewhere, the revelries include much dancing, drinking and fireworks enjoyed by Brazilians dressed in peasant costumes. Palm trees yield coconuts galore around Maceió, and help define the rich seafood-based cuisine. Try to sample some sururu broth, made with palm oil and coconut milk, or bredo, spinach cooked in creamy coconut-milk sauce.