By John Fitzpatrick
If you live in São Paulo or are spending some time in the city and fancy a short trip to a pleasant, interesting and safe place then Santana de Parnaiba is worth a visit. Santana is refreshingly different from somewhere like Embu which has become a bit of a tourist trap over the years. Santana is only about 35 kilometers from the city center and, if you choose the right time and route, you can be there in 30 to 40 minutes.

It has changed enormously since I first visited it 20 years ago. The population has quadrupled, due to the arrival of many migrants, mainly from the Northeast, making it the fastest-growing place in the whole of Brazil in the 1990s. This means that there are now lots of crude constructions and favela-like settlements on the wrong” side of the track in the direction of Barueri. Another factor has been the growth of Alphaville – on the “right” side of the tracks – which has become a victim of its own success as more and more people have fled from São Paulo.

Despite this, the center of Santana is still charming, with brightly-painted little houses, an imposing Baroque church and an agreeable square with an English-style bandstand. As you look up at the tree-clad hills surrounding the town, breathe the fresh air and enjoy the silence, it is difficult to believe that São Paulo is so close. There must be something about the place since a recent survey showed that Santana is the town with the longest rates of longevity in the Greater São Paulo region.

Santana was founded around 1580 and claims to be the starting point from which the bandeirantes set off on their explorations which took them to practically every corner of Brazil and even into neighboring countries. São Paulo people are very proud of their bandeirantes and Santana boasts that it was because of them that Brazil grew to its present size and strength. That may be true and the bandeirantes achievements were impressive but their motives were not. The bandeirantes were driven by greed. They hunted Indians whom they turned into slaves even though many, if not most, had Indian blood in their veins. They also searched for gold and precious stones like emeralds. This is how the “Brasil A/Z Enciclopedia” sums them up: “The bandeirantes are attributed with expanding Brazil’s territory (previously officially limited by the Treaty of Tordesilhas), settling the interior and discovering the country’s natural resources. However, they were also responsible for the decimation of the many indigenous peoples, even attacking the Jesuit missions to capture Indians.”

Birthplace of the Brazilian People?
This is not how Santana recalls the bandeirantes. A monument was recently erected at the entrance of the town which presents a rather Disney-like version of history in the form of life-sized statues. One shows a noble-looking bandeirante (representing “idealism”) pointing to the horizon while another (“courage”) fends off a charging jaguar on one side as a snake coils round his leg on the other. Another brave bandeirante proudly holds up his baby son as the mother, a naked Indian woman, crouches by his side. “Nasce of Povo Brasileiro” (the Brazilian people are born) is how this scene is described. A fierce-looking Indian (“The Owner of the Forest”) stands nearby clutching a spear. There are statues of Indian children playing with wild animals and a couple of boys – one European and the other of mixed Indian and Portuguese parentage. There is a more realistic touch in another monument showing a slave pulling a boat carrying the founder of Santana, a woman called Suzana Dias, her son, Andre Fernandes, and a priest, Padre Guilherme Pompeu. This monument stands rather forlornly on a traffic island in the middle of the road a couple of hundred yards from the center. A smaller memorial, without the naãve concepts and boastful claims, closer to the center might have been in better taste. However, this is not the Paulista way. You only have to visit the Bandeirantes monument outside Ibirapuera park which is also situated on a traffic island forcing pedestrians to dodge cars to visit it.

Architectural Retreat
Santana’s main points of interest all lie within eyeshot of each other and the town is centered on the two squares on either side of the church. This church was founded in 1560 as a chapel dedicated to St. Anthony. It has been renovated many times over the last four centuries and the present structure dates from 1892. It is a beautiful two-storey beige and white colonial building, topped with a single tower. There is no shortage of lovely buildings like this throughout Brazil yet today’s architects appear not to have been inspired by them. Instead, they have turned modern São Paulo into one of the world’s most unattractive cities. The downturn area has almost no colonial-style buildings left while the Italian and French style buildings of the early 20th century have been left to decay. As the city has grown, homes and businesses have spread away from the old center and millions of people live and work in concrete and glass monstrosities with no human touch which could have been designed by robots.

The church, now known as Nossa Senhora de Santana, is a functioning place of worship for the local community. Inside it is dark and cool, with whitewashed walls and heavy wooden benches for the congregation. There is gold leaf around the main altar, statues in wood and terracotta in niches, the stations of the cross on the walls and several altars. Protestants will no doubt shudder and shake their heads at the statue of Our Lady of the Sorrows (Nossa Senhora dos Dores) who clutches the crown of thorns in her hand while a sword sticks out from her heart. Another statue shows Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Nossa Senhora de Carmo) holding the infant Jesus in one arm and scapulas of the Carmelite nuns in another. Other statues include a black St. Benedict holding the baby Jesus and a life-sized Jesus with his crown of thorns on his way to being crucified. As a Catholic from far-off Glasgow, in the west of Scotland, I feel surprisingly at home here.

Next to the church is the house which belonged to the bandeirante Bartolomeu Bueno da Silva known by his Indian name “Anhanguera” which means the “old devil”. He is said to have found gold in Goias in 1683 but was more interested in slaves. São Paulo residents will know him from the grim statue at the entrance to the Trianon park in Avenida Paulista opposite the Masp museum. This house dates from 1600 and is said to be the oldest remaining building in the state of São Paulo. You can go inside and see the conditions under which people lived in those days. The house is spartan to say the least and makes you wonder what life was like for those who were not as well off. This place is supposed to have been used a lover’s tryst by Dom Pedro I and his mistress, the Marquessa of Santos, and was known as Dom Pedro’s Inn. There are two other buildings next door which include a cultural center and a kind of art gallery. According to the guide book there are over 200 preserved buildings, most dating from the 19th century, clustered in the streets around the church.

Tourist Events
As Santana has started to exploit its tourist potential a number of bars and restaurants have sprung up and a crafts fair is held on Sundays. There is a small tourist office and a helpful assistant who speaks English. There are also special events throughout the year, usually with a religious origin, such as the pre-Carnival parade which is opened by the town’s own group known as the “Night Shout” (Grito da Noite). During this event, which goes back to the 17th century, people dress up as ghosts, monsters, skeletons and monsters and form a procession to the cemetery. The event will be held on February 16 this year. Other main events include the Passion Play (April 5-7), Corpus Christi (June 7), when the streets are literally covered with scores of colored carpets bearing religious images, and the Patron Saint’s Day (July 26).

Santana is so small that a couple of hours will be enough to have a good look round. You can then move along the so-called “Roteiro dos Bandeirantes” to other nearby places like Pirapora de Bom Jesus, Araariguama, Cabreuiva, Itu, Salto, Porto Feliz and Tiet which are also rich in terms of history and religion. For much of the time you will be following the river Tiete. Unfortunately the river becomes terribly polluted after heavy rain and a surrealistic scene appears – huge bubbles of white foam float across the water as though the river has become a gigantic bathtub. It is a reminder that, although Santana might have been the starting place for the growth of the Brazil, it was also the entry point to many of the problems which have plagued Brazil in the past and continue to do so today.

John Fitzpatrick 2007

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicaes. This article originally appeared on his site He can be contacted at

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