The golden age of steamboat travel survives on the waters of the São Francisco River in Brazil. The Benjamim Guimarães, built in 1913 by James Rees & Sons in the United States, is a rare wood-burning steamboat still in activity. It is available for day tours and five-day trips on the river lovingly known as Velho Chico, or Old Chico (pronounced VE-lio SHE-ku, from the nickname for Francisco).
Fully restored in the early 2000s, the Benjamim Guimarães took to the waters of Velho Chico again in 2004, after 10 years anchored at a Minas Gerais port and a long history in passenger and cargo transportation. It now departs from Pirapora, a city with 53,708 inhabitants in Northern Minas Gerais, for Sunday tours and a five-day trip offered by Paradiso Turismo.
The steamboat was one of several craft built for South American clients by Pittsburgh-based James Rees & Sons, a shipyard which closed in 1930 (read more the company on Ship Building History.com, www.shipbuildinghistory.com). The vessel was first named Gaiola ("Birdcage"), a traditional denomination for São Francisco River steamboats.
Later named for the patriarch of the Guimarães family, owners of the Júlio Guimarães company who bought it in the 1920s, the steamboat transported mainly cargo, but also passengers for several decades before its period of inactivity. During World War II, it was used by Italy-bound Brazilian troops on their way to the Brazilian coast.
In 1987, the Benjamim Guimarães first became a strictly touristic craft. Its tours from Pirapora on the São Francisco River ceased in 1995, when boiler problems caused it to be considered unsafe for navigation.
The steamboat's complete restorarion was carried out by Franave, the extinct São Francisco Navigation Company, in a partnership with Brazil's Ministry of Transportation and coordinated by naval engineer Odair Sanguino. Restorer Ailton Batista da Silva and architect Joacir Concelos, from IEPHA - the naval heritage institute which listed the craft in 1985 - helped launch the steamboat into its new, upgraded life.
Benjamim Guimarães Features
With three decks, all covered, the Benjamim Guimarães carries 140 passengers and crew. Deck 1 has the steam engine, boiler and kitchen. Deck 2 has a bar, 12 staterooms with 24 bunk beds, restrooms and a leisure area along the sides of the boat. Deck 3 offers plenty of space for live shows and partying.
The steamboat is well-equipped for safety with 20 lifeboats, a motorboat, and 250 life vests.
On Sundays, the Benjamim Guimarães leaves from Pirapora for a tour on the São Francisco River. As of this writing, the tour doesn't go all the way to Petrolina in Bahia as it used to. The tour must be booked at the Pirapora Secretariat of Tourism (phone number 55-38-3749-6155, address Praça da Estaçao, or the Station Square, no number).
Tour schedule: Departure at 10 a.m., arrival back in Pirapora at 1 p.m.
Ticket price: R$20