Far from Rio, the wind-whipped sands and steamy deltas of Brazil’s north-east make for an unforgettable off-road trip
Brilliant white and shimmering in the wind, wave upon wave of dunes disappeared into the blue horizon. There were distant figures – black specks on a crescent far across the desert, silhouetted against the burning sun. I too stood high on the crest of a sand wave, which dropped almost sheer for 50m at my feet. I stepped over the edge, fell, hit the soft sand, rolled, fell again… into cool, deep-blue soothing water. All around me fish were swimming. I rose, gasping, to surface in a lily-covered lake.
Before arriving, I’d seen north-east Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses National Park only in aerial photos – abstract images of wrinkled white, patterned with undulating blue, so unfamiliar and alien that it had been hard to imagine them as being real.
Now it was harder still to imagine that so extraordinary a place could be so resolutely off the international tourist map. Yet the old Toyota Land Cruiser that shuddered over the bumpy tracks and plunged through rivers to bring me here had been filled entirely with Brazilians. It isn’t remoteness that has kept foreigners away, it’s unfamiliarity. Beyond Rio, Salvador and the Pantanal, Brazil remains so vast. So unknown.
The Lençóis lies in pioneer tourist country, at the heart of one of the world’s strangest and most strikingly beautiful stretches of coastline, extending between the southern Amazon and the skyscraper city of Fortaleza. Blown inland by powerful trade winds, the sandy South American seas have sculpted the coast into dune deserts, of which the Lençóis (meaning ‘bed sheets’) are the biggest.
These deserts are broken by huge river deltas filled with forest-swathed islands, fringed with long, broad and empty white-sand beaches and dotted with tiny villages. Some of these have become small resorts. Others remain almost unchanged since Portuguese times, peopled by fishermen who sail saveiros – wooden boats still built to the same design as the Moorish dhows that plied the Algarve’s bays when caliphs ruled Iberia.
I was in Brazil to journey along the Rota das Emoções – the Route of Emotions. It’s the most impressive slice of this extraordinary water-pocked coast, running for some 650km through the states of Maranhão, Piauí and Ceará, and finishing in the little resort town of Jericoacoara. Wherever possible, the Rota das Emoções shirks asphalted roads. Beaches and rivers are its highways; boats, beach buggies and 4WDs are its means of transport.
My journey began in São Luís, a steamy city sweltering on sandbanks between tidal flats and the broad, forest-fringed São Marcos bay. The Amazon rainforest lies on the northern banks of the bay, while north-eastern Brazil begins on the other side – in São Luís itself. Here, the three core Brazilian cultures meet and mix: the indigenous Brazil of the Amazon; the African Brazil of the country’s north-east sugar plantations; and the European Catholic Brazil of the colonists. The French founded the city but the Portuguese conquered it, filling its streets with baroque churches and rows of handsome townhouses covered in blue-and-white azulejo ceramic tiles.
Arriving in São Luís airport after a tiring flight, I immediately felt energised by the tropical air. It was a sticky late-June night and the city felt charged – both from rumbling thunderclouds and the drums of the Bumba Meu Boi festival, which takes over São Luís for the whole of the month. Sleep was not an option. I threw my bags on the hotel bed, showered and caught a cab to the nearest party – in a praça (city square) set between the river and the old centre.
The praça was packed with local revellers displaying a uniquely Brazilian beauty – black men with green eyes and capoeira-hardened muscles, the high cheek-bones and Asian features of Amazon Indian faces under manes of false blonde hair. On stage, dancers were swirling to the rhythms of Cacuriá and Tambour de Crioula – frenetic, spicy moves unique to Maranhão state.
They were followed by the Bumba Meu Boi pageant itself. Dancers in indigenous headdresses and figures wearing horse costumes, grotesque masks and grass skirts re-enacted the story of Mãe Catarina and Pai Francisco – peasants who, with the help of an African-Brazilian witch doctor, a shaman and a Catholic priest, resurrected a bull stolen from their landowner master.
The following two nights passed by in a heady blur of street festivals and parties. Then, in a bleary dawn, a 4WD spirited me away from São Luís to the desert and the first leg of my journey – through Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.
From the surface of the lake I’d fallen into, the dunes towered around me. I swam to the shore and found myself on a beach dotted with sunbathing Brazilians in tiny bikinis and Speedos. The wind and the warmth gently ameliorated the after- effects of the Bumba Meu Boi. Tiredness began to creep in.
I lazed on the beach for an hour or so, cooling off with swims and then, in the late afternoon, climbed another scimitar-shaped dune to a view of countless lakes, perched beneath the waves of sand.
As the sun sank from gold into dusky orange, I headed back to our hotel at Barreirinhas, the scruffy town that serves as a base for anyone exploring the dunes.
From Barreirinhas, you could spend days nosing around the sands of the Lençóis Maranhenses by 4WD, but my own journey was to continue by boat. Barreirinhas is 30km inland, and I needed to head back to the coast. So the next morning, fortified by a cold, tangy cupuaçu juice, I walked down to the river docks and a wooden launch.
The Rio Preguiças (‘Lazy River’) winds through Lençóis in sluggish undulations, greening the dunes with strands of tropical forest. As we passed through it, egrets floated out of the tree canopy like flakes of snow; a flock of brilliant-green parakeets rushed overhead in raucous chorus. We lunched in a shack, where brown capuchin monkeys hurried from the forest to beg for pieces of dried manioc and banana. Later, as the river widened to reach out to the sea, the boat wound around a big bend and the launch skidded into the sandy river beach at Caburé.
Caburé felt like a hamlet at the end of a post-apocalyptic earth. A giant beach faced a roaring Atlantic; wooden structures, torn by the wind, their nails rusted by the sea, sat semi-submerged beneath shifting sand.
The town, little more than a handful of houses, had retreated behind steep dunes. Night came quickly here, bible-black but for the cold light of a billion stars. My sleep was filled with strange dreams.
The next morning, through my binoculars, I could see the jeep 30 minutes before it reached Caburé: a white dot emerging from the sand haze many kilometres away. The Hilux looked out of place in the primordial beach landscape, which skimmed by as we began to head east along the sand. After an hour or so we passed the only human beings we’d seen since Caburé – two horsemen and a woman on foot beside them. The bleakness was broken by our arrival at the beer-can urbanity of Tutóia, which thankfully soon faded from view as a speedboat whisked us away into a contrasting wilderness – that of the Parnaíba River delta.
The Parnaíba cuts 1,700km through the arid interior of the country before fanning into one of the largest deltas in South America. Our boat rushed through an increasingly exuberant labyrinth of tropical green: mangrove swamps rose into forest. Mud islands were cut by creeks whose banks were busy with vermillion crabs, and whose shallow waters boiled with four-eyed fish.
We took a late lunch on another dune, with a view out over the delta. A houseboat chugged past below, followed by fishermen in saveiros. There was an untidy village of stilt houses, an iguana sitting as still as a rock, an osprey pulling a fish from the water. And then suddenly an identical Hilux was waiting for us on a concrete port as we arrived, dusty and tired, in the hamlet of Barra Grande, and the thin state of Piauí.
Barra Grande felt Bounty bar tropical: long and silky sand was backed by swaying coconut palms. The area’s famous locally for its bright-orange seahorses. We searched for them, steered by a sun-wizened fisherman in a wooden canoe so small I feared it would sink under my weight into the emerald green water.“Fique ai!” he ordered, “Stay put!” He grabbed a glass vase and dived overboard, emerging seconds later with two seahorses. On the beach he found a baby Hawksbill turtle, washed-up and bewildered on the sand, which he cajoled gently back into the sea. Then we climbed back into the Hilux, crossed another river on a rickety car-sized ferry and entered another new state, Ceará. A long beach served as the highway to our final destination, Jericoacoara.
Jeri is a mere village, but its rushing beach buggies and flocks of tourists make it a city after tiny Barra Grande. Clustered between a long, sweeping crescent beach and miles of drifting sand, its streets are lined with strings of hippie-chic shops and boho boutique resorts. Bossa Nova played from thatched-roof beach bars – as out of place here in Ceará as a ceilidh in a Cockney pub. That night, I saw my first European faces of the journey – sipping caipirinhas by candlelight in intimate restaurants, dancing fervidly in the town’s two shack-like discos.
By day Jeri is empty: I woke at dawn to the angry buzz of beach buggies leaving the town in trails of dust for the wilds beyond. I resolved to join them and hired a guide from the buggy co-operative. João drove at a searing pace in flip-flops, fat back tires skidding through the sand. The souped-up VW Beetle motor roared.
Within half an hour we were in another vast landscape, driving along a beach so huge that even at 65km/h so little changed we seemed to be standing still. We bumped through streams and were nearly knocked off our precarious perch on the back of the fibreglass frame as we entered a mini-Sahara of dunes. Like the Lençóis, it was pocked with lakes, but here Brazilian bikinis were replaced by European board shorts and sun-bleached blondes hurtling over the water on kite-surf boards.
The sand around the lakes was broken by green – lush forest, fields of capim grass – and sprinkled with scarlet ibis, snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills. They burst from trees like thrown confetti as we passed.
We arrived at a makeshift sandy car park, filled with dozens of buggies. João pointed to a trail and we clambered along a rocky stretch of coast to a local beauty spot, the Pedra Furada. Here, a broken rock arch silhouetted dark against the setting sun and a crimson mackerel sky. Scores of visitors crowded around; as Raoni and I returned to the buggy in the incipient night, their flashes burst across the beach like tiny lightning. The sea rumbled behind.
The next day was my last and, after so much rushing about, I did nothing but sit on the beach with a break for coconut water and lunch. As the day drifted from torrid heat into languid golden light, hordes climbed up the dune that sits next to Jericoacoara’s pretty beach. Locals somersaulted into the sand or skimmed down its piste on dune boards. The sinking sun sparkled off the water. Stalls sold caipirinhas. I even heard English voices: “So beautiful,” someone said, “so close to nature, such a special place.”
They weren’t wrong: Jeri is special. As resorts go, it’s a laid-back joy, a beach for Europeans to dream of. But I couldn’t help thinking of the journey I’d taken to get here, along the truly wild swathes of coastline just to the west. For now, that remains the Brazilians’ secret – and ours.
Despite resembling a desert, the Lençóis Maranhenses isn’t one. The sand dunes are created by ferocious Atlantic winds, which have effectively blown the beach many kilometres inland. Located at the edge of the Amazon basin, the park averages 62.9 inches rainfall annually from January to June, and the rainwater forms bright turquoise lagoons.
The best time to visit the lagoons is July to September, when they are at their fullest. The temperature is pleasant year round, ranging from 25°C to over 35°C. There is little vegetation in the 1,000sq km park but that doesn’t deter the wildlife, of which there is an abundance. The lagoons are also home to a wide variety of fish despite it being parched in the dry season. Theories on this are two-fold: either fish eggs are buried in the sand or birds carry eggs from the coast and deposit them in the lagoons.
The author's trip was arranged by local tour operator Ecodunas.