Traveling across South America in 15 Days – Day 15: Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil

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This is it: our last article on the series of 15 day of traveling across South America is here. Not only will it bring an end to these, but it will – like the others – leave you amazed. That is because this last one is about an incredible region in the north of Brazil that few foreigners know about, but is one of the most beautiful landscapes of the whole country – the Lençóis Maranhenses region!

The Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is located in the state of Maranhão, in the northeastern region of Brazil. It will perhaps remind you of the Salt Desert in Bolivia, but this region also has its own charm. It is an area of low, flat, occasionally flooded land, overlaid with large, discrete sand dunes. It spreads for over 1500 square kilometers, and despite abundant rain, supports almost no vegetation, due to the levels of salt in the sand making the floral possibilities very limited. It is a little hard to get to, but the effort is definitely worth the trip.

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Composed of large, white, sweeping dunes, at first glance Lençóis Maranhenses looks completely like an archetypal desert, although it’s not. The region is subject to a regular rain season during the beginning of the year. The rains cause a peculiar phenomenon: fresh water collects in the valleys between sand dunes, spotting the desert with blue and green lagoons that reach their fullest between July and September. The area is also surprisingly home to a variety of fish which, despite the almost complete disappearance of the lagoons during the dry season, have their eggs brought from the sea by birds.
That’s no mirage. The towering dunes of Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses national park is one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes – an astonishingly wide area of otherworldly landscapes, only broken up by inviting cerulean blue lagoons that pepper the sandy hills. From the air, the landscape gives the appearance of rolling bed sheets (lençóis in Portuguese), pitching across the world’s most picturesque bed. A visit here is guaranteed to leave your jaw on the deep sandy floor and your camera trigger-finger sore from overuse. But the park itself, located about 200 miles east of São Luis – the capital of the state of Maranhão, where the park is – and near the cutesy town of Barreirinhas, is far from the only cinematic destination in this part of Northern Brazil. Don’t miss a trip to this region; and don’t miss doing the following while you’re there.

Walk around the city of São Luís. Though shamelessly neglected, the crumbling historic colonial center of São Luis – considered a World Heritage site by UNESCO – is a gorgeous remnant of both French and Portuguese foundations. Though there has been an extensive program to restore and renovate the colonial-era buildings since 1989, it’s been slow going, resulting in a photogenic decay that permeates the architecture throughout its cobble-stoned streets and alleys. Bright, detailed Portuguese decorative ceramic tiling dotes the faces of many restored buildings.

For a time-traveling experience to the past, visit the tiny and isolated village of Alcântara, located across the Sâo Marcos Bay from São Luis (reached by a sometimes wobbly catamaran ride – bring your seasick pills!), you’ll swear you just exited a time machine. This slumbering, vehemently picturesque colonial village built between the 17th and 19th centuries is a kaleidoscope of preserved, ruined and restored mansions, homes and churches laid out on artistic crisscrossed cobblestones. Some experts claim the village is Brazil’s most homogenous group of colonial architecture in the country. There are two things to do here besides gawking and strolling among the historic buildings, museums and plazas: Those who spend the night can rise early to catch the dramatic early-morning scarlet wave of red ibis birds (known as guarás); and munching on the delicious local specialty: A sweet, coconut pastry cleverly named doce de espécia (special sweet).

And of course, when you are tired of sightseeing, it’s time for some action in the lagoons. There are few things as immediately satisfying as dunking yourself into a crystal-clear freshwater lagoon after trudging across piles of sand dunes in the blaring midday sun. It’s like having a happy ending to that recurring lost-in-the-desert-with-no-water nightmare you’ve been having. Tours to the park will always take in the most famous lagoon, the Blue Lagoon, but find another in which to take a dip away from the tour groups. They are everywhere around you, so you really have no excuse. Ask your guide to venture off the beaten path and find you own private paradise. I mean you’re welcome.

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Apart from that, there is also the Preguiça River (it means laziness in Portuguese). It snakes its away along the boardwalk in Barreirinhas, from where you can grab a boat to navigate the mangrove – and sand dune-lined river all the way to the sea. Along the way, you can ogle a long list of exotic palms, including açaí, the Amazonian palmberries that make for one of Brazil’s tastiest treats; as well as interact with wild Capuchin monkeys, who are not to be denied if you are lingering around with bananas!

And for some relaxing time, go to Cabure and Atins. These two little pieces of paradise, reachable along Preguiças river, are about as good as it gets in terms of finding an isolated getaway to get away from it all. Cabure is little more than a sand peninsula between the river and the Atlantic ocean. It’s a popular lunch destination for those on river tours, but sleeping here truly feels like a discovery – you won’t share the sands with more than a handful of tourists, if so. The dozen or so rustic restaurants and pousadas can feel like a beach ghost town by sunset.

And with that beautiful landscape, my friends, we come to the end of this series of articles. I hope you have enjoyed reading about these places and feel motivated to check them out by yourself. Feel free to explore, because South America is truly beautiful. And if you know about any special place that we missed to mention, feel free to comment!

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