By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
NATAL, BRAZIL – Sun-soaked Natal welcomes and entertains over two million Brazilians and foreign visitors every year who come here to experience the beautiful coastline, as well as the many adventures of all sizes on offer for the whole family to enjoy – all centered round the area’s blissful beaches and stunning sand dunes.
Natal is the capital city of Rio Grande do Norte, a state in Brazil’s northeast region that is blessed with a fascinating coastline, and Brazilians have made it an inclusive, family destination that is hard to rival.
Although this is a place one could easily come to for a week or two’s paddling in the sea, feasting on excellent seafood, and then stretching out in a hammock, Natal – The City of the Dunes – has plenty for those looking for adventure.
Sand buggying is a must-do for anyone visiting the city: it is a high-octane introduction to the area’s breathtakingly beautiful dunes and lagoons.
Leaving Natal’s upmarket Ponta Negra district - awash with hotels, pousadas and restaurants – the buggy tour takes you through Natal and over to the main dune area north of the city.
Once you leave the road and start speeding over the dunes, you’ll be asked whether you want the driver to put his foot down – “com emoção” (“with emotion”), with fast twists and turns and seemingly near-vertical drops down the dunes, or take it a little easier – “sem emoção” (“without emotion”).
The buggies travel over the dunes, between a number of lagoons, along the beaches and through small villages (avoiding the roads), stopping at a number of unmissable photo opportunities.
However, along with the thrills come the spills: ski-bunda – literally “skiing on your backside” – entails tobogganing down the dune straight into the cool, dark waters of a lagoon below. Ratchet it up a notch, and you get aero-bunda - starting much higher up, sat in a harness, this time you zip-wire down to an exhilarating splashdown.
Both are perfect for cooling off after racing around the sun-baked dunes and cost R$10 a go; photographers will be waiting to capture your splash-landing. After the high-octane stuff, you will be taken to a beach restaurant for lunch with time for a swim.
A day’s buggying will cost you around R$80 (US$40) each, but be prepared to haggle and walk away if you don’t get the right price: Natal does not lack dune buggies.
The beaches around Natal are extraordinarily beautiful – and day-trips to villages, such as Gringo favorite Pipa, are easy to find and book in Natal.
One of these goes to Maracajaú, a village to the north of Natal, which offers trips to go snorkeling and scuba-diving around the coral reefs a few miles out to sea – where you can swim in many types of fish and rays.
These trips generally cost around R$50 per person, including the boat trip out to the reefs, an hour or so at the reefs and basic snorkeling gear.
Natal is Brazil’s safest capital city and has a good reputation among tourists. You can always find bargains in this city, so it is always worth shopping around, particularly with days-out, restaurants, and if you want to buy locally-grown cashew nuts.
Nicknamed “A Cidade do Sol” – The City of Sun – Natal enjoys hot weather throughout the year, with daily temperatures rarely dipping far below 30°C (86°F), but as the city juts out into the Atlantic, a cooling breeze just takes the edge off these temperatures.
The rainy season typically runs from March through July, although these showers are usually short and sharp, and can be welcome.
Flights to Natal’s Augusto Severo International Airport are available from most major airports in Brazil, including Rio and São Paulo, although some will involve a layover in Salvador. Prices can vary wildly, so pick your dates carefully.