By Kendall Clark, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The splendors of the Northeast Region of Brazil, from the state of Bahia north to Maranhão, seem worlds away during rush hour traffic in downtown Centro Rio de Janeiro. Remote beaches, fine sand, historic cities and tranquilo (chill) attitudes are classic characteristics that merely skim the outer shell of Northeast adventures.
Salvador, Natal and Recife are all heavily traveled destinations in the region and well known outside Brazil. Yet, destinations like Lençóis Maranhenses, Maranhão and Jericoacoara, Ceará are beginning to attract international tourists who crave a paradisaical escape from the asphalt without the costly price tag.
Though, both spots are popular amongst “off the map” travelers, they are quite tricky to reach due to the weaving sandy coast. Visiting Lençóis and Jeri (local nickname for Jericoacoara) requires some planning and flexibility, as the path between the two is not well defined.
Coordinate to arrive in the city of São Luís in Maranhão, located 2,268 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro city. Parts of the city are charming, yet decaying due to disinvestment and neglect. Plan to spend one-day sightseeing before continuing on to Barreirinhas, the closest town to Lençóis. Buses leave everyday day from the São Luís bus terminal and travel 254 kilometers, four hours to Barreirinhas and a single ticket costs R$30.
The Lençóis Maranhenses are white sweeping sand dunes bending 1,500 square kilometers around natural lagoons that closely resemble the Arabian Desert. Tour agencies offer several packages including day trips to popular lagoons like Lagoa Azul and Bonita, helicopter tours and camping excursions.
Jeeps rip through the thick forest before arriving at the edge of the oasis. The park’s vastness, silence and the unique colors lure the visitor to explore the grounds, sun bath and ponder the creation of these sand mounds.
Day trips via sand jeep start at R$50 per person, depending on the size of the group. The tour lasts about six hours in total, three in the afternoon before breaking for lunch and then three in the evening to watch the pôr-do-sol (sunset). Note the best season is between July and September when lagoons are full.
After spending a few days in Barreirinhas, the longest leg of the journey to Jeri will require at least one day of traveling. The 385 kilometer trip is long and bumpy due to the sand roads. The fastest way to get there is to hire a private 4×4 in Barreirinhas for about R$150 per person for a group of three. This method cuts the trip in half and travelers will arrive in Jeri the same day as departure. Other transportation options due exist but are not as direct.
Lodging is plentiful in Jeri from simple beach houses to backpacking hostels, located on the main roads. Prices can range from R$50 for modest quarters to several hundred reais for more luxurious suites. Restaurants are also on hand and range from R$12 complete meals to R$150 moquecas (fish stew) and upward. Nightlife consists of casual beach parties and forro (dance style) parties where vendors shake-up R$6 caipirinhas.
Several day trips can be taken from the town via sand buggy. Pedra Furada, Lagoa Paraíso and Azul are highly recommended by both the locals and agencies. Jeri is also world renown for having some of the best winds, making it a popular spot for wind and kite surfers.
The trip out of Jeri back to humanity is easier than arrival. There’s a direct bus for R$60 from Jeri to Fortaleza, which stops at the bus terminal and the airport. This part of the Northeast is certainly off the beaten path and serves to remind travelers just how basic, beautiful and of course, sandy, the region is.