I knew that I would have some time to travel during my period in between Brazil and Bolivia, but the problem was knowing where to start. I did some internet research, coming up with some not-so-inspiring ideas, and was left almost stuck with what to do: I didn’t know the continent well enough. A few days after my fruitless search, my Dad came over to me and told me about a program he’d recorded over a year ago, still sitting on the TV box unwatched. So, thinking ‘what do I have to lose’, I sat down after lunch to watch ‘Michael Palin’s Brazil’. The Amazon featured, one place I already knew I just had to do; if you’re on the continent, and you have the time and the malaria pills, it’s a must. Then, after about 40 minutes on Salvador da Bahia, Recife and Natal, São Luis popped up on the screen.
A charming city on a peninsula in the state of Maranhão, São Luis is the gateway to a National Park like no other. The Lençois Maranhenses are a feat of nature, a dry, desolate, beautiful desert encompassed by forest, rivers and ocean all at the same time. At the very north of the country, it touches some of the last stretch of coastline before the equator is reached. The dunes stretch for over 1500 square kilometres, and it may seem like any other desert, just in a rather more unusual setting. However, this isn’t the only strange and startling thing about this land; in the rainy season, the lower parts of the dunes are filled with fresh rainwater, leaving it one of the most alien-like landscapes in the world.
Unfortunately, due to the month of the year, it was dry within the desert; normally, the best time to visit is during the winter months (May, June, July) when the pools are filled out by the rainwater. Nevertheless, the beauty of it is still absolutely striking. The dunes go on for miles one way, dipping occasionally where the pools are supposed to be, while the other way there is the deep river with the sprawling forest on the other side of the bank. It is something that is incredible to behold.
There are actually two sets of dunes in the Maranhão State – The Lençois Maranhenses, or as the locals call it, the Grandes Lençois, and then there are the Pequenos Lençois, or the ‘little Lençois,’ a smaller set of dunes further to the east. We were lucky enough to visit both, and just their size is difficult to comprehend. Even without the rainwater pools, it was breathtaking, just as I had dreamed it would be after watching Michael Palin’s programme. As you can see from the featured image, it just goes on forever.
It is so different from the marvel that is Rio de Janeiro that I simply couldn’t choose between the two. It’s too difficult to do so. They are simply different kinds of breathtaking. Both are served by a town called Barrerinhas, a place on the edge of the Grandes Lençois where most tourists who visit the site stay as a stepping stone into the National Parks. Our base was there, and after seeing the Grandes Lençois on the first day, we travelled to the Pequenos Lençois, to a small community named Vassouras. Here, we were able to see some of the natural inhabitants of the edge of the park: capuchin monkeys. Seemingly not uncomfortable with the presence of humans, we were able to say hello to them for a moment before climbing the small dune to see the rest of the Pequenos Lençois. As breathtaking as the Grandes, it seemed to stretch on forever, but one thing stood out; if one looked closely enough, the ocean was just visible on the other side. It is strange to see such a desolate sort of environment right next to the Atlantic, but there we are.
Further down the river, we passed some more smaller communities before arriving at the small town of Atins, where we were given the opportunity to have a quick dip in the gorgeous river water, on a beach that echoed thoughts of paradise. With the dunes stretching out in front of us, and the town of Atins behind, we bathed in the amazingly warm water for a good half an hour before having lunch in the community, another popular stop for tourists. Our final stop on the river was, incidentally the end of it. Caturé is the area’s ocean community, with the river one side and the ocean the other of a 200 metre stretch of sand. It truly was paradise. Places like these are simply not happened upon more than once in this world.
Our next adventure awaited, but it’s safe to say this is probably, out of everywhere in this country, a tie for my favourite place (with Rio, of course). With the most incredible clashes of nature, the lovely people and the presence of a paradisal aura, one cannot really go wrong.
Iguassu Falls is coming up soon, so keep an eye open.