One of Brazil’s most spectacular natural attractions, the Lençóis Maranhenses—250 kilometers (155 miles) east of São Luís—is a fantastic desert of immense white sand dunes that bear a striking resemblance to billowing lençóis (sheets). Some of the dunes are 50 meters (165 feet) high. Every year when the rains come (December-May), their valleys fill with water, forming a series of jade lagoons whose mirrorlike surfaces reflect the piercing blue sky filled with drifting clouds and gliding egrets. The majesty of the landscape is impossible to express, but the sense of timelessness is impressive; particularly when trekking through the sand, you can turn around to see that the wind has wiped out the only sign of civilization—the footprints you made only five minutes earlier.

Rippling sand dunes late in the day cast cool shadows.

Photo © Otávio Noguiera, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses

The Lençóis Maranhenses are within the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses, a protected area that is about the size of Rhode Island. No cars are allowed in the park, although Jeeps can take you within close proximity. To explore the dunes on foot, you’ll need to hire a guide or go as part of an excursion. The closest town is nearby Barreirinhas, a six-hour bus ride from São Luís, where there are plenty of hotels and restaurants as well as guides and tour operators. However, if you want to experience the dunes without crowds, consider basing yourself in two rustic little villages, far off the beaten path but closer to the dunes themselves: Atins and Santo Amaro do Maranhão. The best time to visit are the sunny days during June–September when the lagoons are still full enough to bathe in (by December, they’ve often completely evaporated). You can explore the park from Barreirinhas by Jeep or by boat.

Exploring the Park

Lençóis Maranhenses by Jeep

The closest and easiest way to explore the dunes is by taking the half-day Jeep trips that visit nearby lagoons, including the particularly gorgeous Lagoa Bonita and Lagoa Azul. Try to go in the afternoon, when it’s cooler and the light is more golden, since you’ll be able to watch the sun set over the dunes. A full-day Jeep outing to the village of Santo Amaro do Maranhão allows you to visit the Lagoa da Gaivota, one of the largest and deepest of all the park’s lagoons, whose colors change like a 1970s mood ring. Tropical Adventure (tel. 98/3349-1987) and Ecodunas (tel. 98/3349-0545) all operate Jeep trips, which start at around R$70 pp for a half-day trip. If you take a jardineira (an open-backed truck that fits 10), a trip to the both lagoas costs around R$35 pp.

Lençóis Maranhenses by Boat

The Rio Preguiças is a river that passes close to Barreirinhas. It winds through a landscape of buriti palm forests, mangrove swamps, and sand dunes, passing tiny palm-thatched villages until it finally flows into the ocean. With a guide, you can descend the river by launch or by a small motorboat known as a voadeira. Excursions include stops for swimming and lunch in the fishing village of Caburé, which lies on a sandbar between the river and the sea. You’ll also stop in the village of Mandacaru to climb up the Farol Preguiças, a picturesque lighthouse that offers fantastic 360-degree views of the dunes. Another option is to hire a boat to take you downriver to Atins, an idyllic village ensconced in the dunes and surrounded by some stunning lagoons such as the Lagoa Tropical. Although you can visit Atins in a day trip, it’s worthwhile staying overnight so you can explore the surrounding dunes and lagoons on foot (and soak up the relaxing vibes).

Tropical Adventure (tel. 98/3349-1987) and Ecodunas (tel. 98/3349-0545) can organize these boat trips for you. A full-day excursion for up to four people costs R$60 (not including lunch). You can also negotiate directly with a boat operator and guide (a boat trip to Atins should cost around R$80).

Other Area Information

Sports and Recreation in the Lençóis Maranhenses

An utterly relaxing way of taking in the dunescapes is to float by them in a rubber inner tube known as boia cross. Half-day trips (R$50 pp) feature 90 minutes of floating down Rio Cardosa, an emerald colored river that’s a 45-minute Jeep ride from Barreirinhas. For a more panoramic view, splurge for the 30-minute flight (R$180 pp) that will give you an unforgettable bird’s-eye view over the dunes (for the best light, reserve the morning or late afternoon). Tropical Adventure (tel. 98/3349-1987) and Ecodunas (tel. 98/3349-0545) can organize both trips for you.

Shopping in Barreirinhas

Barreirinhas is buriti country. Locals use the fibers from this palm to make everything from roofing thatch to baskets, hats, and handbags that are the epitome of organic chic. You’ll find a wide array of items at the shops along Avenida Brasília and the Centro de Artesanato (Praça do Trabalhador). If you visit Lagoa Bonita, visit the barraca of Dona Maria do Buritizal, who sells beautifully made buriti artesanato along with freshly roasted cashews.

Information and Services in the Lençóis Maranhenses

There is no tourist office in Barreirinhas, but local tour agencies have lots of information about the park, as does the local branch of the Instituto Chico Mendes (tel. 98/3349-1115), which administers the park. On the Web, you can check out under “Turismo” as well as (both in Portuguese). The Banco do Brasil (Av. Joaquim Soeiro de Carvalho) has a 24-hour ATM.

Getting to the Lençóis Maranhenses

There are various ways of getting to Barreirinhas from São Luís. Cisne Branco (tel. 98/3243-2847) operates six buses daily that depart from the Rodoviária. The trip takes 4–5 hours depending on the route and costs R$29. Should you want more comfort (i.e., air-conditioning), contact VanExpress (tel. 98/3256-4027), a minivan service that picks you up at your São Luís hotel. Fewer stops speed up the journey significantly to 3–4 hours. Departures, however, depend on demand.

The fastest and most scenic, but also most expensive, mode of transportation is flying. Litorânea Aero Taxi (tel. 98/3217-6181) offers several daily flights that take 40 minutes and cost R$1,200 for five people. A definite bonus is the overhead view of the dunes. Although it’s not that practical—a car is useless in the dunes—should you want to drive, the newly paved MA-402 highway that leads to Barreirinhas is in good condition.

From São Luís, various tour agencies can organize your trip to the Lençóis Maranhenses—whether it’s simply reserving transportation or customizing an entire package that includes Jeep and boat outings. Lotus Turismo e Aventura (Rua Marcelino Almeida 25, Praia Grande, tel. 98/3221-0942) is recommended, as is Ecodunas (tel. 98/3349-0545), which organizes a variety of adventure excursions that depart from São Luís.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.