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.
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
Exploring the 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.
Exploring the 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).
Area Accommodations and Food
Accommodations and Food in Barreirinhas
Barreirinhas is a pleasant, if increasingly urbanized, little town with sandy beaches carved out by the Rio Preguiças. There are plenty of pousadas in and around the town to choose from, although some downtown options are a little on the tacky side.
Despite its newness, the Hotel Rio Preguiças (Av. Brasília 80, tel. 98/3349-1293, R$70–130 d) has the retro feel (if not charm) of a small-town Brazilian hotel of the 1960s or 1970s. Centrally located on the main square of Praça do Matriz, the standard air-conditioned guest rooms are spotless and innocuous. Balconies with hammocks overlook the leafy praça. A more attractive budget option is the Pousada Sossego do Cantinho (Rua Principal 2, Cantinho, tel. 98/3349-0753, R$150 d). Located 15 minutes from the center of town in the village of Cantinho, this Swiss-owned pousada consists of four rustic but sprawling wooden bungalows (with air-conditioning and Wi-Fi) set along the banks of the river. While not central, it’s very bucolic, and the hosts are very helpful. Also along the river but less basic is Pousada Encantes do Nordeste (Av. Boa Vista, tel. 98/3349-0288, R$180–210 d), whose chalets are nestled in a lush garden. The air-conditioned guest rooms are simple but homey, and the staff is friendly. For cooling off, there is a pool as well as the river. Although it’s 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the center of town, most excursions will pick you up at the pousada. At night, you can easily take a cab or moto-taxi to the center, or stay in and watch DVDs. Open for lunch and dinner, the Bambaé riverside restaurant is one of the best in town.
For more luxury, consider the Porto Preguiças Resort (Carnaubal Velho, tel. 98/3349-6050, R$315–350 d), located 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from town near the river. Although not quite luxurious (especially for the price), the pseudorustic and slightly Spartan chalet accommodations are spacious and comfortable, with fancy linen sheets and thick cotton towels. The sprawling grounds’ enticing features include a sand-bottom swimming pool, a private river beach with a floating bar, and pergolas where you can flake out in a hammock. The Restaurante Sgte. Peppers (noon–10 p.m. daily, R$20–30), decorated with local ceramics and overlooking the pool, is known for its sophisticated regional and international fare. It is also a seductive spot for predinner cocktail.
For food, there are various restaurants along Avenida Beira-Rio, all of which take advantage of the pretty river views. Marina Tropical (Av. Beira-Rio, tel. 98/3349-1143, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. daily high season, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat. off-season, R$15–20) specializes in seafood dishes such as shrimp moqueca bathed in coconut milk but also serves meat and pasta as well as a very decent and nicely priced per-kilo buffet at lunch. Restaurante do Carlão (Rua Coronel Godinho, tel. 98/3349-0016, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, R$15–25) wins kudos for having the most interesting menu in town: Fresh fish and seafood are all imaginatively prepared using exotic local fruits such as muruci, cajá, and açai to make sauces and garnishes that look and taste quite out of the ordinary.
Don’t leave town without sampling some of the sweets made from the glossy amber fruit of the buriti palm. At Tá Delícia (Travessa Vereador Zé Diniz, tel. 98/3349-0576), you can sample homemade sorvete de buriti, while Doces Dagente (Av. Brasília) sells buriti candies, preserves, and brick-like doce de buriti packed in wooden boxes to go.
Accommodations and Food in Atins
Located at the extreme eastern edge of the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses, on the ocean, Atins is a tiny, timeless, and completely untouristy fishing village completely surrounded by dunes and within close range of Lagoa Tropical and Lagoa Mário. Set amid a cluster of palms, Pousada Rancho do Buna (tel. 98/3349-5005, R$90 d) offers rustic chalets that house up to four. An inviting restaurant serves fish and seafood dishes accompanied by organic garden-grown vegetables and doces made from local fruits. Reservations are necessary. An hour’s guided walk through the dunes or a scenic Jeep ride will bring you to the simple shack that houses the Restaurante da Luzia (Canto de Atins, tel. 98/9132-3187, 10 a.m.–midnight daily). You’ll understand why Luzia Diniz’s cooking has already achieved legendary status when you find yourself faced with a massive portion of fresh shrimp barbecued over hot coals.
Atins can be reached from Barreirinhas by Jeep or boat, which is by far the cheapest and most languid option. Boats (4 hours, R$15) leave from the quay (Av. Beira-Rio) daily, usually around 10 a.m.
Accommodations and Food in Santo Amaro do Maranhão
Perched near the western extreme of the park, Santo Amaro is close to some of the highest dunes and most enchanting lagoas in the Lençóis Maranhenses and far from the madding crowd. The town’s several pousadas are all pretty basic. What Pousada Cajueiro (Rua Oswaldo do Cruz 14, tel. 98/3369-1119, R$115 d) has going for it is a privileged site overlooking the Rio Alegre. The stark guest rooms are clean and have air-conditioning as well as balconies with hammocks. The on-site restaurant does local cuisine proud by serving up giant specimens of fresh local shrimp cooked in a variety of ways. The pousada also organizes Jeep outings to nearby attractions, including beautiful Lagoa da Gaivota, only 20 minutes away.
From Barreirinhas, Tropical Adventure offers transportation by Jeep to Santo Amaro. The three-hour trip costs R$430 for four people. A cheaper option is to take a Cisne Branco bus from either Barreirinhas (R$28) or directly from São Luis (R$20) to the town of Sangue. From here, a Jeep taxi (included in the price of the bus fare) will take you 36 kilometers (22 miles) across the dunes to Santo Amaro.
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 www.barreirinhas.ma.gov.br under “Turismo” as well as http://lencoismaranhenses.com.br (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.