Heading north from Natal—by bus or buggy—the beaches get increasingly wild and the dunes more impressive. Half- and full-day buggy tours from Natal give you a “best-of” the closest series of beaches stretching from Redinha across the Rio Potengi to Mariú, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north. Although some of the beaches are lined with summer houses, most are tranquil little fishing villages with a few basic barracas and restaurants serving fried fish and simple seafood dishes. The most famous draws are Genipabu, with its shifting dunes and dromedaries, and Pitangui and Jacumã, with their alluring freshwater lagoons. Praia de Maracajaú is renowned for the ideal snorkeling around its vast offshore reefs. Most people visit these destinations on all-day buggy tours from Natal. Alternately, you can hire a buggy (and a bugueiro) or a car. Bus service is mostly nonexistent—the other cheaper (but sometimes time-consuming) alternative is to flag down a van (transporte coletivo); ask around, but they usually pass along Rua Prudente de Morais in Centro.
The first beach north of Natal, Redinha, is only a 10-minute ferry ride across the Rio Potengi. This former fishing village is now pretty urbanized (avoid weekends, when it’s crazily packed), and there are far nicer beaches up and down the coast. In its favor, Redinha offers reef-protected waters and pleasant barracas serving fried fish and icy beer, as well as a great view of Natal. To soak up local atmosphere, head to the old Mercado Municipal, where you can feast on ginga com tapioca, which is a tapioca stuffed with fried fish. The balsa (ferry) runs to Redinha 6:10 a.m.–9:50 p.m. daily and costs R$1 for foot passengers and R$5 for cars. Alternatively, you can take a bus that passes along Praia do Meio and Praia do Forte and crosses the Ponte Newton Navarro (also known as the Ponte Forte-Redinha).
The biggest draw by far on the northern coast, Genipabu is a fishing village 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Natal whose spectacular sand dunes have become iconic. Genipabu is the primary destination of Natal’s bugueiros since the constantly shifting dunes practically cry out to be buggied over (if you come here on your own, there are also many local bugueiros who can take you for a spin). Equally fun is trying to run up and down the dunes, or traveling across them by mule or dromedary. Yes, dromedaries were long ago imported from the Sahara, and they hardly look out of place at all. Although you’re definitely overpaying for the gimmick, it’s hard to resist a ride, even if costs R$35 for 15 minutes. Another very fun way to get sand up your nose is to indulge in esquibunda, in which you place your posterior on a wooden board and go tobogganing down the dunes.
You can also take advantage of the waters of the mesmerizingly blue Lagoa de Genipabu, a freshwater lagoon fringed by lush plants and cashew trees. For lunch amid the dunes (getting there involves a 10-minute trek through the sand), head to Bar 21 (tel. 84/3224-2484, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) for delicious fish and seafood. Should you be enticed to spend the night, the Pousada Soleil (Av. da Praia 91, tel. 84/3225-2064, R$180 d) is a simple little beachfront place with clean, basic guest rooms and a cheery atmosphere. A taxi from Centro will cost around R$60. If you’re driving, cross the Ponte Forte-Redinha and follow BR-406 to Genipabu.
Pitangui and Jacumã
Located 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Natal, Pitangui is a little fishing village with an enticing palm-fringed beach. Aside from swimming in the ocean, you can also float, kayak, and pedal around the Lagoa Pitangui. Set amid snow-white dunes, the lagoon is also a great place to try aerobunda—which involves attaching yourself to a cable and swinging (butt-first) across the sand and into the water. The same fun can be had at the adjacent beach of Jacumã. Each aerobunda descent costs R$7.
Maracajaú, which lies 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Natal, offers some of the best snorkeling in Rio Grande do Norte. When the tide recedes, the extensive coral reefs, located 6 kilometers (4 miles) offshore, form vast natural pools known as parrachos, whose warm and particularly limpid waters, reached by boat, are transformed into fantastic open-air aquariums (albeit very crowded ones during high season). Depending on the tides, depths range 2–6 meters (6–20 feet). The shallower regions are equipped with floating bars. Maracajaú Diver (Praia da Maracajaú, tel. 84/3261-6200) offers 2.5-hour snorkeling excursions (R$75) out to the reefs, along with “baptismal” diving excursions (R$170). Check out the website for info about Maracajaú. Expresso Cabral (tel. 84/3205-4272) operates two buses daily from Natal’s Rodoviária Nova (R$9). By car, follow BR-101 in the direction of Touros. You can easily hire a taxi or buggy to bring you here from Natal.