Beyond quaint buildings with tile roofs, the ocean stretches to the horizon.

Heading towards the water at Ponta Negra. Photo © Guilherme Morais, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Natal is all about its beaches. Although the city beaches are still appealing from an aesthetic point of view, urbanization has taken its toll in recent years. In the shadow of the Forte dos Reis Magos, Praia do Forte is a calm beach for paddling around. The other two urban beaches are Praia do Meio and the formerly fashionable but increasingly seedy Praia dos Artistas. The oceanfront boulevard of Avenida Presidente Café Filho, which runs alongside Praia dos Artistas, is lined with beach bars, cheap restaurants, and budget hotels, and after sundown it has quite a vibrant nightlife. By day, its waves attract surfers but aren’t ideal for swimming.

Over the last few years, all the action that used to take place at Natal’s more central beaches has migrated to Ponta Negra.A rocky headland separates Praia dos Artistas from Praia de Areia Preta, where reefs make bathing dangerous. Rising up at the far end of the beach is a lighthouse, Farol da Mãe Luiza. The lighthouse marks the beginning point of Parque das Dunas (Av. Alexandrino de Alencar, tel. 84/3201-3985, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, R$1), an urban park situated amid the dunes that have hiking trails (guided walks depart at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., and 2 p.m. daily, advance reservations required) and lanchonetes. The Via Costeira coastal highway that runs from Natal all the way to Praia de Ponta Negra, 10 kilometers (6 miles) away, passes through the park.

Ponta Negra is by far the nicest of Natal’s beaches. Its most unique feature is the gigantic sand dune at the southern tip. Known as Morro da Careca (Bald Man’s Hill), its nickname accurately evokes the dune’s resemblance to a bald head (although the lush foliage surrounding the strip of white sand makes it look more like an inverted Mohawk). Over the last few years, all the action that used to take place at Natal’s more central beaches has migrated to Ponta Negra. Although the beach is still attractive—featuring both calm and wavy waters—it has also become quite touristy. There are an amazing number of European sun worshippers, and sadly, a number of young (often underage) prostitutes ready to service them. The southern strip of the beach is particularly full of hotels, trendy restaurants, and bars, along with a colorfully diverse mix of locals, foreigners, and ambulantes (vendors) hawking their wares along the sands. At night, Ponta Negra is one of the most happening places in the city. For more peace and tranquility, head to the more sedate and upscale northern tip. Ultimately, Ponta Negra is like a small city in itself, and you can easily spend all your days and nights here.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.