The Northeast Coast
The 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) coastline that rises north from Pernambuco to the small state of Rio Grande do Norte, before sloping west like a sultry shoulder through the state of Ceará and continuing into the state of Maranhão, is practically one long, nonstop, utterly spectacular beach. However, one cannot confuse its endlessness with monotony.
Beaches along this stretch of Northeast coast range from fine, white sands backed by rugged red cliffs to vast Saharan-like dunes where dune buggies (and dromedaries) reign supreme. An abundance of coral reefs mean that waves are often too puny for serious surfing. However, thrill seekers can navigate gigantic dunes on sandboards while snorkelers explore the clear blue pools that appear during low tide.
Many beaches, such as the famously secluded Jericoacoara, are quite remote, and can only be reached after hours of four-wheeling through the dunes. Others, such as Pipa and Canoa Quebrada, have developed into charmingly sophisticated resorts, but without losing that palmy, hippie, flip-flop vibe. There are plenty of dunes to go around, but the biggest of all are located in the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses, a vast lunar landscape of stupendous 50-meter (165-foot) dunes dotted with thousands of tiny green oasis-like lakes.
All in all, it’s impossible not to unwind. Nonetheless, should you require a dose of city life, the modern capitals of Natal and Fortaleza offer (aside from impressive beaches), an appealing mixture of urban energy and laid-back northeastern hospitality, plenty of seafood, and infectious forró music.
A transition state between the sun-baked aridness of the Northeast and the rainy, lushness of the Amazon rainforest, Maranhão’s island capital of São Luís is one of Brazil’s oldest and most fascinating cities. Often overlooked by tourists, São Luís possesses a striking colonial center awash in mansions and palaces whose facades are covered in ornately patterned Portuguese azulejos (ceramic tiles).
The local culture, with its renowned reggae scene and tambor de crioula drumming and dances, was greatly influenced by the African slaves who came to work in the region’s colonial sugar plantations. African elements are also visible in the fantastically colorful Bumba-Meu-Boi festivities that take place in June.
Across the bay of São Marcos from São Luís, Maranhão’s first capital, Alcântara, is a wonderfully atmospheric place. As you wander among its grand colonial mansions, in various states of decay, you’ll be struck by how the town is being invaded by the dense tropical forest that surrounds it.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition