"Vale a pena," said the guide in Portuguese. It's worth it. My son and I had spent six hours in an air conditioned bus, and an hour bouncing up and down on the back of an off-road truck, just to see the dunes the Brazilians call Os Grandes Lençois do Maranhão. There was no way we were going to back out now, so we climbed.
Reaching the top was like landing on another planet. The pure white sand dunes undulated for as far as the eye could see, dotted at their base with blue lagoons in sensuous curves. It was nothing short of breathtaking. The guide had not been exaggerating. It was worth what now seemed like a measly little climb.
Translated, lençois means "bed sheets," an attempt to invoke the whiteness and vastness of an area covered in dunes so white they look like snow in the panoramic poster hanging on travel agency walls. The brilliant equatorial sun shines down without the benefit of shade, but the sand, constantly rippled by the June wind, was cool under our bare feet, and the breezes made is pleasant. Besides that, although it looks like a desert during the dry season, it rains thirty times more here than in the Sahara. When the wet season comes, rain water collects at the bottom of the dunes, forming blue-green lagoons just the right temperature and depth for swimming. Walk down the dunes toward the lagoons and the fine sand cascades before your feet like sandy waterfalls.
Besides the Grandes Lençois, the north of the state of Maranhão is rich in cultural attractions, miles of empty beaches, and the only delta in the open ocean in the hemisphere. If you need yet another reason to go, then consider this: Brazil has never been cheaper due to what Brazilians are calling a crisis in their economy. For those carrying dollars, it is a vacation bargain. The northeast, where Maranhão is located, has been hit especially hard, and is consequently a great deal for dollar-carrying travelers.
Best time to see these dazzling dunes is between June and September when the rainy season has ended, but the lagoons are still full. For the truly adventurous, a trip to the dunes can be combined with visiting the delta and other beaches along Brazil's northeast.
A traveler can hire a boat on the Rio Preguiça (Lazy River) and stay at one of the rustic inns in the fisherman's village of Caburé. The thatch huts that you sleep in are not air conditioned, but the breezes make the weather comfortable. There is a full service restaurant there, too. The generators go off at 10 p.m., and you are left with kerosene lamps and candles, but what better reason to go to bed early so that you can watch the sunrise the next morning.
The beach in Caburé is an amazing stretch of sand deserted of anything but fisherman's huts and the rustic inns, which are so far from the ocean you still have to walk half a mile for your swim. Both the sunset and the sunrise can be seen from an area about fifteen minutes by boat from the inns because of the way the river and ocean converge. If you rent your own boat and driver (about $75 a day), it will be at your disposal to go anywhere you request, and one interesting sight that should not be missed is an island that serves as a rookery for scarlet ibis.
Another interesting outing, if you aren't afraid of heights, is a spin on an ultra-light, a two-seater with a driver, which you can hire in Caburé. From above, the white dunes of the Grandes Lençois look like the sandy bottom of the ocean.
Also spectacular, if you happen to arrive during a full moon, is to watch its rise over the ocean, and see its reflection on that never ending white sand. There are drivers willing to take you up the dunes for about $50 during the full moon, and I was told by the guide that the haunting beauty of it brings tears to the eyes of the romantics. Unfortunately for us, the full moon was still weeks away. If you opted for the Land Rover idea, you can combine your trip to The Lencois of Maranhão with a spin along the northeast coast then move east toward the islands and mangroves of the Delta of the Americas, as the area is now called, and then along the coast to the next state of Ceará towards the popular destination of Jericoacoara, remote and charming in spite of its fame with Brazilian and European tourists. It is more lively here than in Caburé due to all the visitors, but no less an interesting stop for it. Here, due to looser environmental laws, dune buggies are allowed in certain areas, and you can hire one with a driver for an entertaining ride through the dunes.
If you happen to be my son's age (20), there are plenty of thrilling (some might say foolish) things to do here. You can ask the dune buggy drivers to give you a wild ride, which they'll do, racing up and then down steep dunes, producing unfortunate emotions in the safety-minded. You can rent a makeshift sand board for sliding down the dunes in a sitting position, or bring a snow board and do it standing up. Leaping off the edge of the dunes, and seeing how far you can fly before you land ankle deep along the side is popular with the young.
In the evening, Jericoacoara is lively. Watch the main beach for a capoeira performance that seems to spontaneously erupt at dusk, and don't forget to climb Sunset Dune to watch - what else - the sunset. Even though Brazil faces the east, the section that Jericoacoara is on curls around and faces west, and as a result, the sun sets dramatically over the ocean.
Since you'll be coming into São Luis for this trip, don't miss what there is to enjoy in this appealing city. The fusion of the cultures of the indigenous people, the Africans, Portuguese, French and Dutch who settled here, has created a diversity that is uniquely Brazilian.
Most interesting in São Luis are the old sections of Praia Grande and Centro, with over a thousand of its buildings and its cobblestone streets dating back to the 18th and early 19th Centuries. The Portuguese architecture is easily identified by the abundant use of azulejos, the decorated glazed tiles used even on the outside walls of the buildings.
Folklore is still important, and the state's biggest festival, the Feast of St. John, which in the Middle Ages was celebrated all over Europe, is still alive and kicking here. In Maranhão, the festival is focused on the story of Bumba the Bull, slaughtered for a pregnant wife's craving, but brought back to life. For the natives of the area this June festival is bigger than New Year's, and there is a lot of drinking of wine (symbolizing the blood of the bull), as well as the traditional cachaça (white rum), found in Brazil's favored cocktail, the caipirinha. Locals also indulge in a drink few outsiders recognize -- tiquira, made out of manioc, while children prefer the local soda, called Jesus - pink and sweet and made from guaraná berries.
This is a journey for those who harbor a love of nature, and although the trails have already been blazed, they are not always smooth, and a modest sense of adventure is also necessary. But like the guide said, "Vale a pena."
It's worth it.
How to get there: At this time there are no direct flights to São Luis from Miami. Convenient connections may be made from gateway cities Manaus, São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. International air arrivals also qualify for the Brazil Air Pass. Check with TAM Airlines before arriving in Brazil for one of air travel's best bargains. TAM Brazilian Airlines: 305-406-2826
When to go: Best between April and September when the lagoons are still full, but you might want to avoid July when Brazilian students are on their vacation. June is breezy and the folklore festivals occur then.
Where to stay:
In São Luis: Sofitel - Avenida Avicênia, Praia do Calhau. Tel: (98) 216-4545. Brisamar - Avenida São Marcos, 12, Praia da Ponta d'Areia. Tel: (98) 212-1212.
In Barreirinhas: Pousada do Buriti -- Rua Inácio Lins Tel. (98) 349-1800 (this inn also runs the Pousada Porto do Buriti in Caburé.
Parknautico - Sitio Cantinho, km 2. Tel. (98) 349-1314
In Jericoacoara: Recanto do Barão - (Main office) Avenida Senador Virgilio Tavora 850; Tel. (85) 461- 1821.
Pousada Capitão Thomaz - (on the beach) Main office at: Avenida Monsenhor Tabosa, 663, Sala 17, Praia da Iracema, Fortaleza, Ceará. Tel: (85) 219-0107.
What to buy: Jacaranda wood carvings, wine palm crafts, hammocks, coconut fiber and hand-crochet tablecloths, cashews, sweets and liquors made of local fruits. The famous Brazilian bikinis (tangas) are incredibly cheap in most markets.
Eating and Sleeping: Eating well is a bargain. The menus list almost everything for a couple, and you'll be surprised when you realize that the lobster dinner with rice, salad, fries, and manioc is actually $6.50 a person rather than $13.00. Speaking of eating, the north of Maranhão is on the ocean, and the best choices at the restaurants are unquestionably seafood, which is always fresh and delicious. Just be aware that the shrimp always comes with heads, shell and all unless you ask for it to be cleaned.
Sleeping is also affordable. Although the international chains such as the Sofitel in São Luis, for example, are charging prices in the $95.00 range for a double at this date, the air-conditioned Brazilian inns (pousadas) like the ones we stayed in usually go for about $30.00 a night including Brazilian breakfast.
How to get around: A trip here starts in São Luis, where there are many local tour companies that take visitors to the dunes of the Lençois, but it is also possible to rent a Land Rover (comfortable for six people) complete with driver for around $220 a day. If you don't have people to share a Land Rover with you, take the local tourist van to the busy little unpaved town of Barreirinhas, a three-hour drive. There are also "aero-taxis" that you can pick up right at the São Luis airport, which for $90 per person is a good alternative to the long drive. The tour company that sells you the transportation ticket will also arrange for an inn for you to stay in Barreirinhas, which has the infrastructure to support visitors now due to the discovery of the Lençois by the eco-tourism industry, which has grown in Brazil during the past decade. We stayed at a simple but spacious air conditioned inn with a hammock in every veranda, a small pool, and an excellent breakfast buffet.