Mother Nature has proven many a time she’s the best artist there is. This time we are to admire one of her best pieces of artwork: a surreal sandscape with undulating white dunes interrupted by cerulean freshwater lagoons. Water is undeniably one of her favorite brushes, and she’s been enviably generous to the fifth largest country on the planet.
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park on the north Atlantic coast of Brazil is an unreal place absolutely worth visiting. It’s a huge protected area, larger than the city of São Paulo, full of sand dunes and rainwater lagoons that have formed amidst the dunes thanks to the tropical rainforest climate.
Surrounded by the ocean on one side and lush green woodlands on the other, Lençóis Maranhenses is not an actual desert. In the dry season, the sand is carried miles inland by high winds forming the smooth white dunes. And during the rainy season, the freshwater lagoons are formed due to the impervious layer of rock beneath the sand. As the rainwater is unable to drain, starting from February, the gaps between the dunes fill up creating an unusual desert landscape.
The scenery is at its best from June to August when all the lagoons are full of water (above image from interwebs), nonetheless, a visit to this outlandish place is worth any time of the year. Luckily some of the lagoons are permanent, plus you can experience the fun part despite the lack of seasonal lagoons: running down the steep and high sand dunes and climbing back up 🙂
How to visit the dunes
Getting to the dunes is an adventure in itself, as the national park is far far away from anything else a regular tourist would want to visit in Brazil. The town of Barreirinhas in the state of Maranhão is the gateway to the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses. The nearest airport is in the state capital São Luís, which is presumably where’ll you land, unless you’re a backpacker traveling all across the country.
Just for the record, São Luís is the only city built by the French in Brazil. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but don’t expect to find a well-preserved colonial architecture. Just like anywhere else in Northern Brazil, this city too is pretty run-down. Thus I would not plan on spending time in the city itself, unless absolutely necessary. From São Luís you can get to Barreirinhas by public transport (4-5 hours) or you can book one-day or multi-day trips directly from São Luís (airport pick up/drop off available).
Roads in this part of Brazil weren’t in great shape
As we wouldn’t have saved much if we went on our own, we booked a 2 days/1 night trip through our guesthouse in São Luís. Let me briefly recap what each day was like and what you can expect from an organized tour.
2D/1N Organized Tour from São Luís
Lençóis Maranhenses Adventure Day 1
The day begins early in São Luis picking up the guests. A bumpy bus ride of 5 hours and a flat tire later we arrive in Barreirinhas, where we transfer to 4×4 vehicles around 2 p.m. To reach the dunes, we first cross the river on a barge.
And lastly, a 45-minute bumpy ride on sandy terrain is the only obstacle left before admiring the dunes and taking a dip in the lagoons.
This marvelous place is our playground for a few hours until sunset. With the setting sun, we return the same way back to Barreirinhas and head over to a riverside restaurant for dinner. All we had was merely a couple of hours at the national park, but it was SO worth it.
Lençóis Maranhenses Adventure Day 2
Today on agenda is the natural pools and sand dunes at Pequenos Lençóis, which literally means “Little Lençóis”. But before that, we cruise a tranquil section of the Preguiças River with myriads of tropical trees and vegetation along its shoreline.If we hadn’t had our fair bit of lush green scenery while traversing the entirety of the Amazon River over the course of a couple of weeks, we would have considered this boat tour a lovely morning cruise. But I rather remember that we departed the port pretty late.
The main mode of transportation today is by speedboat, and we sprint to our next stop, namely the Little Lençóis in Vassouras. The color of sand at Pequenos Lençóis is golden, and with the clouds in the sky, the scenery just looks like the desert version of Microsoft Windows’ classic desktop background.
After playing around here a little, we head to our last stop: Caburé village, a stretch of sand engulfed by the river on one side, and the ocean on the other.
The village is also where the tourists and capuchin monkeys get their lunch. Later in the afternoon, we transfer back to our guesthouse in São Luis.
All in all, it was a quick discovery tour of this breathtaking corner of the world. Normally we would go on our own, but as we were to fly out of São Luis instead of continuing along the coast overland, taking a tour seemed like the best option. In retrospect, we should have just booked the transfer portion of the tour and explored the region at our own pace. Regardless, I’m over the moon that we made the effort to see the fascinating phenomenon even though it was January (2019). Here is the proof in motion 🙂
The contrast between white sand dunes and blue waters creates a captivating scenery making the Lençóis Maranhenses easily one of the most unique places to visit in Brazil. And without a doubt, I’d love to come back to admire this beauty in the prime season, over and again.