With another decade of life down, I decided to celebrate by visiting one of the top places on my travel bucket list: the Lençóis (Portuguese for “bed sheets”), a screen saver-worthy idyllic paradise that always seemed to be so unreachable.
You’ve probably never heard of this place, but you have definitely seen it on your computer or tv screensaver. It is undoubtedly one the most incredible places on Earth! It’s located in a little-known state in the north of Brazil called Maranhão, once colonized by Portugal, France and Holland.
But the real secret – which I hesitantly divulge since its solitude and virginity are what make it such a dreamy spiritual retreat – is that this paradise is no longer as inaccessible as it once was. And despite wanting to spend 1 month there, it is possible to visit the entire park, including the three villages that surround it, in just 4 or 5 days.
The most important ingredient that goes into making this unique landscape is the rain that comes at the beginning of the year which provides May, June, July (and with luck, August and September) with many deep lagoons. Yes, it’s not like this the whole year, just during Brazil’s “winter”.
To visit the national park, you have to fly to São Luís (3 hours flight from Rio or São Paulo) and then drive a few hours from the states’s capital. Most travelers go straight to the park from the airport, but I chose to spend some time in the city. While the city could stand to be a bit cleaner and safer, São Luis has beautiful colonial architecture, interesting cultural aspects and a unique local cuisine, which I personally love! June and July are also the season of popular festivities which decorate the city with colorful flags.
The best streets to explore the old center are Estrela and Portugal.
If you happen to spend some time there, you must go to Cabana Del Sol restaurant in the Litoranea neighborhood and try their Carne-de-sol, Portuguese for “sun-dried meat” or quite literally “meat of sun”. This famous Northeastern Brazilian dish consists of heavily salted beef, which is exposed to the sun for one or two days to cure, and served grilled. Their side dishes – yuca puree, beans (feijão carreteiro), cuxá rice and plantains – are also to die for!
Look at the size of this beef!!!
There are 3 main villages on the outskirts of the 1,500 km2 (580 sq mi) park. The first and hardest to get to (but closest to the best landscape) is SANTO AMARO:
In order to arrive in the park by the next day we had to leave São Luis around 3 am in a comfortable van in order to catch a not-very-comfortable 4×4 vehicle by 6am in an intersection village called Sangue while the sun is rising.
From there, after another 1hr 15min of bumpy dirt roads, we arrived in Santo Amaro. The whole travel time, including time to switch vehicles, is almost 5hrs.
This is the guy to call to arrange all that:
Denílson: (98) 988089190
Don’t expect much comfort or luxury from the transportation or the lodging (bed and breakfasts called pousadas). Santo Amaro is a very simple and somewhat poor village. But trust me, you will be thankful for the remoteness of this place once you have a whole lagoon only to yourself!
This vehicle, very popular in the area is called Jardineira.
Note: There are no hotels inside the park; it is a protected reserve. There are only two communities consisting of a few families living in existing oases in the middle of the park. If you are looking for a real adventure, it’s possible to spend the night in one of those family’s houses, with a hammock as your bed.
Unfortunately, we were only able to make part of a tour in the afternoon. So we spent a few hours before walking around the town, which has a river as its main highlight and not much else. Due to the lack of dining options, we basically had all our evening meals in the Pousada (B&B) where we stayed.
Santo Amaro has 15,000 inhabitants, most of the town is connected by dirt roads, and, of the 3 cities by the park, it is the closest to the park border.
And now let’s get to the point!!!
On the day we arrived, the tourism cooperative of Santo Amaro had just been inaugurated- before that, all the tours were booked by the inns, which already had their partner drivers and guides.
It seems like a really cool idea, but tours only happen if the minimum number of people is reached!!! So, if you have bad luck like we did, you might arrive at 7am in the morning to enjoy a whole day in the park but only get a tour at 3 in the afternoon if not enough people are there.
When we finally started driving through the park, it was like we were transported to a different planet.
The standard tour consists of two of the main lagoons in the area, beginning with the Gaivotas, the only place on the whole trip where we actually saw a large group of people (with the essential beach apparatus):
And then Andorinhas lagoon, deeper and longer:
After one hour absorbing this beauty and floating in the warm fresh water, it was time to see a spectacle of a sunset.
Wait!! Did you say Fresh Water, Gabi?!
Yes, I did!
Although the park is bordered by the sea, the lagoons are made of fresh water. When it rains, the water table underneath the dunes saturates and water rises between the dunes to form these natural pools.
Therefore, although it looks like a desert, but we can not truly say that it is.
After the tour, we made a strategic stop in the town square to refresh ourselves with ice cream made of fruit native to the region.
The next day, we decided not to count on the cooperative to avoid any risk of an unfilled tour again and hired a private guide with an ATV***, with allowed us the freedom and autonomy stop and explore wherever we wanted.
By now we were already overwhelmed by the scenery and could hardly imagine that the best was still yet to come!!
We didn’t even want to leave footprints and mess with this flawless place.
There are hundreds of lagoons, most without names. Yet, some of them are worthy of one, such as Lagoa Bela – Portuguese for “lovely lagoon”:
Around noon, when the sun is strongest (there are no trees so no shade, obviously, and the sun reflects off everything), we went to visit a family who lives by the river on the edge of the park and produces yucca flour.
They peel mounds of manioc by hand – not with a peeler, but with a knife! – chatting and listening to the radio.
Then they grate it all – by hand – and place the dough aside in this “machine”, which tightens it until all water is drained.
More organic and hand made then this? Impossible!!!
Oh, did I mention that yuca is gluten free? ;-P
From there we continued along the river until lunch:
On the menu: goat in coconut milk and fresh fish cooked in Marcia’s simple house/restaurant.
Lunch was great, but that nap in the hammock afterwards overlooking the mangrove was even better!!!
When the sun was no longer as strong – around 3pm – we returned to the park, this time to see two other famous lakes southeast of Santo Amaro, the Betânia Lagoon (named after the nearby village):
What a life!!!!
Even the lagoons drying out have their charm:
And then we arrived at my favorite spot of the whole trip, one I had not read about on any travel blog, the captivating Murici Lagoon:
A paradise on Mars:
Where we made this video that somehow made its way onto the web:
I dream of this dive every day!!!
At dusk, the dunes become another color:
The next day, we decided to go to Atins, the other village with access to the park and the ocean. Normally, we would have to return to Sangue on the same 4×4 we took to Santo Amaro, then take a van to Barreirinhas – the 3rd city with access to the park – and from there take a boat going up a river to Atins. An odyssey that would last the whole day!!
Luckily, our guide offered to cross through the park (not around it), which gave us extra time to see all the main lagoons in 3 days. It’s also possible to cross the park by foot, sleeping in one of the oasis communities, along the way, but we left this for the next trip.
That day, we passed trough the Grande (“Big”) Lençóis area, northeast of Santo Amaro.
The difference in size and volume of these lagoons from the ones we saw before is remarkable.
The main lagoons on this side are the Lagoa das Emendadas (which consists of two merged lagoons that form an island in the center):
There is no picture that can illustrate the magnitude of this place!
The beautiful Lagoa das Pedras, which has an islet formed by a part of the dune that descended:
And the Lagoa dos Britos, adjacent to the oases community Quebrada dos Britos, where there are approximately 12 families who live off fishing and breeding of goats and other animals that walk freely through the dunes.
There was no time to visit the community so we cut over to the beach and drove along the coastline until the Canto (“Corner”) de Atins, where stopped for a proper Brazilian lunch at Antônio, famous for its – divine – grilled open shrimp.
The shrimp really lives up to the fame and the service is very fast, perhaps because they’re used to the loads of hungry visitors arriving by 4x4s from Atins and Barreirinhas. Next to it, there are some more heavenly hammocks to aid digestion!!
From there we got a ride to the village of Atins (which is about a 20min drive away), much smaller than Santo Amaro, where the roads are sand. While Atins is also a simple town where most B&Bs do not have hot water, the presence of foreign investments is already noticeable. There are many inns and restaurants managed by Europeans. Besides the proximity to the sheets, Atins also attracts many kite-surfers due to its perfect steady-wind condition.
We stayed in the super cozy and charming Flamboyant Pousada, which made up for its lack of luxury with a beautiful well kept garden and artsy bungalows decorated with mosaics by the owner, a local resident.
At night we had an excellent pizza at Pizza Bella and for dessert the wonderfully creamy Bacuri ice cream at Sorveteria de Dora!
Do not forget to try the flavors of the various fruits of the northeast and, especially, to honor local artisans and workers like the super-cute Dona Dora, who makes the ice cream in her house and sells them for unbelievable 2 reais (0.60 USD) !!!!!! (Please, tip her 10!!)
The next day we went to see the lagoons around Atins and instead of wandering among so many, we asked a guide to leave us where they were the most beautiful and fullest and stayed there for few hours. The great difference of the lagoons in this piece is in the coloring. While the lagoons near Santo Amaro are Caribbean – with fine white sand, turquoise blue water – here the sand is a little more yellowish and the water is greener. So much so that the main lagoon on that side is the green lagoon.
And yet incredibly beautiful!
Leaving the park, we went again to the corner of Atins, this time for lunch in Luzia’s restaurant, a pioneer in the region and in the famous shrimp, but which today shares the fame with her brother Antonio who took away the secret of the recipe and a large portion of the clientele.
Luzia’s was much more empty, the environment is a bit more homy, the shrimp the same delight but does not come in the shell, where it loses some of it’s “charm”.
Another major point is that her place does not accept credit card.
If in doubt of which one to go, I assure you that they are both amazing.
In my opinion, Antonio was the entrepreneur, a business man who knew how to take advantage of the tourism demand, investing in infra-structure and maintaining a good relationship with the guides and drivers (it is clear that they prefer to take the tourists to Antonio) and Luzia, a humble super talented cooker that made the shrimp fame be what it is!
On the same day, at 2pm we took the speedboat to Barreirinhas by the Preguiça river. The transportation costs 50 reais per person, there are 4×4 that also do the transport for cheaper, but besides taking longer, they only leave early in the morning.
The landscape on the banks of the Preguiças is beautiful, the river is wide and the mangrove trees are very high. The journey takes about 1 hour.
Let me warn you: Barreirinhas is not a beautiful or charming town. Disorganized growth and the focus on tourism are evident, but there are many service options and restaurants. (All the banks and even a Subway – wait! The sandwich chain!!!)
Already a bit tired of home food (the gringo never ate so much rice and beans in life) we got delighted with the great temaki of the Bambu restaurant, on the river side deck.
One of our favorite dishes of this trip was the pastry/empanada – pastel in portuguese – of sun-dried meat accompanied by pepper jelly. Be sure to try it!
For the 5th and final day of our trip, we had planned for early in the morning a visit to the Azul and Bonita lagoons – the most famous ones of that part – but how surprised were we to find out that there were no tourism companies at all (and there are hundreds there) that could do a quick trip to those. We could only join big groups tour, arriving back in town too late for our flight back to Rio.
So, not wanting to “lose” one morning, we decided to take the ultra-light plane ride.
Dear, it is not cheap! But it’s well worth it!
That was when we truly realized the magnitude of the park that has simply 270 km of perimeter, measuring 25 km from the sea to the country-side!
Endless beauty, literally!!!
Picture-frame-perfect that made all the way to our walls in New York! 🙂
From Barreirinhas to the airport there are 260km and some transportation alternatives:
Cisne Branco bus (51,00 reais – with 4 departures during the day), vans scheduled with tour companies (price varies and the schedule is usually fixed), or taxi from the cooperative that is located in the main square (60.00 reais per person if the car reaches 4 people. If not, you may have to pay for the additional place if they do not find other people to share. It is the fastest alternative and with more flexibility.
It took 3hrs and a half to the airport)
Final considerations: With a new road being constructed to Santo Amaro, it will be less “only for adventurers”. It is worth leaving the comfort aside because there, in Santa Amaro, is the true paradise!
If you still want to base yourself in Barreirinhas, for the convenience, do not forget to take the tour to Atins!
It is worth mentioning that because this is a natural formation, the lagoons change in size and volume each year. Perhaps the best ones of my year, will not be yours, as well as ponds I had heard, I have not visited because they were already dry. The same applies to prices.
I will make it very clear here that we knew that the use of such a vehicle in the park should be used only by residents of the communities who live in Britos or Baixa Grande, but many tourists use tours like this because there are no other alternatives in that area.
There is inspection and more possibilities to explore the park around Barreirinhas, where there are several tourism companies and consequently, exploitation of the labor.
Our guide, born and raised in Santo Amaro, knows the park inside out and with his eyes closed. Without GPS, took us to the most incredible places my eyes have ever seen. I was happy to know that his ATV was bought in the capital with his own sweat and tears and with our tour we were helping with the high benefits of the loan that he took to the such. I do not feel myself financing something wrong, but financing the freedom of a worker who, if it were not for my ride, would be willing to earn a minimum rate of profit from the means of transportation. For protection to him, I will not divulge his contact or name name here.
I believe and hope that after few months of working cooperative, the ways of exploring the Park around Santo Amaro will be more organized.