Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil
With an area of approximately 1,500 km² (580 mi²), the only desert in Brazil suffers constant changes in its landscapes. This is caused by the action of the winds, that moves the dunes around 20 meters (65 feet)per year, and by the variations in the rainfalls. From January to July, the water of strong rains is trapped between the dunes, forming thousands of lagoons with different shades of green or blue, which are the great attraction of the region. During the second semester, the lagoons dry until Lençóis gets the real appearance of a desert.
It is amazing to see that even with the lagoons being dry during half of the year, in some of them there are fish. This happens because during the drought the roe are buried, thus hatching when the rainy season resumes.
In order to protect this incredible ecosystem, in 1981 was created the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, with 147,222 hectares. There are two small towns used as starting points for tourism.
To the east of the Lençóis is the main city that gives access to the Park, located at the border of the beautiful Preguiças river.
Almost as calm as the Preguiças river, Barreirinhas has good lodging and food options, as well as several local tourist agencies. In fact, the negative point of Barreirinhas is precisely the insistence of the salespeople of these agencies, who are hunting down clients in the streets and sometimes even following them, causing embarrassing situations for the tourists, who at certain moments only get rid of them leaving the education aside.
The tours to the lagoons can be done in the morning or afternoon, when the 4wd departs from the town and drive btetween one hour and one hour and a half through the woods and, in the rainy season, they cross lakes that even cover the hood of the cars. As soon as the 4wd arrives in the dunes, the tourists start walikng to the lagoons, one close to each other and always inviting for a refreshing swim in their incredibly clear waters.
Besides the tour to the dunes, there is another one that’s more expensive but can’t be missed: the touristic flight over the Park! Only this way it’s possible to see the vastness of Lençóis and to understand the reason why the region has that name, because when viewed from above, the dunes resemble a messy sheet (lençol) on the bed. The flight lasts between 27 and 30 minutes, but it seems much less, so fascinating than it is. You can see Caburé, Mandacaru and Atins, and from there the plane goes to the oasis region, in the center of the Park, and then it begins the return to Barreirinhas, but still flying over hundreds of lagoons, including Azul lagoon and surroundings.
Not so fascinating as the flight, but also very beautiful, is the touristic tour on Preguiças river, starting at Barreirinhas and ending at the sea, but stopping in villages like Vassouras, Mandacaru, Caburé and Atins.
In Vassouras, the big attraction is the monkeys that stand around the village waiting for food, what always make good photos. Mandacaru is known for having a beautiful lighthouse where you can climb to enjoy the view, which is beautiful but after the touristic flight, I can’t say that it is a must. Caburé, the third stop of the boats, stay between the river and the sea and is a starting point for those who want to go to Pequenos Lençóis. The last stop of the little boats is usually in Atins, another small village that serves as entrance to the Park or for those who want to cross the Lençóis by walking for three or four days, until arriving at Santo Amaro do Maranhão.
In the center of the park there are two oases, Baixa Grande and Queimada dos Britos, which are inhabited by communities of fishermen mistakenly called nomads. In fact they spend part of the year on the coast, living from fishing, and the other part in the oases, taking care of the cattle and goats that live loose by the “morrarias”, as the dunes are called by the inhabitants.
Queimada dos Britos was named after its founder, Manuel Brito, and all who live there are relatives and naturally marry each other. Despite being away from everything by a few hours of walking, it is a resting point and overnight for those who want to walk through Lençóis, but can also be known leaving Santo Amaro with a 4wd, making the return trip the same day. Important to say that private vehicles can’t enter the Park, this has to be done with some accredited jeep.
Santo Amaro do Maranhão
At the western end of the park, with access only by 4wd vehicles or boats, is Santo Amaro, a town even smaller than Barreirinhas but with some good places to spend the night and excellent tours, not only for the dunes but also for Santo Amaro lake, an important feeding and reproduction place for birds.
During the rainy season, the road between Sangue and Santo Amaro can be closed even for 4wd vehicles, but there is another option that is much more beautiful than the dirt road: go to Humberto de Campos on paved roads and take a little boat to Santo Amaro, sailing for an hour and a half among forests, mangroves, buffalo farms and, if you’re lucky, you may still see some caimans.
As the town is close to the Park, you can walk to the lagoons, but for those who don’t want to get tired, in 20 minutes the 4wd arrives in Gaivota lagoon, the most beautiful I’ve seen in my two trips!
Walking a bit further is Mr. Adelmo and Ms.Tereza house, which worth a visit not only for the beauty of the place but also to drink coconut water right from the tree and to know their lifestyle, apart from the small town.
It is a pity that there are pigs and goats in this region, running loose on the dunes, poluting them and some lagoons. Who knows, when tourism becomes a good source of income for the municipality, the animals are removed from there and taken to their own places, thus preserving the most beautiful area of Lençóis Maranhenses!
Another way to get to know Lençóis is walking. As the agencies always go to the same places, when crossing the National Park on foot you will walk for hours (or days) without seeing anybody, choosing in which lagoon you want to bathe and listening nothing else than the sound of the wind moving the dunes. How many days it takes to make the crossing will depend on your fitness and how much you want to walk per day. I did it in three and a half days, and only the last stretch was tiring, from Queimada dos Paulos to Santo Amaro.
The best time to go is undoubtedly during the flood season, but check beforehand if the lagoons have water, because in some years it doesn’t rain enough to fill the lagoons. When I went, even though it was the ideal season, there were very few lagoons and the deepest lagoon I found had only a meter and a half of water, while on my first trip behind each dune there was a lagoon and most of them more than two meters deep.
Day 1 – 8.5 km (5.3 miles)
The first day was very easy. After going down the river by boat, visiting Mandacaru and Atins, we left Canto do Atins in the middle of the afternoon and walked along the hard sand beach to Luzia restaurant, where we spend the night in an extremely simple room but with a compatible price. This restaurant is famous for its shrimp but I have to say that I didn’t find as good as they say. I don’t know if I had very high expectations for everything I’ve read, but to be honest, I know several restaurants with much better shrimp dishes, not to mention that one shrimp on my plate and another on my friend’s plate were rotten. The look of this walk doesn’t excite, as the sea in that region is brown, so in my next crossing I intend to enter the Lençóis without walking along the beach and I recommend that you do the same.
Day 2 – 19.8 km (12.3 mi)
In a normal year, you’ll find dozens of lagoons doing a short walk into the Park, but as the drought was strong during this rainy season, we went straight to Guajiru lagoon, as this is the most guaranteed lagoon among those known by the guides. For those who have never been to Lençóis before, it is a beautiful lagoon, but its Coca-Cola color and depth of only 1,5 meter (5 feet) was disappointing for those who had seen deep lagoons and crystalline blue waters in other years. Anyway, it was a good place to rest while the midday sun of Maranhão was burning. When the heat chilled a little, we headed towards Baixa Grande, first “oasis” that we would find to spend the night, but shortly before sunset I decided to climb a dune to see what was on the other side and, for our surprise, there was a beautiful lagoon, so we decided to mount the tents and sleep right there, enjoying the seclusion, the “private” lagoon and an incredibly starry sky.
Day 3 – 19,7 km (12.2 mi)
The third day started with a beautiful sunrise and then we hiked to the Baixa Grande. It’s important to say that it’s not easy to find the entrance of this oasis without having good martks, as the forest is dense. At Baixa Grande the inhabitants sell beverages and meals, there are hammocks for the hikers to rest and very simple rooms for those who want to spend the night. As it was early, we continued walking, crossed Queimada dos Britos oasis and stopped at Queimada dos Paulos, where we set up the tents in the backyard of a house and used the shower.
Day 4 – 26 km (16,1 mi)
The last day was the hardest and, as the residents of Queimada had already warned us, there was not even a lagoon until Santo Amaro. This was a surprise for me, since the Gaivota lagoon use to be large and deep, but it was completely dry. Without water to replenish the bottles and bathe, the went straight to Santo Amaro, walking even in the hottest hours, and after 26 km walking up and down the dunes, it was a relief to arrive in the town and enjoy a shade and a cold beverage. Next time that I’ll do this crossing will be with the lagoons full to enjoy even more.
Where to start: it is best to start in Barreirinhas or Atins and finish in Santo Amaro, as this way you will climb the dunes on the less steep side and the wind will throw sand on your back, not your face.
Clothes: some prefer to walk barefoot, others with sandals, but one thing is sure, tennis or boots are bad options, since when descending the dunes the foot will sink in the sand and the shoes will be full of sand. I had sandals with socks (yes, it is ugly but practical and comfortable) to protect the foot in the crossing of flooded areas, where it is not possible to see if there are stumps or thorns and the socks protected the skin of the abrasion, since there is always sand between the skin and the sandals strips. Legionnaire cap is also very useful to protect ears and neck and, when crossing some lagoon, dipt it in the water to walk some time time with the cold head. Finally, dark glasses are also important.
Drinking water: Although the lagoons are formed by rainwater, it is not good to drink them without sterilizing, as there are cows, horses and goats defecating in the sand. Take with you some Clorine or other means of sterilizing water to avoid unnecessary risk.