Brazil, September 2008

Getting to São Luís is surprisingly time consuming.

While it is located at the north coast of Brazil and thus should be conveniently reachable from the northern hemisphere, the best way to get there is to fly via São Paulo.

So, when you see the plane reach the northern coast of Brazil, it's another four hours southwards flight, changing planes and four more hours flying back north again.

São Luís doesn't seem to have any significant attractions, except for the beach, which, admittedly, is quite nice.

Sao Luis beach Sao Luis beach

Even the local tourist office has little more to mention than a couple of buildings with a tiled facade, but there is no real 'historical center' and the interesting buildings are usually separated from each other, except for a very small stretch of renovated buildings.

Sao Luis harbour master Historical buildings, Sao Luis Sao Luis derelict building Sao Luis derelict building Sao Luis sunset

So the most interesting things seems to be a number of traffic lights with a 'tiled' look.

Sao Luis traffic light

And one, rather small, sports stadium - whatever it is supposed to represent.

Mini-sport arena

As well as a number of fairly random clocks. (The actual time was about 7:06pm).

Sao Luis confusing clocks

If one of the more interesting things about a city are a pair of clocks that show the wrong time, it is clearly not a place loaded with touristic sights.

So, essentially, São Luís is more a 'working city' than a tourist attraction. Touristically it seems to say "Just move along, nothing to see here."

And the place to move to is the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.

It's the main attraction in the Brazilian state of Maranão and (depending of your point of view) looks like a desert.

But with water.

Mostly it fits the usual image of a desert: lots of sand and dunes, almost no vegetation, except next to an isolated oasis. But then, real deserts don't feature lakes...

In short, Lençóis Maranhenses is a desert with a rainy season. So at the beginning of the season, there is lots of rain and the valleys between the dunes will up with rain water. But since the small lakes are not interconnected and they evaporate after half a year or so, there is almost no vegetation, so the basic look remains that of a desert.

Given that I'm usually not a fan of hot climates, the Lençóis Maranhenses was quite convenient for me, since anytime you get warm, sweaty and uncomfortable when walking across the dunes, there is always a nice, cool lake nearby to for a quick swim.

The main entry point for Lençóis Maranhenses is the small town of Barreirinhas. There are a couple of places to stay directly in Barreirinhas, there's also a nice resort at the edge of town, which pretty much fulfils the stereotype of a tropical resort (except for the absence of any beach...)

Resort bungalow Resort pool Resort river side Resort bird - aggitated Resort bird - calm

I was feeling comfortably uncomfortable there - the place was quite nice, but relaxing in the pool in the middle of the night, while ordering another cocktail still seems a bit decadent to me - some undeserved luxury or guilty pleasure. But then, a couple of drinks help to soften any feeling of unease - it's quite a comfortable way of feeling guilty...

Access to the national park is via a ferry over the river and then about 10 kilometers along sandy roads with an open 4wd bus/truck before getting to the dunes.

Park sign Near the ferry landing Near the ferry landing Ferry
Sand tracks Sand tracks

And then it was time to walk among the dunes and swim in the lagoons.

Lençóis Maranhenses Lençóis Maranhenses Lençóis Maranhenses Lençóis Maranhenses
Lençóis Maranhenses Lençóis Maranhenses Lençóis Maranhenses Lençóis Maranhenses
Lençóis Maranhenses Lençóis Maranhenses Lençóis Maranhenses

On the next day, there was some time to take a boat tour down the river and follow it to the point where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Barreirinhas from the river Barreirinhas from the river Barreirinhas from the river

Most of the trees near the river are mangrove trees, and their roots make the shore look a bit like the outer wall of some ancient fortress.

Mangrove roots Mangrove roots Mangrove roots

First stop was near a small building at the edge between the river, the mangrove forest and the dunes. The main attraction were a couple of monkeys, visiting from the nearby trees. Mostly they seem to live from the remains of the coconuts the tourists consume and are probably semi-tame. They are, however, not domesticated enough to handle water bottles. I've seen one of them grab a half empty plastic water bottle that someone left unattended and then watched how the monkey tried, with obviously rising frustration, to open it. Biting the bottle didn't work and smashing it against a rock didn't help much either...

River and dunes Monkey Monkey and coconut Monkey

Next stop along the river was at the village of Mandacaru. The attraction here is a lighthouse, which provides a good view over the river, the dunes, the forest and the sea.

Mandacaru lighthouse Mandacaru lighthouse Mandacaru lighthouse Mandacaru lighthouse
View from Mandacaru lighthouse View from Mandacaru lighthouse View from Mandacaru lighthouse View from Mandacaru lighthouse

Then the boat is off to Cabure, an odd place wedged between the river and the sea. It's a place that seems unable to decide whether it's a boomtown or a ghosttown. There is a restaurant there, which probably makes good money, since all the boat tours drop their tourists there for lunch.

And that should be it. Cabure is located on a long stretch of sand and there is no real infrastructure there. Which would be fine as a day stop for tourists.

Mandacaru (which is a 'proper' small village) is just across the river, so it would make sense to have Cabure as beach during the day and then move back to Mandacaru in the evening (if you intend to stay in that area).

But someone (or several someone's) had the idea that this would be a good place for some kind of tourist resort and there are a couple groups of bungalows in Cabure. Some of them already derelict, some kept in good condition, with a swimming pool and even a bit of green nearby and some 'under construction'.

None of them did seem to have any tourists nearby. The only ones that I have seen were the ones that came with the boat tours.

I'm not sure about this, but I got the impression that it works somewhat like this.

  1. "The tourists leave a lot of money at the restaurant for lunch. We could make more money, if they also ate dinner here."
  2. "But there's no place where they can stay overnight."
  3. "So let's build a couple of bungalows and make even more money."
  4. Tourists fail to come, since there is utterly nothing there except for the beach.
  5. The place goes bankrupt.
  6. Only the restaurant remains (and a couple of derelict buildings).
  7. Wait two years and restart at 1.
  8. But it's a nice place to visit for a couple of hours during a day trip...

    Cabure ship Cabure ocean beach Cabure buildings Cabure resort
    Cabure ocean beach Cabure ocean beach Cabure river side

    I was back in Barreirinhas in time for a sightseeing flight. It started by following the river to the sea, so I could recognize most of the places, since I had been there earlier that day.

    Like the Mandacaru lighthouse.

    Mandacaru lighthouse.

    Or the buildings at Cabure.

    Cabure from above Cabure from above

    Then it was time to fly a large circle above the Lençóis Maranhenses national park.

    Lençóis Maranhenses from above Lençóis Maranhenses from above Lençóis Maranhenses from above Lençóis Maranhenses from above
    Lençóis Maranhenses from above Lençóis Maranhenses from above Lençóis Maranhenses from above Lençóis Maranhenses from above

    A number of tourists had gathered on one of the dunes to watch the sunset. I actually recognized the dune from and the lake - I had been swimming in that lake the previous day.

    Lençóis Maranhenses from above

    The busses/trucks were parking nearby, ready to bring the visitors back to Barreirinhas after the sunset.

    Lençóis Maranhenses from above

    The pilot got me back somewhat faster...

    Lençóis Maranhenses sightseeing pilot

    One more look at the ships waiting in Barreirinhas before it was time to call it a night.

    Barreirinhas ship at night

    And that's already it. It was just a short vacation and I start the long trip home on the very next day.

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