With São Luís and Alcântara behind us, it’s time to hit the highway and get exploring in this northern part of Brazil. The next logical place to visit isn’t all that far from Sâo Luís – let’s say about 4½ hours away – up in the spectacular Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.
What drew us here was seeing all the photos online of glorious lagoons dotted amongst the white dunes. We simply had to be a part of it. It was the right time of year – between July and September – after the rainy season has filled the park with crystal clear, fresh water lagoons.
Getting to Lençóis Maranhenses involves a couple of modes of transport, and there are a few towns and villages in which you can base yourself to access those blindingly white dunes.
For us it was the small and very isolated town of Santo Amaro located on the northern side of Rio Grande, where entering the town by vehicle means driving straight across the shallow river.
Our home for the next two nights was Pousada Bellas Aguas – a very basic hotel that organised a trip into Lençóis Maranhenses pretty much as soon as we arrived and got chatting to another guest.
We’d barely dropped our backpacks in the room, slapped on some sunscreen and grabbed our daypack before being whisked off in a Jeep – trundling down bumpy tracks through bush, over streams and into the sandy national park.
It was time to go for a walk – a 2-hour walk into the dunes to witness those incredible blue lagoons this national park is known for.
And then disappointment strikes.
As we walked over the dunes we noticed there was no water where there should have been. Sad, dry brown patches that were remnants of crystal clear water. Our guide said most of it had dried up – well, what we understood from his Portuguese, anyway.
Our hearts sunk and we felt beyond disappointed.
Looking on the bright side, it’s still a spectacular part of Brazil, and walking through the cooling tannin-stained Rio Grande was wonderful.
At the end of our 2-hour walk we arrived at a tiny village – welcomed by kids jumping and splashing about the shallow river beneath shady trees. The sun seemed so much more intense out here, magnified by the pure white sand that came close to charring your bare feet as you stepped out of the river.
It was time for lunch!
Pre-ordering what we wanted back at the hotel made it all easy once we arrived at Restaurante Cantinho Felicidade – a choice of meat, chicken, fried or grilled fish. All you do is take a seat, order a drink if you want one and wait for the food to arrive.
Grilled fish for me, chicken stew for Dean – plus all the usual sides. And you’ve gotta love the tiquira decanter up on the wall – just incase you have the desire to get plastered and then take another stroll into the dunes.
The final leg of the little day trip involves a walk down to the river and onto a small wooden boat. A quick 10-minute chug across a deep lagoon and you’re deposited at the base of more sand dunes.
For a second we wondered why we needed to schlepp across more dunes in the blistering sun, but when we reached the crest of the first one we could see why we were here.
Finally! A freshwater lagoon!
Our guide gave us as much time as we wanted to walk around, swim and enjoy the serenity and absolute beauty of this magical spot. That water! The colour!
Something tells me that choosing to stay somewhere like Santo Amaro do Maranhão is one way to experience a true rural Brazilian town. Plus it’s proximity to the dunes can be a favourable one for visitors.
This town is as sleepy as they come. The streets are virtually deserted, especially in the middle of the day when almost all life retreats indoors and many businesses pull down their shutters – even the small grocers.
There’s a handful of pousadas dotted about town, many of which you can visit for lunch or dinner even if you’re not staying at them. Restaurant-wise, we only spotted one in the centre of town – Restaurante Parque Nacional – which was closed on both days we were in town.
At least our trusty Ben Sorbetes stayed open for ice cream most of the day and into the evening. You need something to cool down from the intense heat outside and their coconut ice cream can do just that. Can’t ignore the other flavours, either, made with local tropical fruits.
Hello brain freeze!
They’re on the edge of town on Rua Osvaldo Cruz.
The town may seem desolate, but it sure is a feast for the eyes – and camera – with its no-holding-back use of colour on many of its buildings. Photo ops almost everywhere you look.
Dinner on both nights we were in town was at neighbouring Pousada Água Doce, virtually across the road from the ice cream joint.
The menu is your typical no-fuss Brazilian and the dishes are sized for two. You can sit and watch trashy Brazilian variety shows, football or simply take advantage of the free wifi – sipping on caipirinha, fruit juice or some seriously icy beer.
For us it was chicken on both nights. Filé de frango empanado (lightly battered breasts) and stroganoff de peito de frango – a bit of a take on the traditional. Pub-style stodge that simply fills the hole.
Getting from São Luís to Santo Amaro.
This was organised through Pousada Portas Da Amazonia in São Luís, where we stayed. Any pousada can probably do the same.
It involves a very early wake-up and 2.30 am pick-up. You’re dropped off at either the main bus depot, or a service station near the airport, like we were. It’s then a minivan journey along BR 402 to a drop-off point near the Santo Amaro turn-off. The cost for this is R$50 pp. You then wait for the Jeeps that shuttle between the highway and Santo Amaro (36 km) which costs R$20 pp.
Day-trip into Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.
We organised our trip through the pousada we stayed in – Pousada Bellas Aguas – although I’m sure any pousada wherever you stay around the national park can do the same – be it in Santo Amaro, Atins or Barreirinhas.
Cost-wise, we paid R$400 for the 5 hour trip – which is the cost of the Jeep, regardless of how full it is. The more people, the cheaper it gets per person. Added extras are lunch (about R$80) and the small boat (R$20R).
Had we known there’d be next to no lagoons in the park we would probably have avoided Lençóis Maranhenses altogether. I mean, a sand dune is a sand dune, after all. It was those lagoons we were here to see.
All in all not the cheapest outing, especially considering we had only one lagoon to see. Our advice is to call around and find out whether there are any lagoons present other than the two or three main ones, before forking out the money and only seeing sand.
Check out my short video of crossing Rio Grande into Santo Amaro.