Northern Brazil tour: from São Luís to Guariju

IMMEDIATE BOARDING TO NORTHERN BRAZIL!

Brazil is a country very dear to my heart. Since somewhere during my teens, I’ve been wanting to go explore this magnificent country. I’ve even envisioned to live there once my postgraduate studies were over. Well, life doesn’t always go according to the plan and I moved to the Netherlands instead ! Slightly different place…

But not living in Brazil doesn’t stop me from going there for vacations. And this is what I did last year which was my third trip in the country. I had previously been to Rio de Janeiro and Salvador de Bahia in June 2012 and to São Paulo in December 2013. Now I was really keen on setting a foot in Lençóis Maranhenses, one of the most gorgeous and protected deserts on earth.

With 7 other girls, we started a 2-week journey that took us from São Luís to Guariju (one hour drive from Fortaleza).

Map of North Brazil

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SÃO LUIS

Our journey starts in the capitale of the Maranhão state, São Luís, during the São João celebrations. São Luís was founded by Frenchmen in 1612. The city was then called “Saint-Louis de Marangan” before it was taken by the dutchmen and portuguese people. This gives São Luís an unique cultural mix. The city, as the country, finally became independent in 1822.

The city is home to a million inhabitants split in two major parts: the charming centro historico with old building covered in azulejos (this part is recognized as a World Heritage Site) and the new city with its dormitory buildings.

As we are not staying long, we focus our visit to the city center starting with the barocco cathedrale da Sé, built by the jesuits in 1676 but entirely renovated in 1922.

We continue our walk to the Lion Palace which dates back to 1612. It used to be the Saint-Louis fort, in tribute to the French king Louis XVIII, before it became the government house in 1776. Unfortunately we cannot go inside .

By lunchtime, we arrive at the market where dry salty shrimps, cashews and other local products are being sold. We eat a good plate of fish and tapioca there before moving on to the casa do Maranhão, the place to go to learn more about the Bumba meu boi legend. The story tells the tale of a young pregnant woman called Catirina who was working on a farm. Because she was craving for the tongue of a beef, she insisted on her husband Chico to kill the animal of the farm’s owner. Relunctantly the spouse complied with the request. But luckily he also managed to ressuscitate the beef with magical incantations! Everyone was happy 🙂

The carnaval-like parade of Bumba meu boi starts late in the afternoon. Dressed in colorful costumes, members of the cortege dance driven by the sound of Zabumbas and maracas. Everybody gathers up to enjoy the music and the fireworks but it seems the younger generation is less taking part to the local dancing groups. Maybe the folklore and traditions are losing ground…

  • Crab alcohol in Brazil - Brésil
    Who wants to try crab liquor? / Vous prendrez bien de l'alcool de crabe?

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BARREIRINHAS

Early in the morning we hit the road to Barreirinhas, a quiet small village on the Rio Preguiças. The river shows a color graduation from ochre to red to black. But it’s very safe to swim in according to our brazilian french-speaking guide, who praises her native region by opposing it to the dangerous Amazonia!

We’re going to spend 7 days with her, until we reach Jericoacoara. No time to lose: she’s already taking us to the Lençóis desert! We’re going on one-hour bumpy ride across a forest with private 4×4 that makes us laugh as much as it’s hurting our butts.

All of sudden we stop by a very tall dune…the starting point of the desert. Its ascension is steep but done in less than 10 minutes. What a breathtaking view on top of it! Looking over your shoulder, you see a wide green territory while looking in front of you is the sight of endless white dunes.

After a few minutes’ walk (cars are not allowed inside in an effort to preserve the park), we stop by a shallow transparent laguna made of rain. We stay there for the rest of the afternoon, bathing and discussing. Although the sand is warm, it doesn’t burn our feet. An easy breaze gently takes it away.

When the sun is about to set, we walk back to the park entry to admire the show with the other groups. We are all so amazed that most of us end up clapping in joy!

The next morning a private boat takes us along the Rio Preguiças. Our first stop is right in the middle of the river: a dune emerges thanks to the low tide. It’s an incredible feeling to stand circled but not touched by water.

For lunch we take a break in Vassouras, another set of dunes which hosts a small restaurant and many playful monkeys. We then navigate to Mandacaru to climb its lighthouse and admire the view on the marina. Time to leave for the hotel.

  • The colorful river in Barreirinhas - Brazil - Brésil
    The colorful river of Rio Preguiças / La rivière plein de couleurs de Rio Preçuiças

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ATINS

Picture an island except not deserted! It is full of small houses but the roads remain in sand and can be walked on by foot, with a car or by horse. Welcome to Atins!

Our hotel is a pousada kindly rebaptised pousada prisão, for its orange brickwalls that make the rooms look like a prison!

The first day is free and we decide to go lay on the beach. I must say that sadly the wind is too strong to lay down for a tanning session. During the evening we are welcomed into Toca dos Kurumins, a center for the fishermen’s children managed by Carmen. That night the kids show us their best dances and we even take part in the farandole! A nice moment that makes us smile.

Second day in Atins, second visit to Lençóis! This time our group divides itself into two to arrive to the park: one going by car, one riding horses. We are all by ourselves in the dunes that day, no other groups. And we discover other types of lagunas, with a gradient blue to green color. We relax in the waters before having lunch in a small restaurant outside the park where we order an insane amount of grilled local shrimps. The memory of it just waters my mouth!

Once we’re back in Atins, we spend the evening in a bar inside a wooden wreck. The atmosphere is fantastic: a group of young south american musicians is playing guitar songs. The party goes on until very late. This is one of my best moments during the journey!

  • Windy beachfront in Atins -  Brazil - Brésil
    Beachfront in Atins / Plage à Atins

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TUTOIA

Time to hit the road again. We drive to the beach of Cabure where a boat is taking us to Tutóia, the entry of the delta das Américas.

Once arrived at the hotel, we have lunch and rest by the swimming pool. A huge wreck is stationed on the beach. With the rising tide, it’s half-covered in only one hour.

Around 4 p.m we take a smaller boat to explore the mangrove and observe the Scarlet ibis. These big flashing birds are flying back to the nest at sunset. We are quietly admiring the beautiful animals but revigorated by the speed at which the boat is then taking us back to the hotel.

  • Church in Tutoia -  Brazil - Brésil
    Church in Tutoia / Eglise à Tutoia

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CAMOCIM

Like yesterday we go to the mangrove on a boat. We stop to meet wild hairy crabs.

Going down the Delta das Américas, we stop over lunch to savour…fried crab claws! Delicious!

By the end of the afternoon we arrive by car in Camocim. This town has no real interests but it’s a pure delight to stay at Casa de São José. I liked it so much that I dedicated a blogpost to it. 🙂

The next day we depart in private buggys in the direction of Jericoacoara national park. We are going through Guriú fishing beach, located between Camocim et Tatajuba, to watch seahorses.

The lunchbreak takes place with our feet in the water! We order fresh fishes to be grilled while we’re being eaten ourselves by tiny fishes, tickling our toes. A savage pig walks around in the hope of eating leftovers!

That night we stay in Jericoacoara.

  • Fish for lunch -  Brazil - Brésil
    Fresh fish for lunch / Poisson frais au déjeuner

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JERICOACOARA

Jeri” is a thriving seaside area, well-known by kitesurfers. I believe it’s so popular because you can have a variety of experiences there: watching the sunset on a dune, walking around on a sandy village, explore the dunes with buggys etc…

Jericoacoara is much more developed for tourism than the places we’ve been through before in Northern Brazil. The place is filled with bars, restaurants (including a French bakery!) and shops. Exactly what a lot of Brazilians tourists like. Do Paraiso beachclub (pictured in the cover) looks like a beachclub from Saint-Tropez.

  • Paraiso club -  Brazil - Brésil
    Paraiso beach club

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GUARIJU

After partying in Jericoacoara during which many sorts of caipirinhas were involved, our last stop brings us to the quiet town of Guariju. Our hotel faces the ocean and has its own in-house spa located on an elevated wooden deck. It is the perfect place to chill before hopping on the flight back home. I actually prefer this to Jericoacoara and would have stayed longer.

I go for one last stroll on the beach during sunset. Kids are playing football, a dad drives a motobike with his son sitting on his lap…but I feel like I’m the only one here. The decompression of the trip continues with a massage and a feast of lobsters with my friends!

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This trip will remain on my mind for a long time because it was truly a discovery of the nature in Brazil. It was like we were seeing new territories, even though we know we were on beaten tracks. The region is booming to welcome more tourists. So I firmly believe that we went there at the right moment, before it’s invaded by mass tourism.

  • Chill time in Guariju -  Brazil - Brésil
    Chill time in Guariju / Repos à Guariju

Good to know before you go

  • Most of the tourists are coming from France, Italy and since a few years Germany. Guides who speak these languages can easily be hired. Since english is not widely spoken there, that is the most viable choice.
  • To be on the safe side, bring more cash with you before the trip or when you have the occasion at ATMs. The VISA card does not work in many banks. Even the developed Jericoacoara has no bank and you have to exchange your currencies into BRL…at the supermarket with a high rate!
  • If you don’t feel like being eaten by mosquitos, invest in a tropical anti-mosquito spray. The usual ones are not strong enough to repulse them!