In May this year I found myself packing my bags and jetting off to one of my favourite countries, Brazil. I flew direct on TAM Airlines from London Heathrow to Rio de Janeiro. Having not been back in four years, fond memories of caipirinhas, agua de coco (ice cold fresh coconut water) and dancing the night away came flooding back. Staying at the illustrious Copacabana Palace, I enjoyed a fantastic buffet breakfast before setting to work and exploring this magnificent city. I took the Jeep Tour to the Tijuca National Park, the protected forest that surrounds the city. The open top 4x4 journey was a great way to see the city and the park itself is beautiful and offers some stunning views of Rio. The entire forest was planted by hand in the 19th century by 6 slaves over 13 years and is roughly 3,200 hectares. It is a great tour and I would highly recommend it to both first time and repeat visitors.
I then caught a flight to São Luís on the north-east coast in the state of Maranhão. There are direct flights from Rio on both TAM and GOL airlines (some touch down in Fortaleza) and takes around 3 ½ hours. The old, colonial part of town is the place to stay. The local government has been working alongside UNESCO to regenerate the old town, but the effort to preserve and maintain the beautiful tiled buildings, influenced by architects from Portugal, Holland and France, is proving difficult. Heavy rains during the first half of the year and baking heat in the summer as well as determining rightful ownership are holding things up a little, but work is progressing. There are a few quirky hotels in this part of the town and rapid development as well as expansion of industry has seen São Luís grow both outwards and upwards. There are high rise buildings and hotels being built in all corners of the city and business is clearly booming for this important costal town.
The main reason people visit São Luís is to access the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park and the beginning of what is called the Rota das Emoções which literally translated means ‘The Route of Emotions’. Driving south-east from São Luís (around 3-4 hours) you eventually end up in the small town of Barrarinhas, the gateway into the park. A 4x4 is the best option for getting you into the park and it is only possible to go so far as vehicles are not allowed on the dunes, so the journey continues on foot. The white sand reflects the sun so walking bare foot is quite pleasant. As the wind pushes the sand across the dunes, it almost feels that the ground beneath you is alive and your footprints are blown away in moments. Striking blue lagoons of rain water break up the dunes, some large enough to swim in, and are at their fullest during July and August, after the rainy season. It is a unique part of the world and I feel privileged to have witnessed such a spectacle and challenge anyone not to be impressed by its’ beauty.
The following morning I embarked on a trip down the Preguiças River, which divides the Lençóis Maranhenses and Baharinhas, to the Atlantic Ocean. There were various stops along the way, such as the dunes of Vassurasa, where the monkeys are both plentiful and reasonably tame and the impressive lighthouse at Mandacaru which offers spectacular views of river and the ocean. We had lunch on the Cabure peninsula, just across the river from the lighthouse. The facilities on the peninsula are basic but the beach is breathtaking. It is barren and expansive; there are a few windswept shacks, sea and sand. When one thinks of the beach, this is not the first thing that springs to mind but I could not help but be impressed by the seemingly never ending and virtually uninhabited coastline.
My visit to Brazil was both insightful and refreshing and I can safely say that the far reaches of north-east Brazil are well off the beaten track and well worth visiting for the discerning traveller looking for an authentic Brazilian experience. I would suggest that the best way to get around this part of Brazil is with an English speaking local guide. There is little English spoken as tourism in Maranhão is still a relatively fresh industry, so a little local knowledge and help each step of the way will make for a fascinating trip. Brazil is such a vast and wonderful country, each time I go back it is a totally new experience and I know there is still plenty more to discover.