National Park

Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Brazil: Unknown and supernatural

(CNN) — As a visitor first lays eyes on the beautiful paradise pools that characterize Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, it wouldn’t be out of place to assume a hallucination.

Dazzling blue lagoons numbering in the thousands hide beneath towering sand dunes draped over 598 square miles. Everyone is inviting – scratch that, beg! — the travelers toil on the sand and rush into the beautiful abyss. Surely at least one imagined version of the sky takes place in a scene similar to this.

Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses National Park may not seem real to the uninitiated, but this phenomenal park, shot live 2,662 km north of Rio de Janeiro in the state of Maranhão, is neither a mirage nor a film set. It’s both one of the most spectacular sandscapes in the world – otherworldly dunes broken only by cerulean lagoons that dot the sandy hillsides between March and September – and one of the least beaten in the world.

Rio, the Iguaçu Falls and the Amazon are by far the most visited destinations in Brazil. Brazil’s northern state, Maranhão, only makes itineraries for the most dedicated Brazilophiles.

Freshwater pools are seasonal. Water levels are low from November to January.

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Those who venture this far north often combine a visit to Lençóis Maranhenses with a visit to the historic colonial center of Maranhão’s capital, São Luis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 150 miles to the west. of the park. Here, many restored buildings are adorned with detailed Portuguese decorative ceramic tiles (known as azulejos).

Another interesting addition is the small village of Alcântara, located across the bay of Sâo Marcos from São Luis, a wonderfully cinematic step back in time that is home to a mix of preserved mansions, houses and churches, in ruins and restored. on artistic intersecting cobblestones. The village is also home to colonies of scarlet ibises (guaras), which color the surroundings in vivid scarlet at sunrise.

Lencois is the Portuguese word for sheets, which sounds like a weird name for a national park, until you see the expanse of a drone. Seen from the sky, the landscape gives the appearance of rolling leaves resting on the most picturesque waterbed in the world.

In addition to the lagoons, the park is also home to beaches, mangroves and fascinating wildlife (turtles and migratory birds among them).

Freshwater lagoons

The dramatic scene that characterizes the protected area is the result of sedimentary deposits transported towards the Atlantic Ocean by two rivers – the Parnaíba and the Preguiças – which are then pushed up to 31 miles inland by strong winds in dry season.

Despite appearances, the Lençóis Maranhenses receive too much rainfall to be considered a desert. In fact, it is the rain that forms the freshwater lagoons, which cannot drain due to the impermeable rock under the sand. The phenomenon is usually the most beautiful from July to August.

Getting to the Lençóis Maranhenses is not a simple task.

The easiest way is to fly to São Luis’ Marechal Cunha Machado International Airport, from which four daily buses make the five-hour trip east to the small riverside town of Barreirinhas, the main gateway entrance of the Lençóis Maranhenses. Santo Amaro, a less popular access point 3.5 hours drive east of São Luís, also offers park entry infrastructure.

Thousands of mostly deserted freshwater lagoons attract swimmers.

Thousands of mostly deserted freshwater lagoons attract swimmers.

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The most adventurous way is to cross land from Jericoacoara, the Ceará state hotspot, about 240 miles east of Barreirinhas, using a combination of buggies and public transport.

Besides its size, the park’s isolation at the tip of Brazil means this South American Eden is incredibly uncrowded. Excursion options in the park include multi-day hikes, scenic flights, skydiving (August only) and, most often, day trips by 4×4.

Whether you’re heading into the vast expanse on two feet or on four wheels, you’ll never have to worry about kicking someone else around full of sand.

A park just for you

Organized tours in the park will always include the most famous lagoon, the Blue Lagoon, but finding other cobalt cradles in which to bathe away from tour groups should be your goal.

Ask your guide to avoid the other tour groups and find your own private paradise. Few things are as satisfying as having a crystal clear freshwater pool all to yourself after traversing piles of sand dunes in the midday sun.

There are two isolated villages among the dunes. Caburé, 104 km northeast of Barreirinhas, is little more than a sandy peninsula between the river and the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s a popular lunch destination for those taking river trips, but spending the night there really feels like a discovery. You won’t be sharing the sand with more than a few tourists, if that, after the day trippers have left. The handful of rustic restaurants and inns, called pousadascan almost look like a ghost fishing village at sunset.

Atins is a privileged place to spend a night among the dunes.

Atins is a privileged place to spend a night among the dunes.

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Atins is a larger village spread out amid dune vegetation that is home to a large foreign population and several charming pousadas. The advantage of going this far – it’s about a 3.5 hour passenger boat trip along the river from Barreirinhas – is that you can access much more remote areas of the park. Atins is also an idyllic windswept oasis to waste a few days or hide out and write a novel.

Both villages make a fantastic base from which to enjoy the park for several days, setting off on short daily excursions to remote lagoons and returning each evening to enjoy lovely sunsets and incredibly fresh seafood dinners.

Caburé and Atins are accessible via the Preguiças River from Barreirinhas. The waterway, the most scenic entryway to the Lençóis Maranhenses, is lined with mangroves, sand dunes and expanses of exotic palms (including acai, Amazonian palms which are one of the most popular treats tastiest in Brazil).

Navigating the twists and turns of the river through such surreal landscapes is a perfect way to bask on the northern limits of Brazil. Fittingly, the river’s name means “lazy” in Portuguese.