Imagine this: You’re lying in the sand, and in front of you lies a crystal-blue lagoon. You look around; the white sanded dunes surround you without signs of civilization. Your tour guides have prepared an afternoon snack with fruits, iced tea, and other tropical delicacies. You are tired from sandboarding earlier, and all you want to do is rest on the shore of this lagoon until you go up the dunes to watch the sunset.
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That’s in the northeast of Brazil, at Lençóis Maranhenses.
Although Brazil is widely known for its beaches, Carnaval, and the Amazon, it hides mesmerizing wonders that only the bold are willing to explore. Stretching along the northeastern coast of Brazil, the Lençóis Maranhenses is unlike any other place on Earth. Vast, white dunes blend with turquoise freshwater lagoons to create a surreal landscape that offers a unique adventure.
Last year, my family and I decided to explore one of the most remote and beautiful natural wonders I’ve ever seen, and here I plan on sharing my experience and some tips for you to visit as well.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to visit Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses.
The best time to visit Lençóis Maranhenses is between May and September, following the rainy season. During these months, right after heavy rainfall, the dunes are surrounded by filled lagoons. While the days can be warm and sunny, the temperatures are generally pleasant, and the filled lagoons offer a refreshing respite. This window also allows travelers to witness the park’s full glory while engaging in activities like swimming, lagoon hopping, and stargazing on clear nights.
The ideal duration for a visit to Lençóis Maranhenses largely depends on the depth of exploration and activities you wish to pursue. However, for most travelers, a stay of 3 to 4 days is recommended, so you can do all activities with time, get to know the local culture, and still relax by the lagoons.
Exploring the magical dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses is a journey worth taking, but getting there requires some planning. First, you must fly into São Luís’ Marechal Cunha Machado International Airport (SLZ). This is the nearest major airport to Lençóis Maranhenses. Numerous domestic airlines serve São Luís, connecting it to major Brazilian cities like Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Brasilia. Once you’re there, there are plenty of ways to get to the Lençóis:
- By Air: You can book a smaller connecting flight to Barreirinhas. These flights can be a quick and efficient way to reach the park’s entrance, though they are subject to weather conditions.
- By Bus: Several bus companies offer daily routes from São Luís to Barreirinhas. Buses usually depart in the morning or afternoon. The journey typically lasts about 4-5 hours, which can vary depending on road conditions.
- By Car: You can always be more autonomous and rent a car from the São Luis airport. The roads are mostly paved until Barreirinhas. However, the last stretch can be a bit bumpy. Ensure your vehicle is in good condition, and always check the weather forecast.
- 4×4 Vehicles: Once in Barreirinhas, the dunes are best navigated with 4×4 vehicles. These can be rented but can only be driven by a driver-cum-guide familiar with the desert’s intricate pathways.
- Boats: For those interested in approaching the park from the water, boats ply the Preguiça River, offering unique vistas of the park’s periphery and an opportunity to explore local villages en route. We did a boat tour one day, and it was one of the most serene and beautiful nature views I ever got!
A visit to Lençóis Maranhenses offers more than just the vistas of dunes and lagoons. The unique ecology and local culture ensure a plethora of experiences awaiting the fearless traveler. Here’s a deeper dive into what this natural wonderland offers:
The park boasts countless lagoons, each with its charm. These freshwater pools provide a refreshing dip after a trek across the warm sands. Beyond Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Bonita, consider visiting Lagoa da Esperança or Lagoa da Gaivota. Each lagoon changes with the seasons, some offering serene isolation while others bustle with fellow travelers.
Be on the lookout for turtles, fish, and unique bird species during your lagoon visits.
Multi-day treks offer a chance to experience the shifting moods of the desert — from golden mornings to starlit nights. Given the vastness and changing landscape, it’s wise to undertake these treks with experienced local guides. They’ll ensure you’re safe, well-fed, and camp at the best spots.
Far from city lights, the desert offers an unmatched stargazing experience. The Milky Way often paints the sky as stardust, with shooting stars making regular appearances.
This river journey takes you deep into the region’s ecosystem, letting you experience mangroves, dunes, and isolated beaches. Stop along the way and visit places like Vassouras (often called ‘Little Lençóis’), Mandacaru Lighthouse for panoramic views, and the Caburé beach, where the river meets the sea.
This tour often includes stops at fishing villages, offering a glimpse into the life of communities that have thrived here for generations.
Elevate your adventure by soaring over the mesmerizing patterns of dunes and lagoons. There’s no prior experience needed, and professional instructors ensure your safety and provide a brief training before you take off. The ideal time for hang gliding is early morning or late afternoon when the thermal conditions are just right.
These villages, like Atins and Queimada dos Britos, offer a peek into the local culture and way of life. Savor authentic regional dishes, often freshly prepared by the villagers. The camarões (shrimps) from Atins are a delicacy not to be missed. Engage with the locals, perhaps even partake in traditional dances or music sessions. Many villages also have artisans crafting beautiful souvenirs from local materials.
Ecological Tip: Remember, Lençóis Maranhenses is a protected area. Leave no trace, and always respect the environment and local customs.
Finding the right place to stay can significantly enhance your experience at Lençóis Maranhenses. Since the nearby town doesn’t have many attractions, you will spend some time in your hotel, so it better be a comfortable one! Here are some of the best hotels close to Lençóis Maranhenses:
- Pousada Sossego do Cantinho: This boutique hotel is situated on the banks of the tranquil Preguiça River, offering stunning views, especially during sunrise and sunset. It has a pool, Wi-Fi access, and a restaurant serving local dishes. You can indulge in river tours, fishing, or simply relax by the river. The rooms are airy, and some even offer balconies overlooking the river.
- Gran Lençóis Flat Residence: It is a more upscale choice, with facilities like a modern pool, a spa, a fitness center, and a top-notch restaurant. Expect spacious rooms with modern amenities like air-conditioning, mini-fridges, and satellite TV.
- Casa do Boi: On a village on the park’s outskirts, this place is known for its personalized services. Breakfast is a highlight, with fresh fruits, local breads, and beverages sourced from the region. The B&B often organizes yoga sessions, horse riding, and kite surfing for guests.
- Budget Accommodations: If you’re traveling on a budget, Barreirinhas has several smaller pousadas and hostels. These might not offer luxury, but provide clean rooms and local experiences.
- Eco-Lodges: For the environmentally conscious traveler, some eco-lodges prioritize sustainability. They often use local materials, adopt green practices, and support community-based initiatives.
- Especially during the peak season, accommodations can get booked quickly. It’s recommended to reserve your stay well in advance to secure your preferred choice.
The Lençóis Maranhenses region is not just a visual treat; it’s also a culinary adventure in the depths of the Brazilian northeastern culture. The confluence of native Brazilian traditions with the bounty of the sea provides a unique gastronomic experience. Here are some of the restaurants that are worth visiting:
- Restaurante O Bambu: With rustic bamboo décor and an open-air setting, it exudes a tropical charm. Their moquecas (a traditional fish stew) and grilled shrimp are highly recommended. Enjoy cocktails, with the caipirinha being a crowd favorite.
- A Canoa: This place is renowned for its local tapioca dishes, stuffed with various fillings from cheese to shrimp. Also, try their crab dishes, served in the shell, which are delicious and Instagram-worthy. Sample their assortment of beers, including local brews.
- Street Food: Don’t miss out on the local street food vendors, especially in Barreirinhas. Tapioca pancakes, grilled cheese, and acarajé (fried balls of black-eyed pea dough filled with shrimp) are famous.
- Seafood: Given its proximity to the coast, seafood in this region is incredibly fresh. Always ask for the catch of the day.
- Local Delicacies: The state of Maranhão has unique culinary traditions. Be adventurous and try local dishes like arroz de cuxá (rice with herbs, dried shrimp, and sesame seeds) or camarão ao leite de coco (shrimp in coconut milk).
- Always keep yourself hydrated; when dining out, ask for “água mineral” for bottled water.
- Payment: While many restaurants accept cards, carrying some cash is always a good idea, especially in smaller establishments.
When packing for Lençóis Maranhenses, prioritize comfort above all else. The temperature in the part of Brazil is usually pretty humid, so you don’t want to bring heavy and warm clothing. Instead, pack light, breathable clothing. A hat and sunglasses are essential, and sturdy sandals or walking shoes are great for trekking.
Pack sunscreen, lip balm, and mosquito repellent (this one is a must because there are many mosquitos at night).
- Conservation: Lençóis Maranhenses is a protected national park. Always follow guidelines to preserve its beauty.
- Guided Tours: Navigating the vast desert can be challenging, so it’s recommended to have a local guide.
- Currency: The local currency is the Brazilian Real (BRL). It’s wise to have some cash handy as not all places may accept cards.
Lençóis Maranhenses is Brazil’s hidden gem, a place where the beauty of nature transcends imagination. The vast, undulating dunes dotted with lagoons create a surreal playground for the adventurer and the solace-seeker. When you step onto the soft sands and gaze at the shimmering waters under the vast sky, you’ll understand why this journey is worth taking.