Brazil has so many undiscovered and beautiful destinations, here are a few of them in the state of Maranhao (MA), in the northeast.
I still have a ton of family in that area, and I miss them dearly. When I was there a few years ago, B.C. (Before Child) we went on an overnight eco-tour excursion to Lençóis Maranhenses National Park that left me amazed, replenished and ready for more.
Here is an overview:
It may sound absurd, but there is actually a desert in the largest tropical rainforest in the world.
Brazil is proud of the impressive dune area called Lencois Maranhenses in the north of the country. Looking at the pictures, you would never guess that these beautiful shifting sand dunes, with their shimmering blue lagoons, are found in Brazil.
After all, the country receives enormous amounts of rainfall each year from the Amazon River and the equator. Nevertheless, the dune landscape extends about 40 meters inland and winds along the north coast for about 80 kilometers – much of it pure desert.
A Guide to Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park – loosely translated to the Maranhenses Bedsheets, referring to the smooth sand dunes! The landscape consists of impressive dunes that look like fluttering white sheets kept in motion by the constant wind. The height of some of these sand mountains reaches up to 40 meters.
But what makes Lençóis Maranhenses truly unique compared to conventional deserts are its numerous crystal-clear lagoons and rivers – as many as 300,000 have been counted so far.
These waters are characterized by the fact that they are freshwater lagoons, offering ideal conditions for swimming.
During the rainy season, between January and June, these lagoons form as a result of heavy rainfall. During this time, a variety of flora and fauna blooms in the area.
During the subsequent dry season between July and December, the lakes gradually dry up and disappear under a layer of shifting sand dunes – like magical bed sheets.
Amazingly, even fish have found ways to cope with these inhospitable conditions: They lay their eggs in the warm sand in time for a new generation to grow in the lagoons at the start of the next rainy season.
While most of the lagoons dry up completely during the dry season, the two lagoons Lagoa do Peixe and Lagoa Bonita are blessed with a constant perfect water level. This harmonious interplay of dunes, clear water and lush vegetation along the beaches completes the picture.
According to the National Park website, the park covers 155,000 acres of untouched nature, dunes, lagoons, and 43 miles (70 km) of beach.
The locals of the Lençóis Maranhenses Natural Park inspire thousands of visitors not only with their beautiful scenery, but also with their warm hospitality. The combination of impressive surroundings and friendly people is simply fascinating.
This extraordinary place is undoubtedly one of the country’s most fascinating attractions.
Where is Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
Lençóis Maranhenses, the largest National Park in Northeastern Brazil, stretches about 280 kilometers along the coast and reaches up to 50 kilometers inland.
The park covers the towns of Barreirinhas, Humberto de Campos and Primeira Cruz.
To get to know this piece of paradise, the city of Barreirinhas is the ideal starting point. The city is located about 270 km from the capital São Luís.
We drove for about 4 hours from the capital, Sao Luis, but there are chartered buses, vans, and single/double engine planes that can also get you there. The park entrance is 1.2 miles (2 km) from Barreirinhas, across the Rio Preguicas, which we crossed by ferry.
When to visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
The park is open year-round, but the natural lagoons are formed by rainwater accumulation, and if you go during the dry months, as we did, you might have to walk longer to find the few surviving ponds.
It rains throughout the first half of the year, from December to June, and the rains usually end just before the start of the June festivals (start of the high season in Maranhão).
Ideally, go right after the rainy season.
From May to September, when the lagoons are filled with water and the white of the dunes breaks through, is the best time to visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. At this time, the vegetation is in full bloom and migratory birds are resting.
From October, the lagoons continue to shrink and lose their impressive character until January, when they slowly begin to fill up again. The months between December and February, during the height of summer, are also extremely hot, so this period is less recommended.
Another plus is the pleasant night temperatures in the park, which vary little throughout the year. Even on cooler nights, the temperature is usually a constant 23°C.
In contrast, the Sahara – the largest arid desert on earth – is an ocean of stone, sand and rock. It is scorching hot during the day and bitterly cold at night.
What to take
For the excursion, bring and wear as little as possible: a light pack with snacks, water and a camera; wear shorts, t-shirts, sandals, a bathing suit and DEFINITELY a hat, sunglasses and biodegradable sunscreen. Biodegradable insect repellent is also good to have.
It’s the desert and there are no shaded areas to hide from the sun.
Good to know
When exploring the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, it is important to always carry biodegradable sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water. There is a strict ban on unannounced hiking and camping activities.
The impressive dune landscape of Lençóis Maranhenses is also home to small scorpions. Although they are rarely seen, you should be careful, especially when digging in the sand. The sting of a scorpion may be harmless to humans, but it causes extremely painful reactions.
Never go to the Lençóis Maranhenses without a guide, whether by 4×4, quad bike or boat; these guides are folks who grew up in the area and know it like the back of their hands. The park is rustic, the nature untouched and the dunes go as far as the eye can see. It’s dangerous to explore alone!
And obviously, I emphasize the importance of preserving nature. – The Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is protected by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA).
Tours to the Lencois Maranhenses National Park
Visitors to the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park face a difficult decision. There are several tours to choose from, with different starting points and durations: from a leisurely walk to a lagoon to a multi-day desert trek with overnight stays in oases, it’s all there.
What types of tours are offered in the National Park?
Most visitors take day trips into the park and return to their hotels in Barreirinhas or Atins in the afternoon, depending on which location they choose. Barreirinhas is the tourist center of the region and offers many accommodations as well as tour operators. Most excursions start from here.
Atins, on the other hand, is less busy and more difficult to reach. The day trips take you by pickup truck over sandy roads to the park’s borders, and then on foot to various places inside the park.
You will be taken by pickup truck as close as possible to the lagoons at the edge of the national park and then have to walk the rest of the way over the dunes. During the week it is usually much quieter than on weekends.
The most popular tours from Barreirinhas take you to the freshwater lagoons of Lagoa Azul and Lagoa do Peixe. These trips can be done either in the morning or in the afternoon, but the sunset at Lagoa do Peixe is particularly impressive.
There are also excursions to the less frequented Lagoa Esperança, about an hour’s drive from Barreirinhas. Another lagoon often visited by tour operators is the enchanting Lagoa Bonita.
For adventurous travelers who prefer a longer trekking tour, there are agencies based in Santo Amaro; however, such desert treks are also offered from Atins.
Besides the standard tours through the National Park, some agencies also offer impressive panoramic flights over the Rio Preguiças and the dunes.
4 hour Bonita Lagoon circuit and sunset experience
This half day tour to Lençóis offers an unforgettable sunset experience.
You will be picked up from your hotel in Barreirinhas around 2 pm and drive about an hour to the tourist center of Bonita Lagoon.
A charming little village awaits us with local shops, such as handmade souvenir shops and family run snack stands. There is also the famous stairway to Bonita Lagoon. From the top of the stairs you’ll have a breathtaking view of the beauty of the park!
Then it’s time to explore the lagoons!
Your guide will take you through the area to 2 or 3 different lagoons where you can swim (about 40 minutes each).
After exploring, you will climb the highest dune in the area to enjoy the spectacular sunset over Lençois before heading back to town.
Duration: 4 hours
Free cancelation up to 24 hours before.
Reserve now and pay later.
It’s so beautiful that you quickly forget the hour-long 4×4 drive along the sandy track. It can get crowded at the top of the dune, but a 10 minute walk and you’re alone on another planet.
Full Day – Santo Amaro Lençóis
Experience a unique full day tour and discover the hidden treasures of Lençóis Maranhenses. Come with us on a journey through the paradise of Santo Amaro and explore the best sights of the region!
The tour starts at 7:45 a.m. in Barreirinhas, from where we depart to Santo Amaro. Depending on the location of your hotel, the trip will last until approximately 8:45 am. Once in Santo Amaro, we will make a short off-road drive over the stunning dunes, which will take about 10 to 15 minutes, before arriving at the first lagoons (Lagoa do Peixe, Lagoa da Andorinha and Lagoa da Gaivota – depending on the season, these lagoons may change).
Around 13:00 we will have a lunch break (meal not included) and relax a bit before continuing to the other beautiful lagoons (this tour lasts all day and includes stops for impressive views). After the tour, we will return to Barreirinhas, arriving around 19:30.
Duration: 10 hours
Free cancelation up to 24 hours before.
Reserve now and pay later.
Included in the tour is:
- Transfer from Barreirinhas to Santo Amaro (pick-up between 7:30 am – 8:40 am)
- Tour Guide
- Walk in the lagoons of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
If you are adventurous, you should definitely hike through the National Park. The hikes from the small town of Santo Amaro to Atins are especially exciting.
During the trek you will pass two small oasis settlements where you can take a break. You will spend the night in hammocks in these charming oases, which have been inhabited by cattle ranchers and fishermen for many generations. It is as fascinating as it is impressive to participate in the life of these people.
The first stop on your journey will be the Queimada dos Britos Oasis. There is no electricity here, only batteries powered by solar cells that provide energy for a few hours. So go to bed early or lie in a hammock.
This is necessary because the trekking starts at three or four o’clock in the morning, so you’ll arrive at the oases not long after sunrise. There you will spend the day in comfort and relaxation.
On the second day you will reach the beautiful Baixa Grande Oasis. Due to the scorching heat of Lençóis Maranhenses, no one wants to spend too much time under the burning sun. Therefore, you will take some time to get to know the local people and learn more about their culture and daily life.
During your stay in the oases, you will be in direct contact with the local people and learn about their way of life – far away from any civilization, they live here in isolation. They will prepare delicious meals for you, usually consisting of rice, beans, fish or goat meat and salad made from home-grown tomatoes.
Crossing the Lençóis Maranhenses, swimming in the many clear lagoons in the middle of a sandy landscape and visiting oases are fascinating experiences – unique in Brazil.
Between May and September is the best time to swim in the picturesque blue-green lagoons, so if you can, plan your visit during this time! It will be an unforgettable experience!
Other recommended tours in the region
If you want to visit the Lençóis Maranhenses, you can’t miss São Luís.
The capital of Brazil’s “humblest” state will pleasantly surprise you with its authenticity. Its skillful combination of past and present, as well as its warm people, represent a diverse Brazil that is hard to imagine.
The capital of the state of Maranhão is located on an island and is one of the most fascinating coastal cities – perhaps because it has not been “discovered” by many tourists.
The historic center of São Luís, a World Heritage Site, is a fascinating neighborhood of smoking cobblestone streets and pastel-colored colonial houses. Some of these houses have been restored, while others are in a state of disrepair.
This charming area has a unique atmosphere and is home to one of the best collections of museums, galleries and craft shops in the Northeast.
São Luís is home to an impressive collection of colonial buildings. Some 4,000 structures preserve the imposing architectural influences of the 17th to 19th centuries in all their glory. The well-preserved old town with its colonial architecture has even been declared a World Heritage Site.
Most famous are the “azulejos”, Portuguese tiles that protect the facades from the warm, humid climate – without them, normal walls would quickly become unsightly.
Unfortunately, the streets can be difficult to navigate after dark.
Come and visit one of the most authentic historical centers of Brazil.
Fun Fact São Luís
São Luís, the Reggae capital of Brazil, has created a unique interpretation of this culture and allows its followers to dance together. It is really impressive to see these couples embracing each other while maintaining an elegant and respectful attitude. It is definitely worth going to one of the trendy nightclubs where this dance is practiced!
Alcântara charms immediately and presents itself to the visitor as beautiful and welcoming. A trip to this city is well worth it, as it offers a glimpse into the history of the entire region.
Although Alcântara is not very well known among tourists, this stopover leaves no one untouched.
The charming town of Alcântara will take you back to colonial times – a true jewel of the era! This small town, frozen in time, impresses travelers as it tells its incredibly tangible story.
Marvel at the magnificent colonial houses and sample delicious coconut cookies. Immerse yourself in the local gastronomy while watching majestic birds such as the Scarlet Ibis that have made their home in the surrounding mangroves. The bright red color of their plumage makes for an unforgettable, almost surreal sight as they flutter over the deep green mangrove waters.
This heritage of days gone by is located on the other side of the Baía de São Marcos, opposite São Luis.
Only 53 km from São Luís by boat or 408 km by land, this architectural ensemble of cobbled streets, churches, palaces and colonial remains has been a protected monument since 1948.
This complex recalls an era of prosperity and splendor of the aristocracy of Maranhão.
Tucked away in the delta of the Preguiças River lies the idyllic fishing village of Atins, surrounded by extensive shallow water lagoons that emerge at low tide.
Nestled in an endless sea of sand, surrounded by the Lençóis to the east, the sea to the north and the estuary to the west, lies this picturesque town. Despite these limiting influences, the houses here still manage to take root in the thin sandy soil that precedes the water table.
However, the lush vegetation provides a pleasant coolness and allows you to fully enjoy this unique place. In this village you will have the opportunity to participate in the “all Brazilian” daily life, an experience typical of these remote regions.
Thanks to the constant wind, Atins is very popular with the kitesurfing community, who find an excellent infrastructure here. Most visitors to Atins are enthusiastic kitesurfers.
In addition to the fantastic conditions for kitesurfers of all levels, this place also offers all other visitors an authentic cultural experience on its quiet and sandy roads.
Along the estuary there are beautiful spots with charming wooden restaurants where you can relax with a caipirinha overlooking the water.
In this charming little fishing village you can relax between the majestic dunes of the park, the estuary of the Rio Preguiças and the Atlantic coast.
Be sure to visit the charming sand village of Atins at the “end of the world” – an insider’s tip in the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.