Have you ever gazed at something so beautiful that it drove you to tears?
I think we may have just been to the most beautiful place in the world. I know our world travel is still young and there are still a lot of places that we have yet to see. And even though I’ve seen many world-class attractions – the Grand Canyon, the ancient paths of Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Wall of China, and Iguazu Falls, to name a few – I’m hardly the person to declare a place as the most beautiful. But this place overwhelmed me so much, that such a proclamation is inescapable and perhaps undeniable.
Maybe it is the total uniqueness of the scenery that moved me so. In the past, I have compared places such as the mountains in Torotoro, Bolivia that reminded us of the thrust of the earth’s crust, to the same thing that can be seen in Capital Reef of Utah. I’ve also compared the Colors of North Argentina to some of the badlands in the USA’s midwest.
I really have no comparison as we explored the Lençóis Maranhenses. To me, it is a singular beauty. Perhaps after we see the Sahara desert our view may change, but for now, this is how I see it.
Update: Read about our experience in the Sahara Desert
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is a 383,000-acre park on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. The entire area is covered with sand dunes, during and soon after the rainy season, the base of the dunes holds freshwater lagoons held in place by impermeable rock beneath the dunes.
A Tiny Village Called Atins
Atins is a small village on the eastern edge of Lençóis Maranhenses. It has a windy shoreline on the Atlantic coast where kiteboarders play. It’s a sleepier-than-sleepy town where the aimless roads are made of sand. It is one of three villages from where a tour into Lençóis Maranhenses can be started.
From Barreirinhas, there are two ways to get to Atins, by a 4WD vehicle or by boat. We chose the 4WD, or as the locals have come to generically refer to it, a Toyota. This ride was an adventure in itself. The jeep struggled up dunes and fishtailed around and through them. We navigated pools of water, some clear, some black. As the jeep tipped suddenly to the right when the black pool beneath us dropped off, the ladies next to me screamed then we all started laughing as the jeep immediately straightened up.
I was sitting on the edge of the seat with a metal bar for an armrest. When we arrived I had bruises on my leg, ribs, and a lump on my head from branches that we hit that came slinging back into the open sides. It was totally worth it.
After climbing down out of the jeep we hefted on our backpacks and began the walk to our little hut where we would be staying. The sand is so hot that flip-flops or sandals were necessary. The river we crossed was warm and refreshing.
Our room in Atins had a palm leaf roof and the sides were made of corrugated plastic. Sunlight glowed through the walls and I dared not rest against them lest I fall out of the room. Whiskey, the owner’s dog, took up residence outside our door in the evenings and slept there for the night as if guarding the place.
A Secluded Oasis
The next day we filled our day pack with water and snacks and headed out on foot into the sand dunes just beyond the town. The brilliant white of the dunes seemed to be endless. Wind moves sand across the surface sometimes blurring the edges of the dunes against the blue sky.
At times when we reach the edge, we were surprised by a sudden valley that needs to be crossed. At the bottom of many of these dunes lay clear pools of water gathered during the rainy season. We jumped over many of these ridges to glide down through sand that felt like sifted flour then plunge into the clear water below and swim to the other side.
It is possible to take a tour from Atins in a jeep to the lagoons that end at the Lagoa das Sete Mulheres but we highly recommend walking instead. The constant breeze blows off the edge of heat from the glaring sun and makes the stroll pleasant. Along the way, we encountered many beautiful lagoons that the Jeep tour never gets to see. The best part is that we had them all to ourselves.
When we reached the Lagoa Das Sete Mulheres there were a few jeeps full of people there. Around lunchtime, everyone disappeared to go to the hyped-up, and overpriced, shrimp restaurants located a couple of kilometers from the lagoon in the middle of nowhere. We took out our packed lunch and ate peacefully to the sound of the wind.
“Besides, serving shrimp without the head is criminal,” Trin said. He ought to know. He grew up eating seafood in the Philippines.
When the jeeps full of people arrived again after lunch we started back and enjoyed more time at the rest of the dunes, and lakes felt completely secluded just as we like them.
Boat Back to Barreirinhas
After a few days in Atins, we took the boat back to Barreirinhas. It was a pleasant ride. The trip started with sand dunes on both sides of the river and gradually turned into a dense jungle up to the river’s edge on both sides. We glided up the river with the passing scenery putting me in a pensive mood as I thought about how glad I am that we took the risk, the risk of leaving good jobs, selling all our belongings, and taking off to experience the world. I have not regretted it a moment.
Barreirinhas is the most popular place from which to launch a tour into Lençóis Maranhenses. It is easy to get to from Sao Luis and it has a developed tourism infrastructure. It is also scorching hot, at least that’s what it felt like to me. The temperature was only about 90º F but the humidity was also around 90. Only a few places have air conditioning, like the ATM booths. Maybe that is why there is always a massive line at the ATM.
A Magnificent Reveal
Barreirinhas is farther from the sand dunes than Atins, so it is necessary to take a tour to see the dunes in the area. We chose a sunset tour of the Lagoa Bonita. We left town around 2 PM. At the edge of town, we climbed out of the jeep for a ferry ride across the Parnaíba River. From there it is another wild ride through dunes and pools but in an area with quite a bit of vegetation.
We reached the edge of the dunes where we had to climb a massive wall of sand. Someone had installed a rope to help visitors as they climb to the top. We began our ascent through sand that had been turned up by the thousand footsteps that go through it every day. You had to dig your feet in to get any kind of traction, and even then every other step slid half a step down through the fine sand. It’s like the consistency of pancake mix, Trin said.
It wasn’t too bad, about 300 meters of pulling ourselves up almost three-quarters to the top, well above the tree line.
I looked back and saw a vast plane of green.
Near the top, the incline eases up to a point where the assistance of a rope is no longer needed. We could see the top of the dune against the blue sky and as we approached it we got the feeling that we were about to see something special. It was nature’s way of parting the curtains, a magnificent reveal, and we clambered to the top in an almost desperate struggle, as if we had been stranded in the desert for three days and precious water was waiting for us at the top.
It was an entirely different world. A vast spread of white dunes with large pools of water as far as the eye can see. We wandered through the dunes up and down. Many people swam in the clear waters. After sunset, we made our way back sliding down on that large incline with an ease provided by gravity and the elation of having witnessed an incomparable natural beauty.
Our next planned destination, Santo Amaro, would be even more remote. We caught a bus out of Barreirinhas towards Sao Luis and got off at Pedra, an empty intersection of two highways. It was a Sunday when everything was dead, and transportation sparse.
Faced with the prospect of waiting for hours under the equatorial sun, we were glad to find a couple of tiny little stores on the roadside. We set our packs down in the shade, no one was around. It looked like beverages were for sale but no one showed up to sell any. I pulled out sunscreen to slather on some protection for what might be a long wait.
We didn’t have to wait long. A van came by and the driver let us on for a small fee. We would have gladly paid twice. The van took us to where the pavement ended, at the edge of the village where the final leg to the Santo Amaro center had to be taken in a Toyota necessitated by sandy roads and river crossings.
Santo Amaro, while only accessible by jeep, does have pavers laid down in the streets. It is a quiet town and not overrun by visitors as Barreirinhas is.
One Agency, Many Beautiful People
There is only one tourist agency in Santo Amaro so there is no need to shop around. We talked to a few places before we found this out. All the store owners and hotel receptionists called one agency to check availability.
It’s another beautiful thing that I like in Brazil. The people are truly friendly and shop owners are willing to help you find what you need even if it is not something they sell. They welcome others with open arms. When they find out that we can not speak Portuguese they smile and then try their hardest with gestures and a bit of Spanish to see how they can help us. Brazil is a great place to visit and feel welcome.
Beauty That Drove Me to Tears
There are many tours available in Santo Amaro, but the one that we really wanted to do the most is Circuito Lagoa das Emendadas. It is a tour that would take us to one of the tallest dunes for a 360º view.
The tour began with a half-hour 4WD ride into the sand dunes. The ride itself would have been worth the price of the tour. Within the first few seconds of driving through the sand dunes in this part of the park, I felt like it was already better than the ones that we saw in Barreirinhas and Atins.
We drove by large lakes with different colors and aquatic vegetation, goats, horses, and even wild pigs. Several times we would climb up a sand dune and all we see is the edge of the sand blurred by the surface dusting against the backdrop of a clear blue sky.
The white sand is so pure that there is nothing that whizzes by to indicate the movement of our vehicle, only the changing dimensions of the sand and sky, and the tilting of the indistinct horizon. And then we reach the zenith and the scenery explodes into yet another new set of sand dunes, better than the last ones.
The Most Beautiful Place
After the jeep ride, we disembarked and began our trek, a 4-hour 12 km round-trip. We stopped for a swim in one of the pools along the way and then played in the quicksand on the shore of the pool.
At around 5 PM, we made it to the top of the tallest dune. Everywhere we looked it was beautiful contours of white sand and shadows and emerald pools. From this viewpoint, one can see the reason why it is called lençóis. The vast expanse looks like a linen sheet in a way that it’s been ruffled up a bit.
“I think this is the most beautiful place I have seen,” Trin said to me at the top. I nodded in agreement and stood next to him as we took it all in.
What is it about a place that drives a person to make such a declaration? What makes a place beautiful? There is no symmetry here. Is it its singularity? This is a unique place, I have never seen or heard about anything like this before. Is it its grandeur? Lençóis Maranhenses is so vast that you could spend days and see new things at every moment. Maybe it’s the constant shifting of the sand, the way that it is always in motion, yet perfectly tranquil within the moment that you get to enjoy it. Maybe it’s the way that it makes you feel.
As we walked through the dunes the wind reclaimed its pattern in the sand within moments erasing all traces of our journey, but the memory will be forever etched in our souls.
We took a risk, changed the direction of our lives, and ended up here. What risk will you take this week?