Condé Nast Traveller - Born Trippy
Beneath the surface of Brazil’s most weird and wonderful beach secret, nothing is quite as it seems.
This was once some of the most coveted coastline on the planet. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the French, Dutch and Portuguese clashed, conquered and colonised the stretch of Brazil wedged between the mouth of the Amazon and the north-eastern shoulder of South America. Back then, blown across the Atlantic by the powerful north-east trade winds, it might take a ship just six weeks to reach these shores from Europe. There was the lure of gold, of course, and this was also prime land to harvest indigenous trees and cultivate plantations of sugar cane, cacao, tobacco, cotton and coffee.
São Luis now feels like a forgotten place. Some residents seem to belong to another age, living on borrowed time, under the illusion that cotton and cane might still be king. Local fashion designer Rodrigo Raposo, whose gowns start from £1,500, speaks about dressing the high society of Maranhão state, wealthy ranching landowners and the debutante scene. It’s more Gone with the Wind than globalisation.
Sundays are slow. Every day is slow. Among the lattice of crumbling colonial buildings and cobbled streets you can hear children kicking a football and someone playing reggae music. A brass band made up of school kids trumpets past. Men doze in the shade of mango trees on stone benches brought by the Portuguese as ballast, the weight of which they were to exchange for gold. I drink a can of Guaraná Jesus, the local soda, and feel the salty breeze on my face.
Ah, the wind. Now that is something everyone talks about. In her lyrics, big-name samba singer, Alcione, whose roots are here, reminisces of her home state: “In this corner of the north/Where the winds blow strong/And there are a thousand beautiful things/Everything speaks to us of love.” She tells me the wind ‘dictates the rhythm of our daily lives’. In São Luis there are the soft lyrical sea breezes that come with being an island, as well as the blustery bros named after the final syllable of the months they blow the hardest: setembro, outubro, novembro, dezembro. The bros are not only strong but ‘all mixed up’, people here say, ‘when the wind comes from every direction and you can’t keep your dress down’.
I leave town in an easterly direction, following the coast, before catching a boat on the Rio Preguiças, which translates as ‘lazy river’. Fishermen in saveiros, wooden boats with triangular sails, like feluccas, dot the wide expanse at the river’s mouth. Some string up a hammock between the mast and tiller so they can snooze as they sail. As we sweep down this river, hemmed in on either side by rainforest, there is a sudden, startling blister of a 30m-high sand dune, bleached and granular among the lush, glossy greenery. It signals the start of the Lençóis Maranhenses, the rippling dunes of which run 100km along the coastline and 50km inland. Up close, it is clear this is no desert. Over every chiselled ridge and in every hollow there are shimmering lagoons sheltering nesting birds, turtles, and fish. They fill up in the rainy season, and evaporate during the rest of the year.
Nobody knows for certain why the dunes are here. Is it sand carried in as sediment by the mighty rivers? Or sand brought from the sea by strong currents? Do the extreme tides expose vast beaches, which are then whipped inland by the region’s relentless winds? Everyone has a different answer; the mere existence of the Lençóis is part of the allure. With the lagoons full to the brim during my visit, I swim among lilies looking for freshwater tiger turtles and wolffish said to survive the dry season by burrowing deep into the sand to find moisture. Or perhaps they lay their eggs in the sand and their young are born during the first rains. Or perhaps birds carry the sticky fish eggs on their feet and deposit them, by chance, in the lagoons. Again, nobody knows. This place feels unstudied and barely visited, too. I scramble up and down the dunes without another tourist in sight. It could be the Sahara but where the magic of mirages comes good.
Those in the know skip Barreirinhas, the gateway town bordering the park, and head to remote Atins, closer to the heart of the dunes and backing on to a wild white-sand beach. Only accessible by four-wheel-drive, it is nothing more than a dusty street or two. But recently some leading figures in the kitesurfing community have called Atins one of the best spots in the world for the sport. With steady winds and calm waters protected by a sand bar, the conditions could not be more perfect.
Atins is still tranquilo. I see only two sunbathers along the entire stretch of beach. At Pousada Tia Rita a few French backpackers are renting hammocks for $8 a night. ‘It’s chilled here,’ Rita says, sounding younger than her 60 years. “You come for a couple of days and you want to stay.” At Rancho do Buna restaurant I eat grilled robalo fish, and crabmeat with onions and tomatoes sprinkled in dried manioc flour. There is a peacock here who looks in the mirror all day and a cat who studies maps hanging on the wall. ‘If Atins starts to change, I’ll move,’ Buna says. “I don’t want to see the magic go.”
I switch from four-wheel-drive to motorboat to travel across one of the world’s great river deltas, the Parnaíba. Here the mangroves are the height of skyscrapers and the islands more than twice the size of Bermuda. The primates are so smart they’re called Einstein monkeys; they use stone tools to crack open nuts. Iguanas, trying to avoid preying snakes, weigh down the very tips of branches and parakeets flap across the sky. I stop to see rusted shipwrecks in the shallows. Fishermen haul in shrimp, and offer me a bucket for free; whole families clamber into the mud to catch electric-blue crabs.
I find the naturalist Pedro da Costa Silva, nicknamed Pedro holandȇs (Dutch Pete) because he speaks five languages. The son of local rice farmers, he knows more about the delta than anyone. He tells me how he once caught a six-metre anaconda (‘You need a good grip’) and shows me scars from attacks by a freshwater ray and a lancehead viper (‘I love poisonous snakes’). We head off looking for the silky anteater, the smallest of its species, and arguably the most elusive. ‘If you lock one in a box and come back later, it will have gone,’ Pedro says of this little Houdini.
We scramble over dunes, tearing our way across cashew tree forests and squelching among the mangroves; the aerial roots curve so high it feels like a journey through the ribcage of a blue whale. We spot a scorpion and a ground owl but unsurprisingly perhaps, no anteater. So we head off for fresh coconuts to the nearby farm of Maria and Pedro Militão, the only indigenous Indians for miles. Maria talks about a silky anteater she once had as a pet: ‘It was so jealous it would bite any child who sat in my lap,’ she says. ‘I also had a monkey addicted to marijuana so I gave him to the man who was always stoned.’ Just down the coast from where they live, there is a wind farm. I wonder what the community here thinks of these gigantic machines. One local man moans about how his electricity bill has not come down. “I think they’re beautiful,” Maria’s niece says, wistfully.
The town of Barra Grande is the first sign of Brazil cool. A French couple, Sophie and Frédéric Fournier, have built Pousada Chic using local materials: cumaru wood, carnauba palm and the huge scales of the camurupim fish. They hope to see this place become a kitesurfing haven; already the sport’s top names have come here to take part in professional competitions. We drive along the beach and traverse the mouths of rivers by motor rafts, boarded by crossing two wobbly planks. There are no real roads leading to our final destination and that is part of the mystique, I am told.
The name Jericoacoara is almost whispered. A communion of Caipirinhas and capoeira, bikinis and berimbau tunes, sandy dunes and sunsets and, of course, the wind. Until now, ‘Jeri’, as it is fondly known, has been a hangout for Brazilians, and other in-the-know windsurfers and kitesurfers, but this is more than a hippy beach town. Restaurants serve sushi, fusion and even molecular gastronomy, as well as local dishes camarão, carangueijo and peixe: shrimps, crab and fresh fish. There are pretty pousadas, little palm-fronded spas and live forró music in the bars. The newest hotel, Essenza, wouldn’t be out of place in São Paulo, with a 100m pool, yanzu water therapy and the former chef of Copacabana Palace Hotel. Jeri has just five sandy streets yet everything your holiday heart desires. It even has the requisite rock arch formation on the beach. And there’s no need to worry about over development; Jeri sits in a national park and so any further expansion will be restrained.
Ronaldo Soares e Silva, known as Dadinho, was one of the first people to arrange trips to Jeri. He arrived 25 years ago, fleeing his home town after getting five women pregnant, two at the same time. There was no electricity here then and certainly no visitors. ‘Kite-surfing has saved the whole north of Brazil,’ he says. ‘This region used to be 100 per cent failed beaches but this sport has changed everything for us. Kiters travel the world looking for a wind like ours.’ In high season there are 1,000 kites in these sky.
In fact, the best wind for kitesurfing is on either side of Jeri, in places such as Prea, where a Carioca called Mosquito runs the Rancho do Kite school and says he can teach anyone in two weeks. ‘With 330 days of wind a year blowing 35 knots, we never have to miss a lesson.’
I spend a few hours with Andrade Vasconcelos, one of Mosquito’s team, who gets me up on a board in minutes. His father and grandfather were fishermen but he says he’ll never follow them. ‘Fishermen hate the wind,’ he says. ‘I’ll never fish. I love it.’
Back n Jeri, everyone is out on the sand, wind in their hair: joyriding on quad bikes; sand-surfing on the dunes; riding horses along the endless shoreline. At dusk, capoeira circles evolve to the beat of drums. This sexed-up martial art is at once languorous and frenzied. Balletic movements can escalate into a blur. As the energy wanes, pop-up kiosks serve cachaça cocktails and the sound of forró ramps up. At dusk there is a mandatory pilgrimage up a dune nicknamed ‘the pillowcase’, a play on the vast Lençóis which translates to ‘bedsheets’. The town assembles to watch the sunset. Here it slips into the sea, something unusual in Brazil where most of the coastline faces east or north. If you’re lucky you might catch sight of Amarildo, a capoeira master who can somersault thirty times down the steep dunes into the crashing waves. Offshore, kiters and windsurfers play to the crowd with their aerobatic leaps. And as the light fades, we are all bewitched. When the last chink of day is extinguished, the spectators clap and whoop. Some make a wish, but I’m not sure what more you could wish for.