When we think of obscure tourist destinations, Brazil is unlikely to spring to mind. As the fifth largest country in the world, she is firmly on the map.
Powerfully evocative, the name conjures up images of Rio – its iconic beaches and Art Deco protector, Christ the Redeemer; the mighty Iguassu; the expansive Amazon Rainforest.
When we think of Brazil, we think Carnaval, we think caipirinhas, we think football. Brazil is all these things, Brazil is also tropical wetlands, colonial gold rush towns, Atlantic forest ranches, a futuristic capital. In hidden pockets of this mega nation, some of its most wondrous gems can be found. On my recent trip, I ventured to one such spot.
On a lesser-known tract of the north-east coast lies a stretch of shoreline that they call the Rota das Emoções – ‘Route of Emotions’ in English. Perhaps for the many distributaries of the Parnaíba Delta which course, like tears, through the land to the Atlantic. Perhaps for the feelings it evokes, or the many elements of surprise along the way. One thing is clear: after nine days on the route, whatever reasoning behind this elected marketing slogan is not strongly defined or promoted, but left to each traveller’s individual interpretation.
Covering some 500 miles, this largely off-road adventure is as much about the journey as the destination. While definitive stops are not set, several are needed as you cross three states of the region – Maranhão, Piauí and Ceará. Classically starting in the historical port of Sao Luis, you travel through the undulating sand dunes of Lencois Maranhenses National Park to the Parnaiba Delta, where its namesake river meets the Atlantic Ocean. The trip ends in the laidback, bohemian beach town of Jericoacoara.
We start our journey in Sao Luis; the only one to be founded by the French during their albeit brief, rule. This Brazilian state capital contains a deep, rich cultural history – no better described than in the words of its many celebrated writers and poets. Our guide informs us that the city is known as both the ‘Brazilian Jamaica’ (for its strong affiliation with reggae music) and ‘Lisbon of the Tropics’ – containing the greatest display of Portuguese colonial architecture in Latin America. An enticing combination!
The Sao Jao festivities (celebrated throughout Brazil in the month of June) spill into July here; colourful bunting lines the streets of the historical heart of town, overhead paper rainbows rippling in the sea breeze. These celebrations intertwine with the local Bumba Meu Boi tradition, a folkloric Ox fable enacted each year through music, choreographed dance and elaborate costumes. We enjoy a live performance of this at the Saturday night carnival which buzzes with energy – music emanating from three live stages as locals mingle, dance and dine from pop-up food trucks.
Next stop is Lençóis Maranhenses Park, the region’s main lure. Lençóis, the Portuguese word for ‘bed sheets’, and Maraheneses for the state in which it is found, is so named for the miles of white-sugar sand dunes that billow like fresh linens as far as the eye can see. The unique and ever-changing sandscape, sculpted by wind, is interspersed at this time of year with crystal clear lagoons which form during the preceding rainy season.
We ride in open back 4x4s past the (comparatively) crowded first lagoons – an adrenalin-filled drive up and down dunes, our expert driver skilfully navigating the unmarked sands. Soon there is not a soul in sight bar the unexpected farmyard safari we pass; donkeys and skinny cows graze in shrubby areas, pigs swim in freshwater ponds. The experience is surreal and as we stop to bathe in our first lagoon – a giant, temperate, azure pool that we have completely to ourselves. There is a genuine ‘pinch me’ magic to it.
We journey by boat on the Parnaíba Delta, a unique eco-system of channels, islands and mangroves; witnessing the birds dormitory is a true highlight. As the sun begins to set, acting as a visual alarm clock for local wildlife, we watch in wonder as scarlet ibis flock in from all directions to the tree they call home and settle in for the night. It is an entrancing spectacle as blood-red dots swoop in from all directions, filling the branches; like watching spring on fast-forward, vermillion flowers blossoming.
Jericoacoara, our final stop, is a small fishing village and kite surfing mecca, whose two main streets are literally paved with sand. Yet, it feels positively pumping after our days on the road. We delight in the choice of restaurants and the chic boutiques. We are startled to hear the occasional conversation in English. We deliberate over flip-flop choices in the Havaiana store, queue for exotic gelato flavours next door and sip on fruity caipirinhas from cocktail carts on the beach, swaying to the live Forro music. It’s the perfect end to an incredible trip.