1 Feb 2020 - 2 Feb 2020
2 adults - 1 room
Larger than France or Germany, the Brazilian state of Maranhão has the second longest coastline in the country and certainly one of the most stunning. The Brazilians recognise the great natural wealth of the region and the 640 kilometres of coastline have been designated as a special nature reserve, receiving extra environmental protection. With tropical rainforests, surreal Dali-esque dunes, deserted beaches, extensive mangroves and afro-colonial gems like São Luis and Alcântara, i am inspired to return to the Maranhão coast time and time again, attracted by its great diversity and remarkable beauty. Maranhão, an area of Brazil dividing the lush green of Amazonia from the arid north-east, has always drawn the gaze of covetous eyes. Back in the 17th Century it was desired by the French, Dutch and Portuguese empires, and today its natural wealth and beauty draws visitors from countries far and wide. It is a land of surprises, one of the last places still to be fully explored by the Brazilian tourism industry. São Luís, the state capital, was founded by Daniel de la Touche, a Frenchman from Saint Malo who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the beginning of the 17th Century in search of riches and land to claim for France. After a successful trip to Guyana, he gained the trust of the French court and got the financial backing he needed to return to South America and establish a colony. His co-adventurers, more corsairs than courtiers, were as anxious to divide the spoils of this new continent. But they had a fight on their hands. And not just with the Portuguese, the traditional occupiers of this part of the world. The Dutch, with a navy rivalling those of the other European powers, did their best to take Maranhão for themselves and the Portuguese were hard pushed to re-establish their hegemony over the region. After years of dispute, the yellow parrots – as the French were dubbed by the Indians due to their blond hair and rapid tongues – were finally repulsed, as were the Dutch, and the Portuguese set about making all of Brazil their own. São Luís Like most visitors to Maranhão, we first arrive in São Luís do Maranhão, the so-called Island of Love and the reggae capital of Brazil. It is an island separated from the continent by two gigantic bays: St Marcos Bay to the west and St José Bay to the east. It also divides Maranhão proper into two regions: the east coast encompasses the Parnaiba Delta and Lençóis Maranhenses National Park; while the west coast (also named Reentrâncias Maranhenses) stretches from Alcântara to the border of Pará state. São Luís sits right in the middle. Praia Grande, the historical quarter of the capital, was São Luís’ heart back in the days when this was a thriving port and merchants and their wares arrived by sailing ship. Enormous galleons crowded the harbour and people thronged in the city’s cobblestone streets, looking for provisions in hundreds of shops. Business was good. But when the bridges and roads were built to connect this city to the mainland, something was lost irrevocably. São Luís had always been rather isolated from the rest of the country, and Praia Grande – now no longer the only port of entry – became run-down and neglected. Other bridges were built over the rivers that snake through the city (the Bacanga and the Anil), and São Luís began to spread in other directions. Thankfully, the old centre of Praia Grande has been restored to its former lustre some years ago. The government launched a programme called Reviver, or Revival, and soon São Luís was considered a Centre of Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. One wander around the city, and you can see why. Its architecture is neck-craningly, jaw-droppingly stunning. Over 3,000 buildings are decorated with the original Portuguese tiles or Azulejos dating back 400 years, which alone ensure the protection of UNESCO and the Maranhão State Government. Little by little, Praia Grande regained its former beauty and today it is a centre of culture, new museums, restaurants and hotels. The Maranhão State Government is also located in Praia Grande and most tourists prefer to stay here, where they can walk back centuries into the past, instead of crossing the bridge to the new neighbourhoods where high-rises and shopping malls compete for the skyline. Alcântara On the other side of St Marcos Bay, facing São Luís, lies Alcântara – Brazil’s answer to Kennedy Space Centre. Because it is here that Brazil launched a rocket into space in August 2003, from the base that was built there 20 years ago. Alcântara was already very important for the Maranhão economy during the cotton boom of the 18th Century, when local merchant-nobles lived in imposing mansions spread all over the town. With the decline of the cotton industry, the city started to lose financial power and was almost reduced to an abandoned ghost-town. The Space Centre helped the town avoid that fate and today Alcântara is a thriving city, its magnificent architecture deserving more care from the authorities than it has received. Lençóis Maranhenses National Park It is all too easy to wander around São Luís and Alcântara for ever, lulled by the slow pace and quiet streets, but Maranhão has many more secrets to uncover. Thanks to the new roads, it only takes us three hours to arrive in Barreirinhas, the main entrance to a wonder of the natural world: Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, the biggest and most exotic Brazilian desert. You can cross the park by bus for only 30 reais, but for a little over 150 reais (around 50 Euros) you can do the same journey in a bi-place. We decide on the latter, and it is a truly spectacular experience. Flying over the park is a little like what it must be to fly close to the Moon. This lunar landscape, from a plane at least, looks as though it was formed by those unusual colours and textures. And I never realized that such a small plane could take me so far. Deserts are places with no memory. The wind and the sand erase everything and the traces of a man’s passing disappear within seconds. Any natural point of reference that shows us the way from A to B today, will be nothing but dust and a fading memory tomorrow. Here, reality itself is bent and shaped into illusion; mirages shimmer tantalizingly in the distance, like Sirens calling sailors to their doom. Stretching 155,000 hectares into all directions, the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is the size of São Paulo, the biggest Brazilian City. It is tiny when compared with the Sahara of course, which sprawls across an entire continent, but the greatest difference between the two is that for half of the year this desert enjoys rain. It is a curious natural cycle that generates thousands of emerald-green lakes which even briefly become alive with fish. Even waterfalls have been known to appear overnight. Scientists still cannot fully explain the existence of such surreal scenery in this exotic desert, but what is easy to understand is that all this water came from the skies. This region has two very distinct seasons: from July to December, it is dry; from January to June, it is wet. During these months, enormous cloud stacks gather above the dunes, bruising the sky, and drop their loads: over 17.5 cm of rainwater falls here (300 times more than the Sahara), making the desert look like an endless backyard where a giant has lain his sheets to dry. Which, coincidentally, is how this region got its name: Lençóis is the Portuguese word for sheets. Anatomy of a peculiar desert This desert, like all self-contained eco-systems, keeps itself ticking over. The rivers of this part of Maranhão, like the Preguiças and Parnaíba, drain into the Atlantic Ocean, carrying with them many tons of sediment and depositing them along Lençóis beach. But the eternal north-eastern wind takes the sand back to the interior of the continent, creating monster dunes, some of them 30 metres tall. The flora and fauna also come and go with the seasons. The rain overflows the ground water supplies, forming lagoons which in turn create rivers flowing into bigger, more permanent lagoons. Many insects are attracted to the water and deposit their eggs there, so beginning a food chain: the new vegetation has transformed the area into one big pasture where cattle graze freely. The insect eggs turn into grubs, the grubs eat the cattle excrement and are in turn eaten by the fish. By June, the lagoons are filled with fish which lay their eggs, ready for next year’s rainfall. It’s one big food-fest. The waters of the Preguiças River, and the green valley it irrigates, divides the Maranhão desert into two parts. On the west bank of the river lies the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. On the eastern banks lies Little Lençóis: ten times smaller than its big national park brother, but equally beautiful. “Nature here is always moving,” says Paulo Roberto Lima Araújo, 37, who has lived here on the banks of the Preguiças for the last ten years. “The landscape changes all the time. Near the banks of the Preguiças the dunes seem to be a different size every single day. Even the high water mark moves every season and it’s not in the same place it was a year ago.” Paulo lives in a cottage made of buriti (the local palm tree), on a stretch of riverbank between the fishing villages of Mandacaru and Caburé. The desert people have to follow the same rhythms of nature as the wildlife, and they must remain in constant movement to survive in such harsh conditions. Barreirinhas, a city of 30,000 people, lies at the park’s entrance. Only a third of its population lives in the city centre. The rest are scattered around many villages in the desert, living a life that cannot be so different to that of their ancestors hundreds of years ago. Due to the two different seasons, the people who live on the banks of the Preguiças are semi-nomadic. During the rainy season, they leave their fields and go for l
Os lençóis maranhenses é um lugar maravilhoso. O pôr do sol mais lindo que já apreciei.
Apreciar o pôr do sol no espigão na praia da ponta d'areia