It’s 3am, and after 4 flights, 48 hours of sleep deprivation, one lost checked-bag and an Olympic stamp in our passports, our taxi is taking us through the eerily quiet streets of Sao Luis, Brazil. It was only 2 and half weeks earlier, while in Gjirokastra, Albania that we finally booked our flights to Brazil. We arrived three days before the end of the visa-free period for the Olympic games. Unfortunately the Brazilian Government has quadruped the visa price for Australians from $63AUD to $216AUD earlier in the year, so it is very expensive to get in the normal way.
At two degrees south of the Equator, Sao Luis is a truly tropical capital (of the state of Maranhanao). It feels very Caribbean with its colourful and crumbling colonial buildings and Afro-Brazilian culture. Sao Luis is also a hub of reggae music, as its position on the coast allowed locals to listen to Jamaican radio before Brazil established local stations of their own. While most pass through on their way to the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, we thought it was worth a few days of exploring. Many of the attractions in the historic old town are free or very cheap, and many offer free tours (usually in Portuguese).
Palacio dos Leoes, An 18th Century palace in the location of the original french fort, had an English speaking guide. The Se Church is beautiful and there are several museums and art galleries. The Archaeology Museum is an interesting journey through history, although I have to question its accuracy when there is a suspiciously jurassic park looking display in the pre-historic section!
We stayed in the Renascença district, closer to the beaches. It was easy enough to take a city bus to the city centre for $R2.90. We walked to Sao Marcos beach, I wouldn’t swim there as it looks quite polluted, although not as badly as passing Lagoa da Jansen on the way! I have never smelled anything so bad! Not even in Delhi!
My favourite part of Sao Luis was hanging out at the hostel. Tanan Hostel is amazing! Super friendly staff, two kitchens, lots of welcoming common areas and Bobo, the most adorable kitten I’ve ever met! It’s the perfect place to meet other travellers. The great thing about this part of Brazil is that you meet so many Brazilian travellers. We met some very friendly Sao Paulo locals who just came from the Lencois Maranhenes and gave us lots of good advice about the national park and about Brazil generally. A few of them are visiting Australia soon and so we were able to share some tips with with them too.
We also celebrated the Moon festival with some lovely Chinese travellers who cooked up a delicious feast! We’ve really been missing Asian food!
From Sao Luis we took a transfer ($R60 each) to Barreirinhas.Barreirinhas is a small, dusty, rather unappealing town. The riverfront area is pretty, with restaurants and live music every evening. The only reason to go to Barreirinhas is for the trips to the Lencois Maranhenses national park. We booked a tubing tour on the Cardosa river and a tour to the various lagoons, most of which had unfortunately dried up apart from Lagoa d0 Peixe and Lagoa Guias (which were knee deep). We were there in September, which is late in the season and unfortunately, this year has been drier than usual. It’s best to visit between June and August if you want to ensure the Lagoons are full and at their most beautiful. The sand dunes on their own though are pretty impressive!
Atins is paradise, a tiny village on the sea. Isolated, laid back, delicious food, nothing but a few cabanas and a couple of kitesurfers on the long white stretch of beach.
In Atins there are day trips to lagoons in the Maranheses and these lagoons were much more idyllic than those near Barreirinhas, plus we had them almost to ourselves. There were maybe ten people around compared with dozens at the other lagoons. We also had our guide to ourselves. The language barrier was a bit unfortunate – I really wish I’d learnt some Portuguese. Almost no one speaks english, not even those working in the tourism industry. We’ve mostly relied on help from Brazilian travellers, google translate and my extremely limited Spanish to make ourselves understood so far. If I had my time here over I would skip Barreirinhas and do one of the 3 – 4 day treks across the dunes or simply hang out in Atins longer, at our accommodation (Tia Rita Posada) a local guide Genario (Genario speaks English and does guided treks but we ran out of time) assisted with organising a transfer for us to Jeriocoacoara. Genario helpfully explained the full itinerary needed to take public transport instead, but it is rather complicated and Josiah had work deadlines looming. So we decided it was worth it to book a private transfer ($R600 for two people).
To get the transfer to Jericoacoara from Atins you need to take a boat from Atins – Cabure ($R25 – $40) and then arrange passage with a driver. If you are lucky, this can be arranged in Atins prior to leaving. The public transport option is as follows. A jardineira (bench seats in the back of a ute) transfer from Cabure to Paulino Neves (or you can return to Barreirinhas by jeep and take a bus to Paulino Neves). A bus Paulino Neves to Tutoia, Tutoia to Parnaiba, Parniaba to Camocim, Camocim to Jijoca and from Jijoca a jeep/jardineira transfer to Jericoacoara . If you leave early and line up your buses it’s possible to reach Parnaiba or Camocim in one day, but you’ll probably have to spend the night in one of these towns. It’s also possible to take a boat trip across the delta from Tutoia to Parnaiba, which is supposed to be quite beautiful. An option we would have definitely looked at had it not been for work deadlines.
A side note: Some useful information about ATMS.
The ATMS are not reliable at Sao Luis airport, four ATMS rejected our card and the one that accepted it charged a $R24 fee! We’ve found that most non-bank ATMs charge this ‘convenience fee’. Our card doesn’t work at all at Banco do Brasil (the bank Lonely Planet lists all through their Brazil guide). HSBC and Bradesco ATMs accept `visa chip cards and have worked for us so far. There is a limit on the amount you can take out per day. Usually its $R1000 but I’ve heard it can be lower depending on the city and time of day. ATMs are limited in Barreirinhas and there are none in Atins, we took out cash at HSBC in Sao Luis. There are also none in Jericoacoara (our next destination). Our transfer driver stopped at a Bradesco ATM in Paraíba on the way. This is definitely an issue to consider if you are taking the public transport option, as the only ATMs at the bus stations are convenience ones with surcharges.