Our planet has its share of stunning landscapes, but this one may be in a class by itself. Imagine a moonscape of sugar-white sand dunes peppered with aquamarine rainwater lagoons — as far as the eye can see. Intrigued? For the traveler who likes something a little off the beaten track but well worth the hype, step into Lençóis Maranhenses National Park (or just Lençóis Maranhenses), one of Brazil’s most exotic sites. Whether you go for the day or an overnight trek, a visit here is a bucket-list-worthy adventure not to be missed.
Lençóis Maranhenses – an overview
Lençóis Maranhenses caps Brazil’s remote northeast coast and is a vast expanse (some 590 square-miles) of white sand fields formed nearly a million years ago. Undulating dunes move in rhythm to the Atlantic offshore winds while rainwater lakes furrow in ribbons of cerulean splendor among them. It makes for a dreamy, nearly intoxicating visual – and no doubt the inspiration (at least in part) behind the park’s name: “Lençóis Maranhenses,” or “Bed Sheets” in English.
Once in the park, take some time to soak in its stunning vistas, sink your toes in its powder-soft carpet, and luxuriate in its quiet pools.
Touring Lençóis Maranhenses
Most visitors spend either a full or half day in the park, though two to three-day adventures inside the park for the particularly ambitious are also available.
Half-day and day tours
Basic daily tours start in the park’s main gateway town, Barreirinhas, and include a guided ride in a canopied Jeep into the park and back (usually up to 10 people per vehicle) with a handful of stops for swimming, dune climbing (dunes can get as high as 70 feet), and general ambling around in this most exotic locale. Oh, and there are plenty of opportunities for that Insta-perfect shot to make your friends back home just a wee bit jealous. Afternoon/evening tours include to-die-for sunsets.
Full day tours include a stop at one of the park’s oases where small campsites are set up. There, you’ll enjoy a mouthwatering lunch of grilled shrimp (among other delights), and a relaxing siesta in the shade of a tree-strung hammock. (Rudimentary bathrooms with showers are also onsite.) Prices start at about R$ 200 ($36) per person (not including lunch) for a full day, and R$ 145 ($26) for a half day.
Overnight treks include more of the same but involve hiking with a full pack for three to five hours a day in the sun. At the risk of stating the obvious, please don’t try this unless you are physically prepared; the most efficient approach to trekking through the sand is by walking barefoot, so this is not for the faint of sole.
Nights are spent at the aforementioned oases — which, while modest (you will overnight in a hammock), provide an opportunity to see a bit of local culture and experience this unique habitat in-depth. Jeeps will drop off and pick up trekkers at the tour’s completion. Prices are roughly calculated by the trek and range from about R$ 3,000 ($534) for one person to R$ 785 ($140) per person for a group of five.
There are several good tour operators in the area though we like Taguatur and Brasil Planet for their experienced and English-speaking guides. Tours can also be arranged through your Barreirinhas “pousada” or hotel.
How to get there
The closest city with a domestic airport is in São Luís (SLZ), a former colonial outpost 145 miles east of Barreirinhas. Van (R$125 or $22) or taxi (R$180 or $32) will get you there from the airport (though it’s a four to five-hour ride thanks to endless speedbumps and potholes). Check Viatour for selected van options. Transfers can also be arranged through your Barreirinhas accommodations. Check ahead for updated pricing.
When to go
This part of Brazil has two distinct seasons: the rainy season from February to May and the dry season from June to January. The best time to visit, then, is May through September when the rain has stopped and the park lagoons are relatively full. As the season progresses, lake levels decline from near constant exposure to the sun.
Temperatures range from about 80-90 degrees in May through September, but it can feel hotter thanks to the mostly shade-less region. The wind blows nearly all the time, though tends to be a manageable 6-8 mph during this period as well.
Be sure and wear plenty of sunscreen, a light layer of breathable fabric (we recommend long sleeves), and a hat. Don’t forget your swimsuit.
Don’t bother with flip flops – they’re worthless in deep sand – and opt for an athletic sandal or comfortable sneaker instead. As mentioned, trekkers will likely do most of the trip in bare feet, but consult with tour operators on best practices.
Finally, carry at least a liter of water for a day trip and up to 1.5 liters if you’re trekking overnight.
For more about the park, including updated opening times, visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park online.