April, 2016: Some of our favourite memories from South America came while exploring the north east, ‘desert’ coast of Brazil from Jericoacoara to Atins. From sand dune sunsets while looking over the Atlantic at Jericoacoara (Jeri to the locals) to the stunning white sandy solitude of the Lençóis de Marenhenses national park; from cheesy pao de queijo to a feast of fresh caught pipis while listening to bossanova, it was a special few weeks in a very special part of the world.
Jericoacoara is a gorgeous little town which feels more like a middle eastern desert oasis than somewhere just south of the equator in Brazil. Sandy streets run down to a wide white sand beach which extends out several hundred meters at low tide. On one side a large rocky headland protects it from the open ocean winds while on the other, big sand dunes rise up 20 – 30 meters before dropping almost directly into the waves below. Our days were spent beach side, munching grilled prawn kebabs while by night we wandered between trees twinkling with fairy lights listening to quality live music. We chose squeaky fresh fish from a fishmonger’s esky before having it grilled over an open wood fire; discovered fresh baked, slightly doughy, cheesy bread balls (pao de queijo) stuffed with slow cooked beef and drank a skinful of waterside passionfruit caipirinhas. We ate some of the best burgers we’ve had in a long time and broke out our dancing shoes under a near full moon in the sand dunes. We became so smitten with Jericoacoara that we spent a fair amount of our time working through the logistics of opening an Australian style cafe so we could stay a while. While in the end we decided against the cafe idea we did eventually come up with a name for it…. Eucalypt.
Early on a misty Friday morning we piled into the back of a busted Hilux twin cab and sadly took our leave of Jeri bound for the isolated Lençóis de Marenhenses national park and the village of Atins. For 5 – 6 hours from Jericoacoara to Atins, we bounced through exceptionally bumpy dune country passing loads of weird little villages. Gradually, we felt ourselves driving further and further away from civilization. Finally the paved road disappeared and we found ourselves hurtling along a deserted beach in drizzling rain while around us it appeared as though we had entered some kind of post apocalyptic, Mad Max like film set. Fi drifted in and out of sleep due to the knock out powers of motion sickness tablets while I found the whole scene quite disconcerting. I half expected Mel Gibson to come charging out of the mist in some kind of weaponized muscle car but all that appeared were the odd fishermen and the blackened skeletons of 100’s of dead trees. We later found out that the trees used to line the beach just above the high water mark but rising sea levels and the associated increase in salinity had gradually killed them.
After a short boat ride across the Rio Preguica we were dropped at a deserted beach surrounded by mangrove swamps but before we could really question the boat ‘captain’ he had promptly turned his boat around and taken off. Apparently we our journey from Jericoacoara to Atins was over. We shouldered our bags and went in search of the little fishing village. Before long, the first sign of humanity showed itself in the form of a turban wearing, beard wielding, bare foot madman riding a giant looking horse. Where the hell were we?!! Lawrence of Arabia disappeared as quickly as he had arrived and soon enough we found our pousada on another wide deserted sandy street.
The next morning we climbed in the back of another beat up Toyota Hilux and went exploring the rolling white sand dunes and aqua blue lakes which make Lençóis de Marenhenses national park famous. While we were only on the edge of it, the dunes stretched for 1500 km2 and made for quite an eerie sight. Up and over several sets of dunes we walked trying to find a little lake all to ourselves until we arrived in a long shallow lagoon filled with little water lilies who’s yellow and white flowers swayed and bent in the breeze. The water lapped gently against the dunes but other than that we couldn’t hear a thing. There was just silence. After a while snapping photos I realised Fi had disappeared around a corner and when I’d arrived at the same spot she had already gone up and over a sand dune. For a few seconds I had a momentary flash of irrational fear as I contemplated how average it would be to get lost in these never-ending dunes…thankfully we didn’t.
When we first arrived in Atins we passed a little bar on the virtually deserted beach with nice tunes so when our tour came to a fairly abrupt end we headed back there for a late lunch. ‘Maria do Mar’ was run by a German expat and his Brazilian wife (assumed to be Maria) and sported a bunch of super comfy lounging furniture positioned to take in the beach view while getting just the right amount of sun. With a light sea breeze in our face and some soft bossanova tunes in our ears we feasted on a huge plate of pipis which the owner had caught fresh that morning, accompanied by a fresh rocket and tomato salad and pomme frites. The pipis were cooked off in garlic, white wine and rosemary and were plump and juicy. A little fishing boat dropped it’s sail and pulled in to offload some of it’s catch into the German’s cool box closing out the idyllic beach side lunch setting. As the afternoon wore on we were joined by an awesomely crazy Austrian artist and his Yoko Ono like wife for a few beverages and a good laugh about his adventures in Australia in the 70’s.
That Saturday was one of the best days of our trip and seemed a fitting finale to our time on the desert coast of Brazil. Next stop was the Amazon.
Jericoacoara to Atins travel and feasting tips:
- Jeri can be reached easily by bus from Fortaleza where we started from. Regular buses do pick ups from various hotels in town which then drop you at the little crossroads town of Lagoa de Baixo from where you board a 4×4 truck which then takes you through the bush, along the beach and into Jeri. The whole trip takes about five hours.
- In Jeri we stayed at Pousada Jeribeka (USD35-55/night/private double with ensuite and a/c, Rua Principal, Jijoca de Jericoacoara) on the Rua Principal of Jeri. It wasn’t the cheapest place in town but the staff were super friendly and the free breakfast was delicious. Jeri fills up very quickly on weekends and public holidays with prices fluctuating accordingly so book ahead if possible.
- Standout, wood fired burgers can be found at EAT on the Streets (694-744 Rua do Forro)
- Check out the fishermen’s catch in big styrofoam ice boxes at Peixaria E Restaurante Brasileiro (corner of Sao Francisco & Beco do Guaxelo) and then watch it grilled over a wood fired grill. Everything we saw was super fresh, grilled simply with some lemon, salt and pepper and then served with chips and salad…exactly my type of seafood!
- While away the afternoon drinking caipirinhas do maracuja (passionfruit) from the beach cocktail carts and keep an eye out for a young dude selling his delicious pao de queijo stuffed with slow cooked beef.
- Walk north east out of Jericoacoara and along the coast to watch sunset at the Pedra Furada which is a big natural arch of rock. Ideally be better prepared than us and take a few sundowners with you. For sundowners closer to town, walk just south of town and watch the sunset from the top of the sand dunes before running down the steep slope to the water below.
- To get to Atins you either can do what we did and take a pickup truck direct from Jericoacoara (the more expensive but faster option) or take public buses from Jeri to get you to Barreirinhas. From there you can get a speed boat down river to Atins.
- To find Maria do Mar, take the little laneway beside Eco Pousada Filhos do Vento and follow it all the way down to the beach and then turn left. Maria do Mar should be the second little bar you come across.
- Lots of places in Atins will offer ‘half day’ trips into the national park. In reality these trips involve a stop at a beachside waterfall (which is actually quite cool), a stop in the sand dunes themselves and then a lunch stop on the way home. Make sure you’re clear on what you’re getting before you commit.