10 Things you need to know before travelling to Lençóis Maranhenses in Brazil
Have you seen those incredible turquoise blue lagoons in the heart of a desert? Maybe you’ve seen them on Instagram or in travel videos on Youtube. Ever wondered where they are?
You can find these in the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in the north of Brazil. It’s not quite the luxury experience you would expect after seeing girls in long floaty dresses posing in the sunset on the edge of the white sand dunes. Sounds like the perfect photo opportunity right? Maybe it is, if you can afford a helicopter to fly in.
If you’re not afraid of a challenge then here are 10 things you need to know before trekking to the lagoons of Lençóis Maranhenses. This list will prepare your every sense, from the reality of how you will feel, to what you will see, and what to bring for one of the most testing adventures yet.
1. How to get to Lençóis Maranhenses from Barreirinhas
Getting to the lagoons of Lençóis Maranhenses is not so easy. Many of you might be sensible and reach Lençóis Maranhenses from Barreirinhas after staying the night there. You can also get here very easily from São Luís via Barreirinhas.
However, we came all the way from Praia do Pipa, almost 30 hours away on bus. For the first leg of the journey from Pipa, we first took a bus to Natal for 2 hours. These depart every couple of hours and cost around $R15 (April 2017).
From Natal there is an over-night bus to Fortaleza at 22:00, which cost around $R76 (April 2017). We arrived into Fortaleza at 6am, meaning we had some time to see the sights of Fortaleza City before another night bus to São Luís.
At 12:30 we boarded another bus to take us to São Luís. With Guanabara this cost $R258 per person (April 2017). We had to request the driver to stop at the Bacabeira junction, where we were to arrive around 6am. This is 50km before São Luís, which helped shorten our journey.
From Bacabeira, we took a taxi to Barreirinhas 200km away. This cost $R40 per person.
In Barreirinhas we met our guide, Genário who helped collect our bags and took us in a lancha along the Preguiças river to Atins. This was included in our total tour price. We were one step closer to the lagoons of Lençóis Maranhenses.
2. Do you need a guide in Lençóis Maranhenses?
Yes, you definitely need a guide to trek to the lagoons. It is up to you what type of trek you do in the national park as there are a lot of options.
When I got in touch with our accommodation in Atins, I was given the number of their best local guide, Genário Lins. He offered sunset treks and 2-3 day treks. He has over 20 years experience in Lençóis Maranhenses National Park and speaks Portuguese, Spanish and English. I would highly recommend Genário as your guide. You don’t need to stay in the same accommodation as we did, you can contact Genário directly to arrange a guided trek.
Genário contact details:
- Whatsapp: +558699261169
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: genarioguia
3. Who to stay with in Atins
Our guide, Genário took us to our accommodation in Atins. I had been recommended by a fellow traveller to stay at Pousada Tia Rita. I got in touch with ‘Tia Rita’ before our arrival to get more information about the lagoons and to confirm our stay.
At the Pousada they offered a selection of rooms (April 2017):
Pousada Tia Rita
- Whatsapp: + 55 86 99926116
- Email: email@example.com
- Double room with fan = $R130 per room
- Twin room with fan = $R120 per room
- Hammock outside = $R25 per person
These prices included a buffet breakfast of tapioca, dulce de leche and fruits. Our first night in Atins, we decided to be cheap and sleep in the hammocks. I’m pleased this was only for one night as it was extremely uncomfortable and there were a few mosquitos humming in our ears.
We did find that the prices were negotiable upon arriving and when we returned to the Pousada after our lagoon trek we moved to a more comfortable option, as the hammocks were not appealing after what we had just endured.
4. When is the best time to visit Lençóis Maranhenses?
The best time to visit the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is between June and September. The wet season begins in January and it rains until the end of April. This means the dunes are full of crystal clear turquoise pools.
During the dry months of October and November, strong winds push sand inland from the coast, as far back as 30 miles and for as long as 27 miles. This creates these huge 40 metre sand dunes over a long period of time.
Between January and June, torrential downpours fill the valleys between the dunes and create thousands of clear lagoons. They only exist for a few months, and the fish that had remained dormant deep in the damp mud below in the previous season flourish once more, but for only a short time.
The hot and dry weather from November to February causes drying of the lagoons and many of them are without water. I wouldn’t advise visiting in these months as the lagoons are the stars of the show and make the challenging trekking through the sand dunes completely worth it.
We endured a 3 day barefoot trek through the National Park on Easter weekend (April) 2017. There had been a huge downpour over the last month and the lagoons were rising already. There was the option to continue for a further day to Lagoa Bonita but our feet couldn’t take any more and we were glad to be returning to Atins on the third day. It is an arduous trek and one for those who are extremely fit and willing to set off each morning at 3am to avoid the midday heat.
5. What you need to bring?
- cash as there are no cash points in Atins
- high factor sun cream
- long sleeves to protect shoulders from the sun
- a hat that won’t blow away
- swimming wear and towels
- 5+ litres of water
- flip flops as you mainly walk bare foot
- mosquito repellent
- small backpack to put your change of clothes in if you go overnight
- lots of snacks to keep you going
6. What is included in the price?
Our 3 day trek with Genário cost $R800 for our group of 4 people. This included Genário as our guide for 2 days and another guide to take us back to Atins. The total price also included 1 night in a shared room at Dona Luiza in Canto do Atins and our last night in a hammock at Baixa Grande oasis at a local farm.
Genário shared with us his knowledge about the history of the Lençóis Maranhenses. We found out that the lagoons trapped between the dunes create tropical oasis and the water varies between shades of blue and green, depending on their depth. They can be up to 10 feet deep. The impermeable rock that lies beneath the sand allows for the fresh water to collect rather than be absorbed during the rainy months and dries out in the later months.
What’s excluded in the price?
The first nights’ accommodation in Canto do Atins, which is included in the price, is extremely basic, with shared rooms and a bucket for a shower and no kitchen. However, Dona Luzia prepares some of the best prawns, the cream sauce was particularly popular. This was not included in the price. The prawns were around $R40, depending on the style. If you are vegan or vegetarian, I would recommend bringing something easy to make for your dinner.
Again on our second night at Baixa Grande, dinner was not included. However, it was very good value at around $R15 for chicken stew with rice and beans. Not vegetarian friendly, so again make sure you have something for the second night or you could have just rice and beans.
7. What to expect to see in Lençóis Maranhenses?
On the first morning of our full day of trekking, we were woken up at 3:30am by a loud screech from Doña Luzia. A poor attempt to force us out of bed. Alas we crawled out at 4am and started our moonlit trek. After wading blindly through swampland we reached the coastline at dawn. The sun was rising behind us and we began to understand why we started so early, the heat was piercing as soon as the sun began its ascent.
We followed the rugged waters edge for 10km and then with high spirits we moved inland to search for the lagoons. They are the only white sandy dunes with natural lagoons in the world and they are truly spectacular. The sand dunes can reach up to 40 metres high and are perfect to sprint down and dive into the refreshing pools below. It was a tough climb back up, but totally worth doing….again and again.
Most of our second day was spent exploring these steep dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses and taking a swim in the pools. Before it got too hot we continued our trek to Baixa Grande, our accommodation for the night. Lying in the middle of an oasis, surround by the first bit of greenery we’d seen, we met our hosts who showed us to where we would be sleeping. Palm trees provided the shade our bare feet desperately needed, hopping from sand like lava to cool shaded leaf silhouettes to get to our hammocks. A 4 hour siesta was well deserved and the local kid joined us…
The last day
The wake up call on the last day was even earlier and harder. At 2:30am we flung out of our hammocks and found ourselves trekking once more. Below the full moon we followed the silhouettes of the dunes to guide us back to the coast. It felt like we were walking in space. Genário had continued for a further day with the other couple to Lagoa Bonita. I don’t know how they did this. We had a second guide leading the way and he was clearly frustrated with our slowing pace.
Walking over the dunes under the moonlight was breathtaking and one of the highlights. It proved to be the most manageable part of the day. When we reached the beach we realised that the whole way was vast, flat and never ending under the scorching morning sun.
At midday we made it to Doña Luzias, where our guide said this is where he left us! This was not the plan. He wanted us to pay him there and then before he returned to Atins on his quad bike and leave us barefoot! I couldn’t face another 7km walk and our cash was at Tia Ritas. So I demanded he gave us a lift back on his quad if he wanted to be paid.
8. How to expect to feel?
- Gross: First part of the walk we waded through swamps bare foot with sharp reeds cutting us and sinking into slimy sand below. This was not as idyllic as I’d imagined.
- Damp: On our first night it rained and leaked onto my bed, therefore I felt damp and cold.
- Tired: Waking up at 3:30am to a simple breakfast, therefore I felt tired and hungry.
- Refreshing: Diving into the pools made me feel super refreshed and floating in the water was very relaxing.
- Exhausted: Reaching Baixa Grande oasis at 12pm felt very rewarding.
- Deserving: A 4 hour siesta was needed. Added bonus was the baby goat in a hammock.
- Surreal: Walking under the moonlight made me feel like I was floating in space.
- Deep burn: Barefoot on the beach for 10km was burning the soles of our feet as well as the heat from the sun.
- Frustrated: Returning to Dona Luzia’s was incredibly frustrating as we had been ditched by our guide.
- Smug: Getting a quad bike back to Tia Rita’s was exhilarating and completely necessary.
- Destroyed: Having a swollen foot and pink eye was not ideal.
- Low Group moral: We were having constant arguments and I ended up hobbling home on my own to go to bed first.
9. How to get to São Luís from Atins
The next day we left Atins at 8am by boat to return back to Barreirinhas, which cost us $R35 each.
Once in Barreirinhas we had to find a mini van to take us to Sao Luis. In our boat we had some others travelling with us. As I was feeling sorry for myself and felt unpresentable with my gammy pink eye, I let a French girl take control with her Spanish. She came back successful and we piled into a mini bus for $R60 each. She had visited many tourist operators and negotiated the best price she could. There didn’t seem to be a set price, everything could be bartered.
We arrived to Sao Luis at 6pm, in time for a beer in the square. After the last few days covered in sand, bruised feet and melted minds, we decided to treat ourselves and checked in to Pousada Portas da Amazônia São Luís. We got a triple room and stayed there for a week to recover. I would definitely recommend staying in this beautiful Pousada, a buffet breakfast is included too.
10. How much does visiting Lençóis Maranhenses cost?
After reading my account on visiting the lagoons at Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, do you think it’s worth it? 100%
Here’s how much it all cost:
- Return transport from Pipa to Sao Luis = $R484 per person
- 2 nights accommodation at Pousada Tia Rita = $R50 per person (based on hammocks)
- 2 night, 3 day trek guided tour = $R200 per person
- Food = $R50 per person
- Total price for 4 nights per person (April 2017) = $R784 per person (£156)
It might be a complete nightmare of a trek and no walk in the park but the views are sensational and other-worldly. No where else will you find such steep white sand dunes that plunge into sparkling fresh water lagoons in only a few months out of the year. It’s an absolute haven and an experience I would definitely recommend.
Watch this video to see if you think it’s worth it.
Leave a comment below to let me know if you have visited the lagoons at Lençóis Maranhenses and how you found the trek, maybe I’m just a big wimp.
Another place you should visit on your trip to Brazil is the Pantanal. Read my post about the best way to get to the Brazilian Pantanal.