We landed in São Luís after midnight to find the airport just full of people. Apparently the internal flights in Brazil don’t stop. There were flights at 2 and 4 AM, for example. Glad we didn’t have to take any of those.
Our luggage was somehow already on the carousel. We grabbed a cab and found we had one crazy cab driver, who seemed determined to get back to the airport for the next arrivals as soon as possible. At one point he was driving 90 on a city street and he introduced to the common Brazil cabbie practice of running reds if nobody is around.
Between disembarking, getting our luggage, finding the cab and getting to the hotel, we had probably the fastest plane-to-hotel trip for the distance (15km of city streets) we could imagine. Which was great, because it was quite late.
So, we were headed to Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses, a National Park with stunning sand dunes that I had become aware of many years ago. I once watched Casa de Areia but I had also read about how different the northeast was from the rest of the country and had somehow found out about the dunes. Then, as we were thinking of what to do, Jenn found out about them and we decided we needed to go.
There are basically three choices in terms of approaching Lençóis Maranhenses:
- staying in Barreirinhas, a town the services you need but apparently pretty ugly, nearly 300 km from São Luís, and a long drive into the park,
- staying Atins, a village on the ocean that is even further from São Luís and requires special off-road transportation,
- staying in Santo Amaro, a village that is both closer to São Luís Barreirinhas than and closer to an entrance to the park.
In order to get to Barreirinhas and Santo Amaro, you can take a bus, a shared van or a private car. There are buses and vans multiple times a day and the private cars are hired as needed. The problem was that so much of the information about this online was limited or in Portuguese. Even with translating the Portuguese, all we could really find out is that it was better to book once you got there, rather than online, if you were going with a van or a private car. We decided we weren’t going to take the bus because we didn’t know how close the bus would stop to our pousada. But also because some of the information I saw online implied the bus would just leave us by the side of the road somewhere where we would then hope to be able to pay someone to go the rest of the way. (That latter information turned out to be about Atins.) So we settled on a van.
We had tried to arrange transportation to Santo Amaro with our pousada, but we hadn’t heard anything from them. So we went to bed without having any idea of how we were going to travel the 250 km.
We woke up freezing, as I had turned the AC down because, at the pousada in Olinda, we had to crank it. But we now learned that the place in Olinda was the exception. Basically all the other ACs would work almost too well, often making the rooms fridges.
We were able to finally get some answers from our pousada and learned that we would be picked up at our hotel at 11:30.
We went to breakfast. The hotel had a less diverse breakfast than the pousada in Olinda but some items were tastier (the eggs, some of the fruit). Though the hotel wasn’t in the best shape and its location on the lagoon side dos Holandeses made it pretty budget, the breakfast was pretty good. (The juice was better at the pousada in Olinda.)
After breakfast we went to the beach to see what we’d have to look forward to when we got back to the city.
We checked out at 11:30, when we were expecting to get picked up. Then he messaged to say noon. At 11:50, Jenn got a text that he was there. All we could see was a sedan. We go outside and there is a sedan with a driver in the front and family of three in the back. The driver gets out and opens the trunk and it is almost entirely full; full of the family’s bags yes, but it also has two medium sized coolers (which turned out to be empty) and a large bag of the kid’s beach toys. The driver explains we are going to meet the van but Jenn doesn’t register this (he is speaking Portuguese and I am guessing). I suggest putting Jenn’s suitcase on my lap and trying to squeeze my backpack in the trunk but I can’t convey this. So what happens next is a comedy of errors as this driver and the father try to figure out how to rearrange the stuff so that all six of us can get into this sedan with all the luggage. When we try with the father in the front with the kid’s toys on his lap, the child freaks out and has to be calmed down.
Eventually they arrive at the solution of leaving one of the (empty) coolers at the hotel, for the transportation company to pick up later. The kid accepts that his father can sit in the front possibly only because his mother starts breastfeeding him. Jenn and I squeeze in next to them.
São Luís is on an island. There is only one road in and out. So we had to drive from our hotel all the way off the island to wherever the meeting point was. I had read online that many companies that offer transportation and tours in Brazil are fairly informal, and just different names for the same thing. And this turned out to be true in this case. We went to a gas station where we were told to wait inside an office. In the office there was this wall of different signs, featuring different brand names, all essentially offering the same thing: transportation from São Luís to one of the surrounding towns. This room had AC and water and we couldn’t figure out why we were told to sit inside but not the family. (My guess was we paid them more.)
Eventually, the van showed up. There were already people in the van, and more showed up soon. The people already in the van had brought a ton of boxes with them. Along with the family’s stuff, this created a bit of a problem: too much luggage. So we spent the next, um, 45 minutes? waiting while the drivers and company employees tried to figure out which piece to put where, including in another van and in a pickup truck. I believe the solution is that a pickup truck drove to Santo Amaro with the extra baggage but given that our stuff was in the van, I decided I didn’t need to know.
In Latin America, people get so stressed out about flying, they form these absurd lines before the flight’s announced, and they stand in the way during the various zone announcements, so nobody knows who is actually lining up to get on for, say, Zone 2. It’s as if nobody believes they will make the plane, that the plane will leave without them if they don’t hover around the gate until they allowed to board.
But, as Jenn noted, apparently with a booked van it’s the exact opposite. Nobody was in any hurry to leave. Even after they sorted out the luggage we just sat there for a little while. We ended up leaving Santo Amaro after 1PM. Maybe it has something to do with being on the vehicle, as we were sitting in the van for much of this.
We headed out of town, with our bags on our laps. Not that far out of town, the driver just pulled over to get a cop of coffee without offering anyone a chance to get anything or go to the toilet. I didn’t realize how early this was in the drive so I was a little surprised that it happened.
In Brazil, there are very few controlled access highways. They have as much kilometrage as Canada does with nearly seven times our population. So in many parts of the country there are no “highways” in the sense that we think of them, or if there are they last for extremely short stretches. So there is a section or two of the road out of town that is properly a highway but not much. (In most cases when you think you are on a controlled-access highway you’ll soon hit a light or you’ll see a random road that just intersects with one side of it.) Mostly it’s driving on a city street in town or on a rural road. There’s also traffic. And when you get out into the country, in addition to the speed limit reducing for towns and villages, there are large speed bumps. This means that the car comes to almost a complete stop multiple times in a village and many times in a town. And then there’s traffic.
The result is that something that is 200 km away is not 2 hours away or less like it would be here. It’s a lot further because, even though our drivers were driving something like 30 or 40 kph over the speed limit for much of the drive, they also had to slow way down all the damn time.
Our drivers were characters, especially the second one. When things got really rural, they routinely drove in the centre of the road. And the second guy spent more time in the opposite lane than I think I’ve ever seen anyone ever do. Ostensibly, this seemed to be to avoid patches on our side of the road but a couple of times I saw him driving on the wrong side of the road when the patches were over there so who knows. A couple of times oncoming cars had to flash their lights at him before he pulled back over.
We stopped for a break partway through and it was just a classic roadside for bus/van trip. I’ve been to these places in Australia, Turkey, Colombia, the former Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and now Brazil and they are all so similar, with the aesthetic seemingly the same. This one was actually much more reasonable than we imagined.
The colour of ground began to change – though it was hard to tell through the tinted windows – and we began to see more and more sand and the odd dune. Luckily for us, we were the first stop in Santo Amaro, I guess because our pousada was on the other side of the river from the village proper. It was nice to get out first, though they had buried our bags.
Our pousada was really nice. Everything open-air except for the rooms (and this one hilariously male-coded special dining room). There’s a pool, cabanas, an open-air massage area, and tons of plants around the walkways. I tried to embed their tour but it didn’t work so you can view it here. (At least one of the cabins has its own hot tub though we didn’t pay for that.)
After settling in, we walked around. We walked to an overlook point, where we could see the dunes in the park, and realized we were right next to the river, the hilariously named Rio Grande. One of the many so-named rivers in Brazil.
So we found our way out the back gate and down to the river. People from the pousada were sitting in chairs in the river and one was swimming. We waved in and I am not sure I have ever felt a warmer river in my life. (Keeping in mind almost every river I’ve ever been in has been in Canada, the US or Australia.) It was like a bathtub. As we stood there, a bunch of kids just waded across it, showing it was basically the same depth all the way across. There’s a bridge in town but it’s easy to imagine kids in particular just taking off their shoes and wading whenever they wanted to cross.
Santo Amaro is quite a small village with not a lot to do. There are a few restaurants and not much else. (And I mean not much else.) We weren’t sure if we would have a lit route all the way back from dinner so we chose to eat at the closest restaurant.
It looked like it would be busy, because we were there in season (for the dunes). But there was nobody there. We weren’t even sure it was open and I had to go into the back to find somebody. We ate a stewed fish that was tasty. It may have also been our first introduction farofa, something neither Jenn nor I ever grew to like.
When we got back to the hotel, we tried to have dessert but it took so long we cancelled it. So we went for a swim in the pool. It was very pleasant.