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The millions of acres of verdant Amazon rainforest which stretch across Brazil’s northernmost reaches might be the country’s most well-known natural attraction, but in the coastal state of Maranhão you will find terrain of an altogether more otherworldly kind: 300 square-kilometres of undulating sand dunes, where from May to September – enough to inspire awe in even the most jaded of world travellers.
Those who make the journey to the far-flung state – Maranhão is on Brazil’s lesser-travelled north-eastern coast – will be rewarded with a part of the country with an energy all its own, whether the quaint pastel-tiled streets of its main city, São Luís, or the wide forest-edged rivers which weave their way into the Atlantic ocean. But it is the national park of Lençóis Maranhenses which remains Maranhão’s biggest draw: encompassing tens of kilometres of coastline, mangrove swamps, rivers and rainforest, it takes its name from the vast field of rippling white sand dunes – South America’s largest – at its centre (Lençóis Maranhenses translates from Portuguese as the ‘bed sheets of Maranhão’).
Begin your journey into Lençóis Maranhenses at São Luís, the capital of Maranhão and home to Marechal Cunha Machado airport, where flights arrive regularly from Brasília, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (on a clear day your descent will likely give you your first glimpse of the park from above, the flight path directed over the kilometres-long stretches of sand dunes). From São Luís – itself a destination worth pausing over, with a UNESCO-protected historic centre built during the wealthy sugar-farming days of the 17th century – most visitors head to one of the two main entry points into the park, Barreirinhas and Santo Amaro do Maranhão.
The former, located on the Preguiças River is perhaps the most well-known – arrive to one of the town’s many accommodations via rental car or arranged bus from São Luís – the latter more sedate, offering you passage to the lesser-travelled landscapes of Lençóis Maranhenses (in Santa Amaro, stay in one of the many pousadas, humble ‘inns’ which range from simple communal rooms with hammocks for sleeping, to pretty wooden camping lodges). The more remote beachside village of Atins on the edge of the park, accessed by boat from Barreirinhas, has also become increasingly popular, particularly with watersports aficionados – some of the best kite-surfing in the world is found along the locale’s famously blustery coastline.
Most will arrive in July just after rainy season – which takes place from January to June – when the lunar dunes become dotted with pools of crystal-clear water, like mirages in a desert (which in itself is partly an illusion, because despite its appearance, the amount of rainfall each year means Lençóis Maranhenses is not arid enough to officially be deemed a desert). An arranged 4×4 trip is perhaps the best way to navigate the desolate environment (visitors are warned about going solo, the 380,000-or-so acres of endlessly repeating dunes leaving it easy to get lost or disorientated), taking you to the largest lagoons, which, at the right time of year, are deep enough to take off your clothes and swim under the warm winter sun. Between uninterrupted Brazilian skies, azure-blue waters and the rippling crests of lunar-white dunes, it makes for an experience like few others on earth.