I’ve been fortunate enough to visit yet another Wonder of the World. Because if the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Northeastern Brazil is not a true wonder of the world, I don’t know what is.
While you won’t find Lençóis Maranhenses on any major travel bucket list, it should be on yours. Whatever it is you’re planning for next summer, scratch it. Make this trip to Northeastern Brazil a priority; you won’t regret it!
What Is Lençóis Maranhenses?
It’s something that looks like a desert and feels like a desert, but isn’t a desert. Lençóis Maranhenses receives 47 inches of rain every year – deserts get about 10. The park defies description.
Here is a little preview. You arrive at the park on a small open-air bus based on a 4×4 vehicle. Only 100 or so of them are certified by the park, and I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s not — the park is immense!
Since I stayed in the adjacent village of Santo Amaro, the ride into the park took less than 10 minutes. All of a sudden, you find yourself in the middle of this.
When you witness this scenery for the first time, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve read and how many photos you’ve seen. You’re breathless. This can’t ever exist, you’re thinking to yourself!
And yet it does. It’s not a mirage. There are no reasons for your mind to play tricks with you sanity. What you see is what you get!
Nothing can prepare you for that first experience, because nothing like Lençóis Maranhenses exists anywhere else on this planet!
Lençóis Maranhenses receives a huge amount of rain between January and June. The rock foundation beneath the dunes is impermeable, which is why the water stays put until the lagoas dry up from October to December. And then the cycle starts anew.
Where is Lençóis Maranhenses?
Whoever says that it’s remote (and a lot of people on Internet forums say that), I have no idea what they’re talking about. Remoteness is not an issue here. Lençóis Maranhenses is no more remote than Machu Picchu or Halong Bay. It may be slightly more remote than Iguassu Falls, but surely less so than Easter Island. The reason why Lençóis Maranhenses is still not an international household name must be due to a bad case of whocaresness on the part of the local travel authorities. I was unable to break through to SECTUR (the state of Maranhão tourism body) no matter what I tried – email, Facebook or Twitter; English or Portuguese…
In any case, the current state of affairs with the international tourism is their loss and our gain. Get your butts there soon, before it gets crowded and pricey.
You will most likely start your ride to the park in São Luís, the capital of the State of Maranhão. From there, you will need to book a ride to one of the 3 points of entry: Barreirinhas, Santo Amaro, or Atins. Whatever path you choose, the transfer time will take between 4 and 5.5 hours.
Flying to São Luís
It’s easy. Here are all the airports with a connection to São Luís.
For a true Business Class seat, you need to fly via Rio on American, or São Paulo on American or LATAM. If you don’t care about staying in Rio, American flies better planes to São Paulo (777-300 with Reverse Herringbone) than Rio (777-200 with Zodiac seats). LATAM flies A350 from São Paulo. I took that LATAM flight last year and didn’t like the seat. Of course, we’re still talking lie-flat, so I managed to “tough it up” for 10 hours, somehow. 🙂
If a Business Class seat is not a necessity, you have more options. LATAM flies from Miami to Fortaleza and Belem, and American flies to Brazilia (also from Miami). You can also use a combination of an American flight to Manaus with a GOL flight (use Delta miles) between Manaus and São Luis.
Here are my flights:
- NYC – Rio: 80,000 Cathay Pacific miles RT (Business Class booked before the devaluation)
- Rio – São Luís: 25,000 Delta miles on GOL RT (Economy)
American is my go-to airline to Brazil. Of course, both Delta and United fly there as well, but the awards are pricey and much harder to find, especially in business, while American has amazing availability to Brazil. I could’ve found flights from NYC to São Paulo, too, but I wanted to stay a few days in Rio. Here is the award space between JFK and GIG for the next summer.
UPDATE 6.2019: All business class award space is gone
From São Luís to Lençóis Maranhenses
As I’ve mentioned, there are 3 points of entry: Barreirinhas, Santo Amaro, and Atins.
Barreirinhas has the best developed tourist infrastructure – there are one large resort-type hotel, lots of posadas, and quite a few Airbnb options. Another advantage is a scenic flight over Lençóis Maranhenses you can book in Barreirinhas, which is relatively cheap as far as scenic flights are concerned. The negative is a long and uncomfortable ride to the park, about 45-60 minutes.
Santo Amaro is right next to the park entry. It’s a big village or a small township depending on the way you look at it. Santo Amaro has become more accessible now that the last stretch of highway has been paved and you can ride door-to-door in the same vehicle from São Luís. A major advantage is that you can get in the park in 10 minutes. Disadvantages are fewer lodging options and eateries; as to the village itself… if you’ve been to Machu Picchu and didn’t particularly enjoy Aguas Calientes (the village at its foot), then Santo Amaro is not even half-way there.
Atin is still a small and sleepy village with sandy streets and even fewer lodging options than Santo Amaro, which has nevertheless been gaining popularity in the recent years. It’s most difficult to access, and the tours are supposedly more expensive, although they are so cheap in general that “more expensive” doesn’t mean much.