“Anywhere in the world this place would be visited only for the dunes, even
if there were no lagoons,” an angry gringo told me once. He had a point.
Ricardo Freire, a Brazilian travel writer
Sorry for a large time gap between the first and second installments. I’ve already touched upon transportation in the first installment, so that’s taken care of. There are no shortages of ways to get to São Luís (the gateway to Lençóis Maranhenses) on miles. You can fly American and LATAM, Delta and GOL, and United and Azul, or a combination thereof. I would seriously consider flying American down to Brazil because of the great award space (for now).
This is where it can get a little weird. My American flight arrived at Rio around 8AM, and my LATAM flight, should I have chosen to fly it, wouldn’t have departed until 11:20PM and would’ve brought me to São Luís at around 3AM. There are so few English-language sources about Lençóis Maranhenses that I had no idea if I would be able to grab a transfer from São Luís airport in the middle of the night (I found out later that I could), and besides I had no idea where I would spend 12 hours in Rio with 2 bags on my hands.
I ended up staying overnight in the center of Rio and flying next day on GOL. The GOL flight departs at 2PM, but it wasn’t available on the day of my arrival in Rio.
If you’re pressed for time, you can safely skip staying in São Luís. I was curious about this northeastern city because I had been to Salvador Bahia last year and loved it a lot. São Luís, on the other hand, is a bit too decaying for my tastes, although it has its moments.
It’s quite possible that I could find some gems in São Luís with further exploration – for one thing, it’s touted as the Reggae capital of Brazil (or Brazilian Jamaica) – but Reggae is not my cup of tea. Unless you’re into music, and Reggae specifically, I think you’re better off reserving more time for Lençóis Maranhenses.
Should you decide to spend a night in São Luís, Grand São Luís Hotel can fit the bill. No, nothing fancy at all, but it’s a solid hotel boasting a very nice pool, fast Internet, and a pretty good free breakfast with an omelet station. More importantly, it’s smack dab in the city center next to the City Hall, although I wouldn’t take their 4-star claim seriously. 2.5 stars is more like it. For ~$40 it’s certainly a steal, especially if you get an ocean-view room.
Transfer to Lençóis Maranhenses
As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t have to stay in São Luís, even overnight. There are agencies (at least one) that can pick you up at the airport and drive you straight to Santo Amaro so you can start your adventure right in the morning if you’re up for this. The same agency can provide you with all the tours to and around Lençóis Maranhenses.
In the first part of this miniguide, I mentioned that there are 3 points of entry to Lençóis Maranhenses: Barreirinhas, Santo Amaro, and Atins. Based on my research, I chose to stay in Santo Amaro, and I strongly recommend you take the same route for your first visit, unless you have more time for Barreirinhas and Atins as well. The village of Santo Amaro is right next to the park, and traveling between São Luís and the village is very easy. In addition, many people I spoke with, including tour guides, told me that Santo Amaro is the way to go for exploring the park.
I think it’s true. Lagoons we went to weren’t crowded at all. And sometimes we had lagoons all to ourselves. If you want complete privacy, hire an ATV guide who could take you even further inside, to non-touristy lagoons, totally away from other people.
If you decide to follow in my footsteps, here is more info.
Note: R$100 = $24 (on 09.14.18)
The agency I used for transportation to Santo Amaro and all subsequent Lençóis Maranhenses tours is called Mirotur. The agency is based in Santo Amaro, and the driver/co-owner’s name is Thylan. No English, but he’s a great and honest guy. His WhatsApp number is (98) 988-089-190. He picked me up around 6:30AM at my hotel in his SUV, and the trip took around 5+ hours. Because we were riding in an SUV, we didn’t have to change vehicles; otherwise if you’re renting a car or riding in a van, you need to hop into an SUV bus (they call them Toyotas) on the outskirt of the village. You will literally cross ponds and drive in the sand. The transfer cost me R$80 and took some 6+ hours with a 15-minute stop at a roadside restaurant along the way.
A bulk of the village roads is still unpaved. We had to help these guys who got their own SUV stuck, so it becomes apparent why conventional vehicles can’t navigate these roads.
If you’re arriving at São Luís airport at night and don’t want to spend the night in the city, call Denílson (WhatsApp (98) 988-089-190). Presume that they don’t speak English either. Actually, presume that 9 out of 10 people you encounter around Lençóis Maranhenses don’t speak English, and you’ll likely be right.
Since I had an English-speaking guide in São Luís, he made the transfer arrangement for me. All other arrangements had to be made in my god-awful Portuguese with or without the help of Google Translate. The takeaway is that you must start making travel arrangements before you arrive, and since most Brazilians (or so it seems) have WhatsApp, write rather than call (Google Translate is really helpful!).
Lençóis Maranhenses: the tours
Here are the tours I took in the 3 days I stayed in Santo Amaro. I must note that the guides were quite professional. We had chairs to sit at the “beach” and plenty of water in a freezer.
Day 1 Afternoon with sunset viewing:
Lagoas de Andorinha and Gaivota
Day 2 Full day with lunch and sunset viewing
Lagoa da Ilha
Lagoa do Canto
Other lagoons I don’t remember
Day 3 Half-day:
Lagoas das Americas
Includes a pleasant river boat ride
This is just scratching the surface. There are other tours, of course, you can do in Santo Amaro.
Accommodations in Santo Amaro
Considering the common quality of the accommodations, you might feel a little bit ripped off – well, deal with it, the law of supply and demand is a bitch. There are too few rooms for too many tourists. Expect to pay around $70-100 (USD) for a spartan room (but en-suite and with AC).
One thing you need to know: rooms in Santo Amaro fill fast. I made a mistake waiting too long. Don’t. The hotels I was eyeing sold out, so while I got lucky in the end, it could’ve ended up with me in panic. I booked an Airbnb house that was listed (wait for it) at $360 per day. In the end, however, I was able to negotiate a much lower payment since I was alone and didn’t need 4 bedrooms. My room was very simple, but air-conditioned and ensuite. The rest of the house, though, was grandiose. Everyone knows this house, it’s the biggest one in the village. This is not a luxury villa, but it has a lot of character.
Please keep in mind: there are mosquitos, and because of the way the shutters are designed, there isn’t much you can do about them. I tried anti-mosquitoes vaporizers and candles, and don’t think they helped much. The spray worked, though, I think.
One more thing: I tried a few restaurants and was unimpressed. I thought that the food was either bland or too salty. I’ve read that hotel restaurants are better, but can’t recommend anything.
Communications in Santo Amaro
Here is the thing about Brazil. If you want a local SIM-card (and you do want a local SIM-card in Santo Amaro even if you have T-mobile because it won’t work), the only operator that works there is Claro. Well, there is another one, but Claro is much stronger from what I’ve heard. The problem with getting a SIM-card in Brazil, though, is that if you’re a foreigner, you must get the Sim-card at the provider’s store; not at a reseller’s, because if you want to buy it from a reseller, you must give them your CPF, which is something like a Tax ID in Brazil. Without CPF, you can’t get a SIM-card, other than from a mobile provider’s store, at least legally.
Now, I knew that, and I still managed to screw up.
When I stayed in Rio, I asked a hotel clerk which operator is likely to cover that region, and he said that if anything, TIM is the best. Lo and behold, when I arrived in Santo Amaro, neither of my phones worked, including the one with the TIM SIM-card.
So if you can’t or don’t want to unplug, get the Claro chip before heading to Santo Amaro. If you’re going to other cities (Barreirinhas or Atins), check what cellular provider covers those areas.
Most places in Santo Amaro have a lousy WiFi signal. That includes travel agencies, restaurants, posadas, what have you. My Airbnb didn’t have WiFi signal at all, although WiFi was listed (an honest mistake, I believe, since the owner lives in São Paulo). So here is a tip. Bring your laptop to Dunas Bistrô. This is a new and probably the fanciest restaurant in town, and it has an amazingly strong signal. The privilege is going to cost you a beer or a cup of coffee.
Santo Amaro has an ATM machine.
This is important! There is so little information about the region, in English, at least, that very few people outside of Santo Amaro know that. Now you do. Besides, some folks on the Trip Advisor forum said your credit card might not work and you’d need cash.
I’m sure it might not work. Or the local merchants might not want it to work or don’t know how to make it work. Like a waitress who told me that the Internet was down and she couldn’t use the terminal. That was after I worked on the Internet at the same restaurant for quite a while.
The locals do want cash, that’s true, but my observation is that they can and will take plastic. Still, you must bring cash to feel comfortable, because who knows!
And this is how I got screwed by Aspiration.
Aspiration is a banking and investment firm that refunds ATM charges, just like Schwab. It kind of sneakily charges something like $1 per transaction, but it’s still a good deal. I usually use Schwab abroad, but I misplaced my Schwab ATM card just before the trip, so Aspiration was in play. I had used it before without issue in different countries including the Dominican Republic and Colombia, and I didn’t expect an issue in Brazil.
And yet, the issue I got. After the first withdrawal in Rio, they blocked my card. I had no idea they did because there were no alerts, either in my email or on the phone. The withdrawal limits in Brazil are absolutely ridiculous – the Bradesco branch allowed 400 Reais (about $100). When I couldn’t withdraw the money for the second time, I presume it was the bank that limited transactions to one per day. I was wrong.
Long story short, it turned out that Aspiration blocked my card after my first transaction in Rio, so I had to use my Chase card to get the money (and pay the fee) next day on the way to Santo Amaro. I have no idea what freaked them out considering that I’d had no problems getting cash before in other Latin America countries.
Where to get more information
I wrote my own mini guide to Lençóis Maranhenses because the info in English is so so scarce However, if you want more information, all you need for your research about Lençóis Maranhenses is one website. It’s called Lençóis Maranhenses Ciclo das águas
It’s in Portuguese, but, once again, Google Translate has gone a long way since its inception. I regret that I found it a bit late in the game, but it still helped me immensely! It’s a very easy read and it contains an enormous wealth of information.
Ricardo Freire is a famous Brazilian travel writer and he maintains and updates the page covering everything about this unsung wonder of the world. Transportation, accommodations, tour suggestions; just read it (and read the comments, too), and I guarantee you’ll find everything you need to plan your travel. Then go to Lençóis Maranhenses and see it with your own eyes.
Because, in all seriousness, you must!