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Day 20: São Luís to Barreirinhas

Michael Palin - BrazilOur hotel is by the beach. Nothing remarkable about this except that Calhau Praia – praia being Portuguese for beach – is as clean, comfortable, walkable a stretch of sand as I've ever come across. And it's apparently endless. And it's one minute away. This morning I donned my Havaiana flip-flops, the obligatory, indeed sole item of footwear across coastal Brazil, crossed the main road, and set out for a walk. Because it's a beach, constantly washed by the tide, there are no footpaths or directions of travel. You can just wander over this vast space any way you want, restricted only by the land on one side and the sea, quite a long way off, on the other. Disappointingly, the Atlantic is not colourful here. The sediment from the Pindaré and the Itapicuru, the two rivers which discharge into the ocean on either side of the island of São Luís, has turned the waves that lap onto the shore a murky brown. The fine line of the horizon is broken by bulk-carriers waiting to collect their loads of iron ore. Despite all this it is a magical and liberating feeling to walk on such a wide and under-populated expanse. Knowing I could run up the beach for an hour in either direction and not come to the end of it is difficult for someone brought up on the shingle and wind-breaks of North Sea summer holidays. For now, the sun is warm and the sand firm and I couldn't wish to be anywhere else. After breakfast – passion fruit, papaya, fresh mango juice, tapioca and coconut cake – we set out for what promises to be an even more spectacular open space.

Around 300 kilometres (200 miles) south-east of São Luís is the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. Here is sand in its most majestic state. Piled up to fifty metres high by the Atlantic breakers and honed and smoothed by the wind, the dunes spread and billow over roughly 1,600 square kilometres (620 square miles), a landscape which has earned its name by resembling the crumpled sheets on a bed – the literal meaning of the Portuguese word lenc lençóis óis is 'white sheets'. So extensive are these sheets of sand that, except for the fact that this is a very wet as well as a very sandy coast, it could be Namibia or the Sahara. After the rainy season, in March, April and May, up to a thousand lagoons appear amongst the dunes. This ecosystem is so rare that by the time our four-wheel drive twists and bounces its way across approach tracks of slippery sand and water-filled trenches, there are seventeen more such vehicles lined up at the edge of the dunes. Brazilian tourists are already out in force. And, being Brazilian, half of them are as close to naked as is permissible. In this land of the uninhibited, the dress code is as elastic as the tiny thongs which cover less than a leaf in the Garden of Eden.

Provided nipples (female only) and genitals are concealed, the rest of the body can be joyfully unencumbered. So my first view of the mighty dunes we've travelled four hours to see is of a skyline silhouetted with men with large stomachs and tiny trunks and women who appear to the naked eye to be exactly that. It shocks me at first. This isn't the beach, it's a National Park, dammit. It's disrespectful. You wouldn't see people in G-strings at Stonehenge. Then, after a few minutes, I cease to notice them. That's largely because, although this water-studded desert stretches for 225 kilometres (140 miles) along the coast, most tourists never venture far from the car park. They meander the few hundred metres to the nearest lake, and sit in it. Which is why this first seductive blue patch of water is called Lazy Lake.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 20: São Luís to Barreirinhas
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 91

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