Maranhão, a state in northeastern Brazil, comprises dense Amazon rainforest and beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. Near the town of Barreirinhas, vast white sand dunes create desert-like landscapes at Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, where swimmable fresh-water lagoons form during the rainy season. The capital city, São Luís, is home to a festive historic district known as the Reviver. The population is a mixture of indigenous, black and white races that is present in cooking, crafts and in almost every aspect of popular culture. With so much to offer, Maranhão is a unique and unmissable tourism destination.

The State is divided into five tourist poles, each with its specific attractions:

(1) São Luís, the capital, is where numerous festivals guarantee a fun and instructive ride;

(2) Delta das Américas, an ecological paradise is full of rivers and creeks;

(3) Chapada das Mesas, is perfect for extreme sports enthusiasts, with its gigantic natural sculptures;

(4) Lençóis Maranhenses, is the only desert in the world surrounded by crystal clear lagoons;

(5) Floresta dos Guarás, is where lush man-groves are home to an enormous diversity of reptiles, fish and other animals.

In this article, we highlight the two most known attractions: São Luís and Lençóis Maranhenses.

FOTO: FLAVYA MUTRAN

São Luís, the capital

São Luís is located in a transition area (between Ceará and the Amazon, the sertão and other northern regions of Brazil) that comprises a huge variety of ecosystems.

Therefore, exotic beaches mixes with a very lively carnival and the largest architectonic complex of Portuguese origin in Brazil, which, in 1997, granted São Luís the title of Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in recognition for the preservation of its magnificent and homogenous Latin American colonial architectonic complex from the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The city is particularly known for its tiles, which most buildings in the historical center are covered in. Because of it the city is also called “The Tiles City” and “Brazilian Athens”.

It also has some cultural peculiarities namely:

• Tambor de Crioula: Afro-Brazilian dance in which gaily clad women court a bateria of tambors.

• Tambor de Mina: a local variant of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé.

• Bumba Meu Boi: Like the festival of São João and its requisite Forró dance in the Northeastern states, Bumba Meu Boi is a harvest festival but with the bull as its centre-piece.

Besides these interesting cultural elements, tourists should pay attention to: The Historical Centre in São Luís, The Convent of Mercy, The Museum of Black Culture, Calhau Beach and the city of Alcantara.

Lençóis Maranhenses

Maranhão is mostly known because of Lençois Maranhenses: a huge desert of immaculate white dunes (many of them dozens of meters high) with hundreds of rivers and lagoons of crystalline water – and beaches. An unique landscape that lasts a few months, after the rain season.

Composed of large, white, sweeping dunes, at first glance Lençóis Maranhenses looks like an archetypal desert, but in fact it is not an actual one. Lying just outside the Amazon Basin, the region is subject to a regular rain season during the beginning of the year. The rains cause a peculiar phenomenon: fresh water collects in the valleys between sand dunes and is prevented from percolating down by a layer of impermeable rock which lies under-neath the sand. The resulting blue, green and black “lagoons” are surrounded by the desert-like sand, and reach their fullest between July and September.

So, if you are planning to visit Maranhão, the period between July and September is undoubtedly the best of the year.

There are several regular bus/truck routes between Barreirinhas, city where the Lençóis are located, and São Luís, a distance of about 160 miles. There are also air taxis from São Luís to Barreirinhas. The National Park is quite extensive and has no direct access roads. Because of the nature of the park’s protected status, most vehicles are not permitted access. Entrance to the park is made exclusively by 4-wheel drive trucks.