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Whoa, whoa, whoa MAJOR HIGHLIGHT of Brazil right here! Lençóis Maranhenses was our last adventure of 3 months in Brazil, and it was the perfect way to end our trip on a high. The sight of the sand dunes almost brought Andy to tears (fair enough, he was feeling pretty ill at the time), and it was hard to believe anything could be quite so beautiful in nature.
The Lençóis Maranhenses are 155,000 hectares of without doubt the best sand dunes in Brazil, next to the coast, which during the rainy season fill up with water, creating incredible turquoise lagoons among the white sand. Lençóis Maranhenses are popular with Brazilian tourists, but also building momentum with an international audience (in other words, get in there while you can).
Here’s a video of our time in Lençóis Maranhenses, in which you can see some of the Lençóis Maranhenses tours available:
The region was one of the first places that the French landed in South America, and was their stronghold for a while. They fought over it with the Dutch, but eventually it became a part of the powerhouse of Brazil.
In modern times, much of the hospitality industry around Lençóis Maranhenses (especially in Atins) is owned by French expats.
Due to tourism, English is much more widely spoken by locals in Lençóis Maranhenses than anywhere else we’ve visited in the North-East of Brazil.
While you’re travelling around Brazil’s North-East, don’t forget to also check out these helpful posts:
- If we only had 2 weeks: North Brazil itinerary
- The dolphin haven of Pipa
- Maragogi, a chilled alternative to Porto de Galinhas
First up, pronunciation.
There are a lot of difficult words in this region for the average English-speaker to get their head around, so here are a few pointers to help you get understood:
How to pronounce Lençóis Maranhenses: len-SOY-s mah-ran-YEN-ses
How to pronounce Barreirinhas: bah-hay-REEN-yas
How to pronounce São Luís: soh loo-EES
How to pronounce Atins: ah-CHEENS
If you’re interested in some basic pointers for how to pronounce difficult letters in Brazilian Portuguese, there is a quick guide at the end of our post on how to pronounce South American place names.
How to get to Lençóis Maranhenses
The Lençóis Maranhenses dunes are in a protected national park in the North-East of Brazil. The nearest city is São Luis, Maranhão state – pictured below. A flight from Rio de Janeiro to São Luis is only 3 hours, but can be pricey when direct. From São Luis, it’s a 4-5 hour drive to Barreirinhas, the nearest town to the park (though there is also the village of Atins, which we’ll talk more about later).
Tourist shuttles leave from the airport; you’ll be able to find a few agency representatives upon arrival but best to ask your accommodation for assistance beforehand, especially if you land late. You can book ahead independently online, but you may end up paying a little more doing it this way as the cheaper agencies don’t tend to have websites.
We found a door-to-door shuttle for our return from Barreirinhas to São Luis airport for 70R$, and negotiated down to 60 as we’d bought some tours from that same agency too.
Regular buses also leave from the Rodoviária bus terminal, which is only 1.7 miles from the airport. Cisne Branco and Guanabara are companies that offer buses routes to Barreirinhas. It will cost around 60R$ and take 5 hours. There are 4 departures per day for Cisne Branco: 6am, 8:45am, 2pm, 7:30pm. The Guanabara bus leaves 7:30am, 6pm and 9pm from Saõ Luis to Barreirinhas.
If you’ve decided to explore São Luis before Lençóis Maranhenses, there are plenty of tourist agencies who will offer transportation to Barreirinhas and a dune tour directly from the city. Prepare for a very early start, though!
Those with a bit more time to explore may want to visit Jericoacaora from Fortaleza first. Shuttles from Jericoacoara to Barreirinhas are also available.
To give you an idea, this is the route we took to get to and from Barreirinhas:
|Day||Journey||Transport||Cost per person||Time|
|1-2||Recife to São Luis||Progresso night bus||336 R$||28 hours|
|3||São Luis to Barreirinhas||2pm Cisne Branco bus||60 R$||5 hours|
|4||Tour to Lençóis Maranheses||Jeep tour||80 R$||2pm-7pm|
|5||Tour to Atins||Jeep tour||100 R$||8am-6pm|
|6||Barreirinhas to São Luis Airport||8am private shuttle||60 R$||4 hours|
Best time to visit Lençóis Maranhenses
The best time to visit Lençóis Maranhenses is June-September, which is the dry season. You can imagine how much rain falls during rainy season for the sand dunes to create lagoons, so you don’t want to get caught in the bad months. The most rain falls on Lençóis Maranhenses at the beginning of the year, with July and August being the best dry season months.
Due to Brazilian school holidays and a system in which workers are collectively given one month off all together, July tends to be the busiest month for Lençóis Maranhenses.
Before you plan your trip, make sure you’ve had a research of events in Barreirinhas or at the sand dunes themselves. We accidentally went at the end of a big parachuting weekend, in which 50 competitors all brought their whole families to watch.
The day before we arrived, apparently there were so many jeeps waiting to do the ferry crossing to get to the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park that several abandoned the tour and gave their clients credit for another day – honourable of them, but a bit of a shitter for those who had limited time in the area!
Booking tours to visit Lençóis Maranhenses
Since it’s in a national park, you can’t visit Lençóis Maranhenses without a guide. Luckily, there are pleeeeenty to be found, wherever you’re staying. As with most places in Latin America, don’t pay too much attention to agency branding, descriptions of tours or how proficient the staff seem.
The agencies are just middlemen who pass you onto their contacts who have space in their jeeps, and all the tours do the same thing at the same times.
We booked 2 tours through Dancéliz; for the first we were picked up by Vale Tours, and second by Sinum – both were of similar quality. The only way round this would be to pay big monies for a private, personalised tour.
If this is not an option, all you really need to be concentrating on when booking a tour is price and availability. Not all tours run every day, for example on the Monday we wanted to do an ATV tour, not a single agency was able to offer it for some reason.
Most of the Lençóis Maranhenses tourist agency offices are to be found on Avenida Brasilia in Barreirinhas, and most of them seem to work together rather than aggressively competing. Business is good in Barreirinhas!
The sand dunes are only accessible by 4×4, so while you don’t have to worry about huge coaches turning up, you’d be surprised by the number of jeeps this small town has. Lençóis Maranhenses tours typically take around 8-10 people, but expect all jeeps on the half-day tours to be running at a full capacity of 12 as these are the most popular tours to the sand dunes.
All the tours from Barreirinhas to Lençóis Maranhenses will include a ferry ride, which is very short (about 7 minutes), but can only take 4-6 jeeps at a time, so you often have to wait along the road. You will need to walk a few metres through the water onto the ferry, so wearing flip-flops or sandals is best.
There are many different tour options for Lençóis Maranhenses. Though you can just do a tour from the city of São Luis and back again in one day, we highly recommend spending several days around the national park to see more of what the best sand dunes in Brazil have to offer.
A breakdown of some of the Lençóis Maranhenses tours on offer:
1. Half-day tours to Lençóis Maranhenses: Lagoa Bonita & Azul
There are two main half-day trips to Lençóis Maranhenses, to Lagoa Bonita or Lagoa Azul. Both will visit a couple of other lagoons on the way. It’s said by locals that Lagoa Bonita is the most beautiful. These half-day lagoon tours leave twice a day at either 8am or 2pm, and cost around 80R$, with bargaining power for large groups.
The jeep will pick you up from and drop you off at your accommodation. It’s said by locals that Lagoa Bonita is more beautiful than Lagoa Azul, so if you are short on time we recommend heading to that one.
The 8am trip would let you experience the best colour of the lagoons on a clear day, as the sun will be directly above when you get there for a lovely turquoise hue. There was a fair bit of blinding shimmer during the afternoon tour to Lagoa Bonita. However, the 2pm trip culminates in sitting at the highest point of Lençóis Maranhenses at sunset, which is truly a sight to behold.
Physical difficulty of Lagoa Bonita or Lagoa Azul tours
Some parts of the Lagoa Bonita and Lagoa Azul tours can get quite physically taxing for people with medical issues, so to make this easier on yourself, only carry what is really needed. There is a fair amount of walking involved through the sand dunes, some of which is extremely steep in the soft sand. We found some parts quite a struggle.
For Lagoa Bonita, if you can’t get up the largest sand slope at the beginning of the national park, you won’t even see Lençóis Maranhenses. Lots of kids made the climb, but it would be difficult with babes in arms or toddlers.
2. Atins tour
This is a full-day tour, starting at 8am and getting back to Barreirinhas at 5-6pm. It costs in the region of 100R$ per person. After crossing the river via ferry, it’s a 28km, 90 minute jeep ride to the small settlement of Atins. The first stop is at the small (and slightly underwhelming) beach at Atins, which is where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. Across the water, you’re able to see a strip of sand of Caburé.