Lençóis Maranhenses: sand dunes ‘n’ lagoons in Brazil
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:
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:
Cost per person
Recife to São Luis
Progresso night bus
336R$ (~£75 in July 2019)
São Luis to Barreirinhas
2pm Cisne Branco bus
Tour to Lençóis Maranheses
Tour to Atins
Barreirinhas to São Luis Airport
8am private shuttle
Best time to go to the Lençóis Maranhenses
The best time to visit the 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 the 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:
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$, with bargaining power for large groups. The jeep will pick you up from and drop you off at your accommodation. It’s said by locals that Lagoa Bonita is more beautiful than Lagoa Azul, so if you are short on time we recommend heading to that one.
The 8am trip would let you experience the best colour of the lagoons on a clear day, as the sun will be directly above when you get there for a lovely turquoise hue. There was a fair bit of blinding shimmer during the afternoon tour to Lagoa Bonita. However, the 2pm trip culminates in sitting at the highest point of Lençóis Maranhenses at sunset, which is truly a sight to behold.
Physical difficulty of Lagoa Bonita or Lagoa Azul tours
Only carry what is really needed. There is a fair amount of walking involved through the sand dunes, some of which is extremely steep in the soft sand. We found some parts quite a struggle. For Lagoa Bonita, if you can’t get up the largest sand slope at the beginning of the national park, you won’t even see the Lençóis Maranhenses. Lots of kids made the climb, but it would be difficult with babes in arms or toddlers.
This is a full-day tour, starting at 8am and getting back to Barreirinhas at 5-6pm. It costs in the region of 100R$ 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.
Next is a stop at one of the most famous restaurants in Atins, Canto dos Lençóis, which is widely known for their shrimp. The place is huge, but it also gets rammed. It’s in the middle of nowhere (on the very edge of the national park, but there’s another restaurant right next door (Luisa), which reportedly belongs to the owner’s sister after they had a fight and parted ways. Luisa uses the same family recipe, but agencies are apparently told to only visit the brother’s restaurant, so it’s busy AF. The meals are expensive (80-120R$), and all for 2 people – Andy was ill that day so I took this tour alone, and with no alternatives in the area ended up just ordering the one item under 80R$, a 20R$ (£4) plate of chips. Thankfully, the lovely family on my tour saw this and invited me to eat with them! The food was actually delicious, but it would be great to have some more economical options.
After lunch, the jeep takes you to the nearby beach, which sits in between the Atlantic and the first sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses. It’s a really amazing sight, and flat enough to do some Uyuni salt flats-style perspective shots! The waves here get pretty large, so it’s no wonder that this is a top spot for kite-surfing in Brazil.
The final stop on the Atins tour is a jeep ride through the dunes to a spot where you’ll have several Lençóis Maranhenses lagoons to swim in. These are incredibly refreshing, and you have to give running down the edge of the sand dunes to jump into the lagoon a try! This last stop was definitely the highlight of the tour. As the Atins tour isn’t as popular as the half-day tours to Lagoa Bonita or Lagoa Azul, there are far fewer people to share this natural wonder with.
This full-day tour costs around 140R$, and involves a chilled out boat ride down the Preguiças River to the sandbank of Caburé, which sits between the river and the open sea. On this tour, you can expect to see beaches, the lighthouse in Mandacarú and wild Macaque monkeys who have a penchant for jumping on humans and stealing all things shiny.
ATV quadbiking tour in Lençóis Pequenos
Coming in at around 380R$ for 2 people sharing one quadbike, the Lençóis ATV tour is an all-dayer which takes you across several different terrains. Due to national park restrictions, you can’t actually drive the ATVs in Lençóis Maranhenses, but you can ride around the Lençóis Pequenos, smaller versions of the dunes to the East. You need to check availability ahead of time for this one if you’re going to plan your whole trip around it – we weren’t able to do it during our stay because for some unknown reason the agencies decided they weren’t putting the tour on for our available days. There is a dedicated agency for ATV tours in Barreirinhas, next to the Gauchos restaurant which you may want to check out first.
Tubing down the Formiga River
If all the excitement of trekking and quadbiking the best sand dunes in Brazil has got you tired out, consider the tour to Cardosa, where you can lazily relax in inflatable rings, floating down the river for an hour.
Lençóis Maranhenses by plane
Without a doubt, the best way to see the sheer scale of the Lençóis Maranhenses sand dunes is by plane. Flights over the dunes costs around 350R$, which doesn’t seem so expensive when you think of how bloody fantastical it would be.
Tips for visiting Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil’s best sand dunes
Whilst out on a tour, be aware that apart from sitting under the roof of your jeep, there will be no shade the entire time. Your driver will stop at a shop before you get the ferry and ask you if you want to buy water – jeeps usually have a cool box in the back. There are a few huts just outside the national park where you’ll be able to get water and snacks, but absolutely nothing in the Lençóis Maranhenses area itself, including toilets. Top up on sun cream, there is hardly any shade on any of the tours, so even the locals like to cover up from head to toe.
Where to stay near Brazil’s best sand dunes
Barreirinhas vs Atins
There are two main options for accommodation here, Barreirinhas or Atins. Each has their own benefits. For a start, Barreirinhas is the most easily accessible from São Luis, needing just (just!) a 4-5 hour drive from the bus terminal or airport. To get to Atins, you would need to drive to Barreirinhas and then arrange a 4×4 to take you 90 minutes through the bush and over some dunes towards the coast to reach your accommodation in Atins at the edge of the Lençóis Maranhenses national park (most accommodation options would offer to help you with this).
While Barreirinhas does have some high quality hotels and resorts, it’s Atins where you’ll find the smaller, high-end bungalows, treehouses and chalets. There are a few cheaper looking pousada/hostel options, but most of Atins is French or Italian-owned, and building from scratch they’ve decided to cater to the more wealthy crowd.
In a case of Barreirinhas vs Atins for facilities, the former is definitely the winner. Atins is less of a town and more a collection of accommodation options, with a very small selection of places to eat and drink. Barreirinhas on the other hand is full of restaurants, bars and shops. And pharmacies. So many pharmacies.
Our final point though – atmosphere. Atins is quiet, secluded, exclusive-feeling. It’s surrounded by the bush – sometimes you could feel like you’re on an African safari, looking out. It’s a great escape from the world without losing the normal luxuries of the developed world. Barreirinhas is a lot more ‘real Brazil’, but that also means that it’s an awful lot more rough around the edges. We felt safe most of the time, but some of the streets we had to walk to our hostel at night were unpaved, littered and mostly unlit. It’s not a clean town, by any means, but it gets the job done.
If you choose to stay in Barreirinhas and you don’t mind a teeny-bit ropey walk into town, Aquarela was a lovely hostel to stay in with an excellent breakfast and 2 exceptional dogs. Pousada do Buriti is closer to Barreirinhas town, while the boat chalets of Pousada Vettore in Atins are a very unique place to call home for a few nights! La Ferme De Georges is a stunning high-end option if you’re after real luxury.
Book-ending your trip in São Luis, Maranhão
For both the sake of exploration and your sanity when it comes to travel days, we recommend a trip to São Luis at the beginning and/or end of your time in Lençóis Maranhenses. One or two nights will do! The city is fairly under-rated as far as Brazil tourism goes – it reminds us of like Salvador except a little less polished. São Luis is the only Brazilian city to have been founded by the French, and the colonial history sings through its architecture. It’s also one of the few major cities we’ve been to in Latin America where the old town isn’t absolutely swamped with drug addicts. It’s not a perfect place, but it’s certainly pleasant enough for an explore! During our time there, we stayed at Reviver Hostel, which looked kind of rubbish in the photos (we booked last minute) but turned out to be a pretty nice place to stay with a clearly very interesting history. The fact that it has a pool will probably help keep your mind off the 30+ degree heat in São Luis.
Is there anything you think we’re missing from this guide that you’d like to know for an upcoming trip to Lençóis Maranhenses? If so, let us know in the comments. This is without doubt the best thing since sliced mortadela, so if you have enough time and reais to make it up as far as Maranhão we highly highly recommend a stop in at the best sand dunes in Brazil.
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