A visit to the National Park of Lençois Maranhenses should definitely be on your list if you travel to Brazil. The park is a unique area where you’ll find dunes as far as the eye can see, alternated with the occasional lagoon. Extensive rainwater in the rainy season creates the small lakes in the dunes, resulting in a spectacular view of sandy white dunes and clear blue lakes.
Lençois Maranhenses is very often a must-do for Brazilians, but the park is not very well known to foreigners. A shame, because spending a few days here is absolutely amazing!
Visiting the park requires a little bit of preparation. Here are some of the things you should know before travelling to Lençois.
How to get there
Lençois Maranhenses isn’t very conveniently located – it’s a few hours’ drive (or more) from the large cities. The easiest way to get to one of the entry points of the park is to fly to São Luis, the capital of Maranhão. From there you can take a bus or van transfer, for example with G.I. Conect, but there are other options as well. You can also depart from Jericoacoara, east of the park, but it will be a longer drive. We arranged a transfer beforehand to take us from the airport to Barreirinhas.
There are several entry points to the National Park of Lençois Maranhenses, of which Barreirinhas is the most used. You could also stay in Atins and Santo Amaro, but these towns are more remote and therefore only recommendable if you have more time.
What to do in Lençois Maranhenses
Once you’re in Barreirinhas or one of the other towns, there’s plenty to do. Because time is often limited, most of the people opt for several half-day tours. They are pretty convenient, as it allows you to explore two different areas per day (including spectacular sunsets). Do some global planning beforehand, as certain boat tours allow you to get off at Atins, if you would also like to spend a day or two there, saving you an extra drive! There are also tours that involve horse riding, going around with a buggy, taking a flight over the dunes, if you would like to do something more active.
However, the number one activity you should really do is a multiple-day hike. We did a three-day hike of 60km in total and it was absolutely amazing. We walked for about six hours a day and stayed in very simple huts (with hammocks) at night. It was just the two of us and our guide, and we only encountered other people twice (or at night in the huts). So during the day, we felt completely alone in this magnificent landscape.
You can arrange tours and hikes with pousadas and agencies in Barreirinhas, even up until the night before. We randomly walked into a pousada where the guy started talking about the regular half-day tours. As we asked about a longer hike (which wasn’t well advertised in town), he said he sometimes works a guide. Before I knew it, we had agreed to hike 60km with him starting in less than 12 hours! It’s a good thing I had little time to worry about the incredibly long distance we had to cover.. But that spontaneous decision was definitely a good one – we enjoyed the hike so much!
When to go
If you want to see the spectacular lagoons between the dunes, go shortly after rainy season, as the water dries up during the dry season. The best time to visit Lençois Maranhenses is between May and September. However, when we visited the park in mid-August, some lagoons had pretty low water levels. There was less rain fall than usual in the prior months. So if you want to be sure of the lagoons, I suggest you visit in May-June.
Bring the right clothes
This is especially important if you do the longer hikes (i.e. walking several hours a day). Don’t forget to bring the following:
- A hat / cap and sunglasses to protect your head and eyes from the sun
- Shirts and pants with long sleeves – you’ll want to reduce your exposure to the sun
- Sneakers (with some grip) or (trail) running shoes that can easily be taken off. I just used my running shoes, which gave me plenty of grip, but they were a hassle to take off and put on every time we had to cross a lagoon. Also use socks, as the sand (which will end up in your shoes indefinitely) will hurt your feet if you don’t. The sand be either soft and loose (difficult to walk on) or solid and crunchy (easy!).
- A bikini or swimsuit – yes, you can swim in the lagoons!
- Flip-flops for the moments in the dunes / in the huts where you don’t want to wear your sneakers any longer (the sand can be HOT).
- A day pack to bring some clothes, water and a camera. Don’t be that crazy person that hikes 27km a day in the dunes with a full-size backpack (yes, we saw them). I found that my regular daypack fitted my shorts, a few shirts, a bikini, some toiletry, water and my DSLR just fine.
And bring enough cash with you
When hiking in the dunes, you’ll stay in huts which will also provide for your dinner (+ caipirinha’s :)) and breakfast the following day. Perhaps these are arranged for in the group tours, but as we contracted a guide for just the two of us, we paid for it ourselves. The huts only accept cash, so make sure you bring enough with you. I would say at least R$100 per day per person, but it would be wise to bring a little more.
The pousadas and restaurants in Barreirinhas generally accept cards, however, we also found that the few banks in town weren’t working very well.
Don’t go into the dunes by yourself
But hire a guide! Some people think they can navigate the dunes themselves, but trust me – it’s difficult. We were followed by a Brazilian couple that didn’t want to pay for a guide themselves and decided to secretly follow us from hut to hut. Rather annoying! We managed to shake them off, and we later found out that they had lost the way a couple of times and had to ask others for directions. So even if you are following a group, it can be very difficult to navigate. And we also heard about a French guy who got lost in the dunes and spent a whole week searching for the return point. Don’t be dumb or cheap, and hire a guide. Ours asked R$700 for three days for the two of us, including all transport (van + boat).
Lençois Maranhenses truly is a unique place on earth that you should definitely try to visit if you travelling to Brazil. Have you been already? And what are your tips?