Lençóis Marenhenses has a bit of a legendary status for Brazilians. Mention it to almost anyone, and they’ll start to swoon. It’s pretty, yes, but not completely unparalleled.
‘Lençois’ is a national park, within striking distance of São Luís, and is filled with rolling white dunes as far as the eye can see. Then, with the rains starting in January, the valleys of the dunes fill up with lakes, until the water evaporates, typically towards the end of September. Before the pools dry up, this can make for some stunning scenery.
In fact, so stunning that, for two Avengers movies, the dunes were cast as the scenery of some planet.
In the last few decades, a thriving tourist industry has sprouted up around this. Though some people do live very close to the park, the urban base for visiting Lençois is the town of Barreirinhas, a five hour drive from Sao Luis.
I visited during a long weekend, close to Brazil’s Independence Day celebrations, and as a consequence, the busses traveling between Sao Luis and Barreirinhas were fully booked, though this might at least in part be because the amount of daily busses is very limited.
Because of the latter, besides the semi-public bus service, there are also private vans, as well as private cars that shuttle between the two cities. I found this odd, as the long-distance bus network is very well developed in Brazil, and well priced, typically obviating the need, or even commercial viability, for private, small-scale, operators on long distance routes.
The manager of my hotel in Sáo Luís had arranged for one of the private vans to pick me up from my accommodation. With the bus station being on the edge of town, and my travelling on a Sunday, the higher price seemed justified.
Except, the van never showed. When called, 2 minutes after they were supposed to have picked me up, and some 30 minutes since I had been waiting, they claimed they had come to the door, knocked, shouted, and found no one answering. Apparently while I was hanging out of one of the front windows, admiring the street, exactly where the van was supposed to have been.
I then managed to get myself to the long-distance bus station, where I found the two bus companies doing the trip to Barreirinhas, only to find all four busses for that day booked. Private vans apparently left from in front of the bus station, but, a hustler trying to arrange this, by now it was still only around 8:30am, quickly gave up, as he could no longer scrounge up a van. He asked if a car was fine, instead, but he couldn’t get one of those either.
I had to get myself to a prominent roundabout, about two kilometres away, from where private cars might still be leaving for Barreirinhas. Might, because it was already getting ‘late’, it was already approaching 9am, after all.
But, I got myself to the roundabout, while during my walk, a cyclist warned me for thieves coming in from the woods I was walking alongside of, squeezed myself into a car with three other passengers and lots of luggage, and we were off.
The cost of the car is twice the cost of the regular busses, with the cost of the vans holding middle ground between the two. The vans have the feature that they pick you up and drop you off wherever you want, but if you’re the first to be picked up, and the last to be dropped off, this can add a solid chunk of time to your journey.
Then, in Barreirinhas, the hostel I had booked, via AirBNB, claimed they had no record of my booking. Unlikely, also because one has to pay AirBNB before receiving confirmation. However, the ‘hostel’ no longer operated, the household’s matriarch now running a pousada in town. Instead, someone else had hijacked their listing on AirBNB, and was now renting it out, without actually managing the place.
Still, she eventually, and thankfully, relented. Someone was kicked out of their room, and I was given an adequate-enough room to stay.
The house’s odd feature was perhaps a pet chicken that ran throughout the kitchen area of the house, but didn’t let itself be petted. The next morning, the chicken was pecking at my feet. Perhaps I was not quite as welcome as I thought? But, with Independence Day, it would have been completely impossible to find any other accommodation, anywhere, so I was thankful enough.
The town has a huge rogue dune, smack in the middle of town, almost hanging over the buildings, as if it’s about to eat the town, whole. I could have slept on its beach, perhaps, but that didn’t strike me as wise.
The town, Barreirinhas, and the national park, both reminded me of Alter do Chao, a kind of Caribbean hotspot in the middle of the Amazon. Visitors come because it’s known for the natural beauty, and end up partying, eating, drinking, dancing, with every street corner providing pounding loud music.
It’s not surprising, but interesting, to experience the absence of foreign tourists in a highly popular tourist destination like this. Lençóis is no Rio de Janeiro, quite off the beaten track, but it’s quite popular.