Rough Camping in the Dunes


Since we have a blown-up battery we are forced to leave Santo Amaro and Lençois Maranhenses National Park to drive to Barreirinhas, the nearest-by town where we can buy a battery. We backtrack the 32-kilometer-long path with shifting sand we took two weeks earlier to get here. Return journeys are generally easier as you already know what’s ahead of you and this time it is no different.

Barreirinhas is the eastern and main gateway to the dunes of Lençois Maranhenses, an uninspiring tourist town where on two occasions a guy on a motorcycle follows us persistently until we stop and the driver can ask whether we need a guide. When we mention we won’t because we’re going to Paulino Neves, one of them nags us about needing a guide to get there as well.

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“Too many trails. You have to know which one to take,” he argues for the fifth time.

“No doubt. But in the end all those trails will lead to Paulino Neves. But thanks for the offer,” Coen concludes and the man leaves us alone.

When asking for a place to eat we’re maneuvered to two expensive restaurants. I ask where we can buy a prate feito (set meal, always a decent meal for a reasonable price).

“No, no. We don’t have that in Barreirinhas.”

“So Barreirinhas is the only town in whole Brazil that has no place to eat prato freito?

Sorry, I don’t believe that,” I say, irritation showing in my voice.

They have to guts to even confirm that statement. “You can only eat here for 35 reais per kilo,” the owner states once more.

“Nope, not us. Thanks,” I say and we drive another three streets where we find the perfect, simple restaurant selling ordinary prato feitos.

Such are the tricks in tourist towns and we are all the more grateful that we have explored the dunes (read here) from the much lesser known town of Santo Amaro.

We buy the battery in a jiffy and we leave Barreirinhas as quickly as possible.

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From High Dunes to Low Dunes

At the edge of the town we return to a world of shifting sand. We deflate the tires and meander from left to right through the deeply rutted tracks. Coen doesn’t even need to touch the steering wheel; the Land Cruiser simply follows the plied trail. Among the dry vegetation are a number of small-scale cashew plantations.

The mud bricks farmhouses with tiled roofs are beautiful to look at; they fit in the landscape. Gardens are fenced by branches neatly placed next to each other vertically or woven into wooden walls. They serve to either keep livestock out or to keep it in.

Read More: Driving Beaches & Dunes in Northeast Brazil

After some 15-20 kms we enter dune country again. These are the low dunes of Lençois. This is not a national park and is free of regulations and laws that prohibit foreigners driving there. They are much lower than Lençois Maranhenses National Park but nevertheless a fantastic place to drive around. Buggies are the common means of transport here. We come across one and we ask how far the ocean is. It feels like if we’d climb that dune in front of us, we’d be looking right over the Atlantic Ocean.

“Fifty kilometers,” the driver answers. Wow. Fifty kilometers of dunes, it’s hard to imagine. Distances, vastness and the emptiness of South America continue to boggle our mind. We ask the fisherman about camping here.
“Better drive east a bit. Lots of mosquitoes here. Over there is more wind and you’ll be fine,” he explains and we say our goodbyes.

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It is late afternoon. The sun is setting. We find a place to camp. Two burrowing owls are screeching to protect their nest which is in a hole in the ground somewhere in the neighborhood. Coen sets up the roof tent for a photo and I climb the dunes.

Under my feet, hard sand that doesn’t leave a print alternates with ankle-deep powdery-soft sand. The fiercely blowing wind sands my lower legs. On the top I have a 360-degree view of dunes and patches of dry vegetation on which horses, donkeys and goats are grazing. No ocean is nowhere to be seen.

Read More: Accommodation & Camping in Brazil

The almost full moon is rising against a clear blue sky. We take the photo and move camp as we the sand is eating us alive. The evening is just perfect. Full moon. Dark blue sky. Few stars. Wind dying down. Dunes lighting up like white curving patches against dark valleys. Magic.

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2 thoughts on “Rough Camping in the Dunes”

  1. It’s a shame that some locals take so much advantage of tourists and strangers. It’s good that most people are now that way. The dunes sound beautiful, but do you find the ocean?

    • Mike, you put it exactly right: while few people may take advantage of others, the majority is are helpful, generous and welcoming. We never reached the ocean on that particular stretch around Paulino Neves, but the trip was beautiful nevertheless.

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