Unparalled Beauty Of Lençóis Maranhenses

Soft curvy sand dunes extend into the horizon for as far as your eyes can see. Picture perfect lagoons fill in the space between each ridge. This marvel of nature is almost more than your mind can comprehend and you wonder if you’re dreaming. The unparallel beauty of Lençóis Maranhenses will remain in your memory for a long time.

You can’t visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park on your own, but there are several tours offering different options to explore this magnificent park. We took two tours; one was a half-day and the second was a full-day.

The drive to reach Lençóis Maranhenses National Park passes hundreds of cashew trees, filled with ripe fruit. By now we had seen several of the unusual-looking fruit but still found ourselves astounded by their appearance. Our driver stopped so we could pick some cashew apples from the tree. The Brazilians on our tour loved the fruit but we never got used to the astringent aftertaste.  

When we reached the entrance to the dunes it seemed like nature wanted to keep the place a secret. Leaving our shoes in the jeep, we first had to wade across a small creek in an overgrown forest and then we climbed up a narrow, sandy trail to the top of a steep sand dune.

From the top of the dune, one of the most stunning vistas was laid out before us. It was almost inconceivable that nature could create something of such immense beauty. We had seen pictures of the national park before arriving, but we really didn’t think it would be as nice as the marketing pictures. Well, it isn’t, it’s better. The sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses are one Mother Nature’s best sculptures.

In front of us were hundreds of rows of curvy sand dunes that continued far into the distance. Small, blue lagoons filled in the valleys at their bases. We walked between the lagoons and climbed to the tops of a few of the sandy peaks and were treated to incredible panoramic views.

Lençóis Maranhenses translates in English to ‘Bedsheets of Maranhão’, the state where they are located. The dunes in fact appear as cream-coloured sheets, softly gathered on the bed after fluffing them out. It is the combination of the soft, wavy lines of sand and the pools of blue water that makes this landscape too perfect for words.

The most popular and easily accessible lagoons are Lagoas Bonita, Esperança and Azul (Pretty, Hope and Blue Lagoon). Wrapped by soft walls of cream coloured sand, the lagoons are like an oasis in the desert. Because the underlying rock is impermeable, rainwater that collects in the valleys does not drain. Instead it slowly evaporates over the dry season. Water in the lagoons is heated by the strong Brazilian sun making them the perfect temperature for a refreshing swim. In two days we visited several lagoons, each surrounded by its own uniquely shaped wall of soft sand.

Near the end of the day we climbed to the top of one of the highest dunes to watch the sunset. Although the view of the setting sun was nice, what was better was the long shadows cast by the low light. The sun’s last rays accentuated the soft curves and made them even more spectacular. As we stook looking at the view I realized that if I wanted to create this scene, my imagination couldn’t come close to envisioning the unrivalled beauty of Lençóis Maranhenses.

The national park stretches lengthwise for 50 km (31 miles) along the Atlantic coast and reaches inland for as much as 44 km (27 miles). At 155,000 hectares it is the largest field of sand dunes in South America. The dunes are formed by sand that is brought down to the coast by the Parnaiba and Preguiças Rivers. Strong prevailing trade-winds pick up the sand and carry it to the park. The force of these persistent winds sculpt the dunes into works of art. The shapes are impermanent as the winds continuously shift the sand.

The wind makes the ridges firm enough to walk and even to drive on. Just below the ridges however, the deposits of sand are as soft and as fine as flour. Our feet loved walking in the warm, floury sand.

As a result of the wind, the nearby beach on the Atlantic Ocean has been stripped of its sand. The ground is very muddy and combined with the strong winds and the high waves it’s not an enjoyable spot.

On the half-day tour we walked between several lagoons, climbing up and over the dunes. On the full-day tour however, we drove across the sandy landscape in a four-wheel drive. Although it was not the main draw of the full-day tour for us, it ended up being a really fun part of the day. It is one of the wildest rides you’ll ever have as the 4WD literally drives straight up and straight down the steep dunes, some of which are 40 m (130 ft) tall.

Markers indicate where the ‘roads’ are so that most of the landscape remains untouched, and also to ensure that the drivers don’t get lost in the repetitive landscape. Even with the markers our driver did get lost. He drove up and down the dunes looking on the horizon for a familiar marker. It was at least 15 or 20 minutes until he found the trail. We didn’t mind though because it gave us an extended tour through this incredible landscape.

We visited in November during dry season. Many of the lagoons were dry, exposing their grassy bottoms. Local farmers are allowed to let their cattle and goats graze on them. It must be something though to guide the animals through the maze of dunes making sure to stay on the firm ridges and not allow them to go into the deep, soft sand.

Between January and May the area receives as much as 1,200 mm (47 inches) of rain, filling up all of the valleys with water. That means that when we saw was this landscape in November, it was at its worst. We can’t image what it must look like when all of the lagoons are filled with water. Even before we left Lençóis Maranhenses, we were making plans to return in the spring one year to see it at its best. 


The city of Barreirinhas is the most common access point for Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. It’s a nice tourist town located along the Preguiças River. A boardwalk travels beside the river passing a small harbour filled with fishing and tour boats.

On the other side of the boardwalk is a string of restaurants. At night the restaurants shine colourful lights adding another element to this charming town.

Getting to Barreirinhas

Reaching Barreirinhas is easiest from the north. It is 257 km from São Luis where there is a domestic airport. From São Luis you can take one of a few buses that travel the route every day and takes 4 – 5 hours (R$60/$12USD). It is also easy to access by car from São Luis. Getting to and from Barreirinhas from the south is a bit more difficult but it is possible. Buses leave Barreirinhas daily for the small city of Parnaiba where it possible to catch another bus to other destinations, but you would have to overnight in Parnaiba. Instead of traveling for two days, we took a private transfer from Barreirinhas to Jericoacoara. It was R$400 ($80 USD) each and took 7 hours, but it was a much better alternative for us.

Where to stay and eat

There are plenty of guesthouses and hotels in Barreirinhas at every budget. Along the river you can find a few very good restaurants with reasonable prices. Other options to stay are the villages of Atins (read our post here) and Santo Amaro. They are more remote than Barreirinhas and more difficult to get to, but are becoming popular with tourists looking for a unique experience.

Finding a Tour

Most tours of Lençóis Maranhenses leave from Barreirinhas. The national park is free to enter but you must travel with an authorized driver. The easiest way to do this is to use a tour company. There are many tour operators in Barreirinhas and each offers a few different options for their half, full and multi-day tours. Most full-day tours cost R$150 – 180 ($30 – 35 USD). We booked our half-day afternoon tour on the day we arrived and there were plenty of tours to chose from.

To read about our other adventures in Brazil click here.


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