Bahia may have the prettiest stretches of coastline in Brazil but the northeast has some of the most dramatic. In Rio Grande do Norte, broken, striated cliffs and imposing dunes tower above the wild and deserted beaches of Natal, Genipabu, Pipa and Areia Branca. In neighbouring Ceará the coast becomes touristy again, especially around the state capital, Fortaleza, a sunny, planned city whose charm is somewhat sullied by a plethora of cheap package tours. Just to the north is the Western hemisphere's kitesurfing capital, Cumbuco, where the only Brazilians you'll see are working in the hotels and restaurants.
Beyond the state border at Jericoacoara, the cliffs and dunes give way to the wilderness of the Delta do Parnaíba, the largest delta in the Western hemisphere. The wetlands of the Rio Parnaíba spread like an outstretched palm to divide the land into myriad islands and a maze of narrow channels, which hide some of Brazil's least visited and least spoilt beaches. Most visitors head for
Maranhão state and the coastal desert of the Lençóis Maranhenses:
a huge sea of coastal dunes, pocked with freshwater lakes and fringed by deserted beaches and forgotten wind-blown fishing villages. Further north, and almost inaccessible, the swamps and inlets of the Reentrâncias Maranhenses preserve the largest bank of coral in Atlantic South America, the Parque Estadual Marinho do Parcel Manoel Luís, which is just beginning to open up to diving.
Maranhão's capital, São Luís, is famous for its Bumba-Meu-Boi festival in June and its historic centre, whose colonial buildings are covered in blue and white Portuguese
and filled with decaying baroque churches. The city is one of two World Heritage Sites in the region, the other being the Parque Nacional da Serra da Capivara, whose bizarre honeycomb domes tower over canyons covered in what may be the oldest rock painting in the Americas.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF