About Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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The World Cup. Brazil. Don’t they go together? “I hope they lose,” he said, “he” being Marcello, the owner of the hotel where I was staying in Salvador, Brazil; “they” being Brazil’s national football team. “If they win, it will send the wrong message to the world and to the people of this country.”
He pointed up at the young woman walking across the bridge that draped over the packed highway. “It will say that it’s OK for me to be driving in this new car, while she walks that dangerous path lined with drug dealers and thieves.
“Or that it’s fine,” he continued, directing my attention to the dilapidated rail track above the left side of the road, “that this piece of shit sits for 15 years unfinished, until all of a sudden we get the World Cup and the tourists need to use it.
“Never mind the hundreds of thousands of us stuck on the road,” he pointed back toward the highway, which was now essentially a parking lot.
It’s a cynical outlook toward a country where Marcello has spent his whole life, but one with which I empathized to a point. Just a couple weeks before, after all, I’d experienced the first theft of my life, to say nothing of the grinding halt to which the Cup had brought Rio de Janeiro during my time there.
And it wasn’t just in the cities. Brazil’s poor rural infrastructure had nearly prevented my life-changing trek in the Lençóis Maranhenses from happening at all, to say nothing of how anxious I felt for much of my trip due to the (Portuguese) linguistic homogeneity of all but the most educated elements of Brazilian society.
“That one’s a fool,” Marcello continued, pointing to a car with two Brazilian flags taped to either of its mirrors, in a show of support for the impending game everyone was heading home to watch. “And that one too. And that one too.
“But it’s not their fault,” he was quick to concede. “You know, only the most clever people even get to go to University here – I was lucky enough to be one of them. The real joke, however, is that once you get there, it’s almost like they steal knowledge from you. They narrow your perspective instead of broaden it. It’s a joke, just like the roads and the government and the economy and all of it.”
Marcello had used the temporary standstill to put on some Brazilian light rock from the 1970s, and as we started moving again (he clearly needed a break from ranting, beads of sweat forming on his face), he turned it up so it drowned out the honking and cheering and motor sounds coming from outside.
As we moved along the road, first at a slow crawl and then at a speed that was almost terrifying by contrast, the beat of the song, and the singer’s smooth, sweet voice proved the perfect foil to the harshness that surrounded us on all sides.
And I began to appreciate, not for the first time ever but for the first time in a while, the seemingly deliberate way modern Brazilian society mimics and shadows the jungle into which it is built: The penthouses of the Miami-esque skyscrapers in Salvador’s nova cidade like the top reaches of the canopy; the beautiful men and women like the birds and butterflies carried on the breeze; the storied colonial buildings and comfortable single-family homes like palms and banana trees; the forgotten poor like the decomposing floor of the rainforest, taken for granted by the plants and animals that dwell upon and within it, but central to their survival.
In both cases, the Brazilian government is a brutal buzzsaw cutting through it all, leaving what remains vulnerable to harsh sun. And in both cases, whether we’re talking about mosquitoes carrying deadly diseases or more sentient pests carrying firearms, the surreal beauty comes at a high price.
“It’s jungle capitalism,” Marcello continued as the car slowed again, turning down the music so I could hear him. “A few thugs – the government; the oil companies; the banks – come in and take control of everything that allows our jungle society to thrive, and sell us back only what we need to survive at a price that nearly kills us.
“Did you know,” he said, pointing to the hood of his car, “that over 50% of what I paid for this car is tax? And the worst part is that Brazilians, with their poor education and football obsession and their misplaced optimism that the tax they pay will buy them honest politicians, will happily pay whatever is asked of them.
“And so I hope they lose – I hope we lose,” he concluded, “because only then will we all be forced to wake up from this dream, to find our way out of this nightmare.”
As we neared the airport, I began to feel sentimental about my impending goodbye to Brazil, in spite of Marcello’s diatribe – and maybe because of it, too. Brazil is a country where danger lurks around every corner, but you dance to meet him; where the only thing more overwhelming than the sweetness of a caipirinha is the foul the stench of spilled ones rotting in the sun; where nothing works, but everything feels so damn good.
In spite of all this – and again, maybe because of it – I hope you visit Brazil. And I hope my photos, whether you appreciate them independently of this text or as a digestive to wash it down, make you want to go there as much as I want to go back someday.
With all the turmoil going on in the Middle East these days, I have been reminiscing on my travels in the region a lot, from the most distant (my arrival in Beirut nearly four years ago) until the most recent, last autumn in Israel. In particular, the two weeks I spent in Egypt back in late 2011 remain vivid in my mind, and not just because Egypt was a place I’d wanted to visit since I was a mummy-obsessed preschooler.
My trip to Egypt was everything I’d ever hoped it would be (well, maybe it wasn’t quite long enough), but what’s funny is that in spite of my having visited just months after the 2011 revolution, I didn’t encounter one situation where I felt unsafe. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Egyptians are some of the kindest, most peaceful people I’ve ever met. If anything I felt sad for them – many of the people I met had been financially decimated by the downturn in tourism, which I argued at the time was born more of media sensationalism than of actual facts.
I haven’t been to Egypt in nearly three years, so I can’t comment for sure one way or another about the safety of travel in Egypt right now. What I will say is that both in travel and in life, risk is always commensurate with reward – and few places in the world are more rewarding to visit than Egypt. I think you’ll feel the same way after scrolling through these photos.
London will always hold a special place in my heart – it was the first international city I ever visited! Below is a spotlight on some of the less traditional things to do in London.
1. Kew Gardens
Image credit (via Creative Commons License) I’ve heard of Kew Gardens many times before, but it wasn’t until I read a feature about them, which reminded me of the impressive fact that they constitute the vastest collection of plants in the world, that I realized what a mistake I made in not visiting them.
2. Camden Town
Image credit (via Creative Commons License) I did a fair bit of urban walking during my first trip to London, but I had not yet reached the point as a traveler where I intentionally explored specific neighborhoods, let alone writing about or taking photographs of them. Camden is probably the top London neighborhood I want to see at this point, in large part due to the attention Amy Winehouse drew to it near the end of her life.
3. London’s Smallest Church
Image credit (via Creative Commons License) One place I visited during my first trip to London was St. Paul’s Cathedral, an iconic landmark with an interesting history, especially for Americans. What I didn’t know is that an extremely small replica of the cathedral can be found under Vauxhall Bridge. Judging from pictures, it looks a bit like the spirit houses you see all over Southeast Asia, but I’d have to see for myself to make a final judgment.
4. The Monument
Image credit (via Creative Commons License) You’re probably thinking I missed a word in this section’s title, but in fact the place of “The Monument” in London’s history is so great it doesn’t need qualifiers. Specifically, it’s been around since the year 1666, when it was erected to symbolize the city’s resolve in moving forward from London’s great fire.
5. Highgate Cemetery
Image credit (via Creative Commons License) I love a good urban cemetery, and London’s Highgate Cemetery is right up there with the best of them. So huge in size in seems like a city, the cemetery is the final resting place of many famous people, the most notorious being Karl Marx, father of socialism. Do you have any items to add to this list? Main image credit (via Creative Commons license)
When my plane landed in Salvador, Brazil recently, I was beyond exhausted. Not just physically – I’d just finished up five days in the otherwordly Lençóis Maranhenses, about half of which was spent reaching the park– but also mentally and emotionally. I hadn’t spoken more than 100 words of English since saying goodbye to my friend Leah in Rio, and the memory of my robbery in Ipanema still lingered in the back of the mind, causing paranoia to wash over me whenever I wandered into a populated place.
Then, there was the fact that every single person on the plane (besides me, of course) was decked out in their national soccer team’s colors – I was tired of the World Cup before it began, you might recall.
In many ways, perhaps like I’ve never been during such a short trip before, I was ready to go home as I walked out of Salvador Airport’s exit. But then, I saw a sign that changed everything.
Day One: Pelourinho
Literally a sign: The owner of my hotel, who’d surprisingly taken me up on my request to be picked up at the airport, was waiting with a piece of paper that bore not only my name, but my flashy email signature – which is to say, a huge picture of my face.
Second wind or not, I headed to bed pretty immediately upon arriving in Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic district, with the intent of spending the entire next day exploring it. The good news is that I’d hit it off Hansel, a German-Cuban traveler who was volunteering as receptionist of the hostel, and he’d agreed to accompany me on my adventures the next day. The bad news is that I couldn’t sleep (ironically, on account of the hostel’s excellent location, which was right above a major party street), so morning came a lot more harshly than it should’ve.
The thing about Pelourinho is that, while it’s unique for Brazil (none of the other Brazilian cities I’ve visited have comparable “old towns”), it evokes a lot of other places I’ve traveled in South America – namely, the old city of Cartagena, without the walls of course. And at a much higher elevation, to the extent that a contraption known as the Elevador Lacerda exists to transport tourists and residents alike from the old city, which is a couple hundred feet in elevation, down to sea level, whether to visit Mercado Modelo or to catch a ferry out. There’s also a semi-modern city beneath the more inviting old one, but it looked shady as fuck, so I didn’t venture in.
Back to the old city of Pelourinho. As I said, it’s pretty standard as far as South American historical districts go: Churches and plazas; long streets of extremely colorful houses; people dressed in traditional costumes (here, Afro-Brazilian baianas); fast food vendors; and, since this is South America, an inordinate number of armed police. I highlight these facts not to complain or berate Salvador, but because discovering this came as a massive relief to me: For the first time on a trip that seemed much longer than it should’ve, I was able to just relax (relatively speaking) and be a tourist. Salvador was certainly living up to its name, which translates to “savior” in English.
Day Two: Itaparica
Hansel and I had stayed out literally all day, from the early hours of morning until after the sunset – and we’d made the disastrous decision to share a large jug of a local spirit (which was not cachaça, but rather tasted like pure sugar cane juice infused with alcohol) as we watched the molten sphere sink into the sea. As a result I woke up on my second of three days in Salvador, which I’d designated for taking a day trip to the nearby island of Itaparica, feeling a little less than fresh. Actually, I felt downright horrible – I even considered for a moment that I might be slipping into food poisoning or, worse, dengue.
Nonetheless, I was awake, out the door and on-board a ferry by 9:30, which got to me to Itaparica’s shady-ass port less than an hour later. I say “shady” because literally every person who approached me was looking to sell me something, be it a taxi ride, a souvenir (didn’t I just get here) or, if you can believe it at 10-something in the morning, drugs. So although I had a vested interest in seeing the island’s Dutch-colonial (weird, right?) fort and historical district, I decided to peace the eff out and just walk along the coast by myself for a while.
Initially, I wondered whether this was the right decision. The neighborhoods I passed as I walked northward seemed decidedly run-down (some were visibly abandoned), to say nothing of the debris on the rugged beaches. I persisted, however, and wouldn’t you know? Both the terrestrial and coastal scenery became more and more bucolic the further I went, to the point where it seemed ludicrous that a city of over a million people sat just across the bay.
After about two hours of walking, I was beyond charmed by the castaway beauty of the island, the shy friendliness of its people and the growing sense of independence I felt, which built upon how liberating it had been to spend the day before as a simple tourist in Salvador’s old city. In spite of this, I still felt like crap, so when I arrived in the town of Bom Despacho, I headed to the island’s main bus station and hired a taxi for the rest of the day. My fatigue notwithstanding, this proved to be a questionable decision: Without the elements of discovery and local interaction, Itaparica was not nearly as special as it had been when I explored it on my own.
Day Three: Porto do Barra Beach
My last day in Salvador also happened to be my last day in Brazil, and since I hadn’t been swimming (save for a few dips in-between my dune trekking in the Lençóis) during my entire time in the country thus far, I’d planned to spend it lying on the beach – specifically at Porto do Barra, Salvador’s most iconic praia. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had different ideas, so I did exactly zero sunbathing.
With this being said, it was interesting to stroll along the famed beach and through the upscale neighborhood (which seems something of a poor man’s Copacabana) when it lacked its prized sunshine and warmth and when its shores were completely empty, save for some surfers who obviously had death wishes. This (and the greasy cheeseburger I enjoyed just before jetting to the airport to catch my flight back to the U.S.) was far from the perfect way to end my three days in Salvador (and my two weeks in Brazil), but it was strangely appropriate.
And, dare I say, satisfying?
It seems like everyone is going to Europe these days, which makes it tempting to assume there’s nothing you can see in Europe that all your friends haven’t seen before. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. With an endless array of cultures, languages, architectures and landscapes, Europe is one of the most diverse regions in the world for travelers. You could literally visit every year, the rest of your life, and not see it all!
I’ve personally been to Europe eight times, yet I hear about someplace I haven’t seen or an experience I haven’t enjoyed at least once a week. This goes the other way, too: Many of my favorite spots in Europe are places people didn’t know exist. Whether you’re looking for where to go on your next trip to Europe, or simply need an exciting distraction from your day, continue reading to learn more about some lesser-known European treasures.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Slovenia in general is a destination that tends to evade most travelers, on account of its small size, the low international profile it keeps and its location, wedged between Italy, Croatia and Austria. But this lilliputian locale is disproportionately packed with mind-blowing landscapes, charming cultural relics and exhilarating eco-adventures, all of which the otherworldly Lake Bled embodies.
Nestled amid the Julian Alps approximately two hours from the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, Lake Bled boasts fluorescent blue water and has a medieval castle towering over it, dozens of massive mountain peaks notwithstanding. There’s a small church at the center of the lake as well, so whether you canoe to it, or simply hike around the lake’s long perimeter before taking a dip in its refreshing waters, Lake Bled manages to tick all your travel boxes. Not bad for a place you didn’t know existed, huh?
The Old City of Dresden, Germany
Unlike Slovenia, Germany is on just about every traveler’s radar – but only a handful of German destinations attract all the attention, while dozens of other cities, towns and attractions beckon to be discovered. One such place is the city of Dresden, located about two hours east of Berlin in the state of Saxony.
I say “state,” but Saxony was once its own kingdom, a fact that becomes apparent you walk across the Elbe River and into Dresden’s old center. As you explore attractions like the Zwinger Palace, Frauenkirche and Brühl’s Terrace, and learn the story of the flamboyant Saxon monarch August the Great, you might not even feel like you’re in Germany at all – which, given Saxony’s largely sovereign history, you almost aren’t!
Italy’s Salento Region
Italy is even more ubiquitous among European travelers than Germany, so it might seem impossible that there’s somewhere here you haven’t heard of. I could list several dozen, to be frank, but for now I’m going to stick to the region of Salento, located at the point of Italy’s boot heel, Puglia. In some ways, Salento is par for the course with the rest of Italy: Structures that range from Roman to Medieval in their age; gorgeous landscapes and people; and, of course, incredible food.
But where Salento differentiates itself, for me, is in the specifics of its scenery. From Otranto, to Santa Maria di Leuca to Gallipoli, Salento’s limestone coastline and bright blue waters seem more of Greece than of Italy, to say nothing of the decided lack of foreign tourists, which makes you feel like you’ve got the whole area to yourself. (Even if it means you should practice your Italian before you head here!)
Sighisoara: A Saxon Citadel in Romania
Speaking of the Saxons, they were something of an empire, which is why the Saxon citadel of Sighisoara exists over 700 miles from Dresden in the heart of Romania’s Transylvania region. Founded in the 12th century, Sighisoara old citadel is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which transports you back to the Middle Ages with every step you take along its stone streets.
In spite of how much I just oversimplified it, the history of Sighisoara is actually rather complicated. Although the people who founded it were ethnically Saxon, for example, they were doing the bidding of the King of Hungary, rather than the Saxon emperor. But don’t worry about technicalities for now – you’ll have plenty of time to dissect them as you explore Sighisoara, whether you go inside the Clock Tower, scale the Covered Staircase or visit the house where Vlad Tepes (a.k.a. Dracula) was born.
Brazil is an intimidating country to visit, owing to its size, its linguistic homogeneity and its questionable level of personal safety, to name just a few factors. In fact, after my most recent visit there, I can say it’s one of the most difficult places I’ve ever traveled, for these reasons and many others.
On the other hand, most if not all the difficulties I experienced traveling in Brazil would’ve been much worse had I not been so adept at setting and executing travel goals so, using combined experiences from my two trips there, I’ve assembled a sample itinerary for three weeks in Brazil. Follow it exactly for a standalone three-week trip to Brazil, or use it as a framework for the Brazil portion of your larger South America trip.
São Paulo has the worst reputation of all the cities in Brazil among foreigners – and a fair few Brazilians as well. Although I understand complaints about the city, which begin with the level of crime there but also include pollution, climate and overcrowding, I can’t help it: I absolutely love São Paulo. (top photo)
Other notable São Paulo attractions include the Banco do Estado de São Paulo (Banespa) Building (Brazil’s highest building and a great spot for an urban panorama), Sé Cathedral, Mercado Municipal (where you can sink your teeth into a delicious pastel bacalhau, a cod pie that tastes way better than it sounds) and Ibirapuera Park. In total, I recommend spending 5-7 days of your three weeks in Brazil in São Paulo, although you could easily spend more.
When I learned that a mysterious desert-like landscape existed less than an hour’s flight from the Amazon Rainforest, I immediately become more interested in visiting said mysterious desert than the rainforest which, call me a snob, is someplace everyone visits when they go to Brazil. No one goes to the Lençóis Maranhenses, however – no foreigners, certainly – which is just one of the many reasons this bizarre landscape is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life.
Due to the complicated logistics of getting to the deepest, best portions of the Lençóis Maranhenses (which I detail in this post) I recommend devoting 5-6 days of your three weeks in Brazil to Lençóis Maranhenses, which is best reached via the airport of São Luis, and best seen from the small town of Santo Amaro, rather than the tourist trap of Barreirinhas.
Salvador is a city I desperately wanted to visit during my first trip to Brazil but unfortunately, it just wasn’t in the cards at the time. I’m happy I waited, however, if only because Pelourinho, its colonial gem of an old city, demands an incredible camera if you want to document it probably – I had a crap one the first time I went to Brazil.
How long you spend in Salvador depends upon what you end up doing there. If you only explore the historical old town, then a couple days might suffice. If you take advantage of beaches such as Praia do Porto da Barra, you might add another day or two, if the weather is conducive to sunbathing. If you add in day trips to nearby islands to Itaparcia or Morro de São Paulo, you could easily spend an entire week of your three weeks in Brazil in Salvador – it’s up to you!
Rio de Janeiro
In my own travels, I have a tendency to work before I play – and I think every traveler should have the same mindset, which is why I’ve saved Rio de Janeiro for the finale of your three weeks in Brazil. If you’re extremely tired, prioritizes lazy days on beaches like Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon, or if you’ve still got energy for sightseeing, visit the Santa Teresa historical district, take a cable car up the Sugar Loaf, walk under the Lapa Arches, stroll through the Botanical Gardens and, of course, see Christ the Redeemer.
No matter what you end up doing there, Rio is the perfect place to spend at least 4-6 days out of your three-week Brazil itinerary. And, if you don’t extend your trip using some of the options I’ll list below, it’s the ideal destination to end your Brazil trip.
Other Brazil Destinations
If three weeks in Brazil is not sufficient for you, there are plenty of other places to see, extending your Brazil trip to a month or even longer. From São Paulo, you could travel south to iconic Iguassu Falls, or to the idyllic coastal city of Florianopolis or, after you finish up trekking in the Lençóis, fly to Belém or Manuas and use either as your gateway to the Amazon. Coastal cities like Recife and Fortaleza are similar in ambiance to Salvador while Brasilia, the national capital, is a modernist planned city that many people hate, but is intriguing nonetheless.
Meet Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, which has been one of my must-visit destinations since I first learned of its existence. As I arrived my pousada in the sleepy village of Santo Amaro, the sky was too dark for me to even see my surroundings, so I went to bed unsure of whether the 48 hours I’d spent in transit was worth it.
I’m happy to report, after having trekked nearly 40 miles through rolling sand dunes, swum in freshwater lagoons of nearly a dozen different hues and enjoyed the hospitality of people who are largely oblivious to the existence of the outside world, that the answer is yes. In fact, I would go so far as to say the Lençois Maranhenses is the single most spectacular place I’ve ever visited.
If there’s just one destination you add to your travel bucket list, make it the Lençóis Maranhenses. Whether you board the next place to Brazil, or save your trip for a special moment in your future, Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is one place you absolutely must see before you die. Here’s the story of how I spent my time here.
Day Trip to Lagoa Betânia
As I mentioned in my previous post, I made it to Santo Amaro largely due to the good graces of a Rio man named Alexander and his family, so I was delighted upon waking up the morning after I arrived to have a call from him waiting at reception.
“We’re going on a day trip to a beautiful lake,” he said. “Betânia. Would you like to come?”
I couldn’t have answered “yes” faster than I did. Within about 30 minutes, Alexander, his family and I, along with two Brazilian couples and two guides, were on a 4×4 again, this one headed away from Santo Amaro. The surrounding terrain remained green and brushy for the first hour or so of the bumpy ride. I was a bit puzzled, maybe even disappointed, until I noticed that the horizon was a stark, snowy white.
Before we reached it, however, the 4×4 stopped at a small straw hut on, where we got off and into a canoe that took us across a red-tinged lake. From there, we hiked about 10 minutes, during which all of the surrounding brush disappeared. The now-sandy path banked up sharply and when we arrived, I was greeted by the most fantastic view I’ve ever seen.
While my new friends and the rest of the people who’d come with us immediately started swimming, I headed off with my camera to explore the strange landscape.
How could it be that, less than an hour’s flight from the Amazon Rainforest (and even closer to the Caribbean Sea), a veritable desert, complete with blowing sand, existed? And how could it be that in the crystalline, ocean-looking freshwater lakes that formed between the massive dunes for just a few months out of the year, an intricate ecosystem of aquatic plants, flowers, insects and even birds manifested itself?
The answer to this question would be better explained by a scientist than by a writer like me, but regardless of why the Lençóis Maranhenses currently exists where it does, it is definitely the most alluring landscape I’ve ever walked across, swum in or, indeed, photographed.
It’s got the forlorn beauty of the desert, without the oppressive dryness of the Sahara (or the less-distant Atacama). And while swimming in its lagoons evokes the sea in terms of color, the lack of salt makes doing so much more refreshing than in any ocean.
After enjoying about three hours at Lake Betânia (about half of which I spent alone, cataloging and documenting everything in sight, like a grown version of my five-year old self), we headed back to the hut where our 4×4 was parked and enjoyed a delectable, yet simple dinner of fried fish, rice and beans, washed down with the only substance more refreshing than the Lençóis Maranhenses itself: Coconut water, straight from the fruit.
Trekking in the Lençóis Maranhenses
It was absolutely wonderful to be able to spend more time with Alexander and his family but, truth be told, I’d come to the Lençóis Maranhenses looking for something a bit more exhilarating than a day-trip in a 4×4. Thankfully, one of the girls who went on the trip with me spoke extremely good English, and helped me arrange a more extreme excursion with one of the guides.
The next morning at 4 a.m. sharp, I met a 40-something local man named Willan in front of my pousada for what I knew would be at least a 7-hour hike, the first of two in as many days. Willan spoke no English (and I, you might remember, speak only slightly more Portuguese), but I figured we would be too physically exhausted most of the time to speak anyway. Plus, I’d still managed to form a bond with Muslianto, who trekked with me through Borneo in search of Orangutans in February, so I was optimistic.
Willan and I had been hiking for nearly an hour by the time the sun began to rise, and reveal that we were already deep into the Lençóis Maranhenses. Within a matter of minutes, the dense sea of black that had enveloped us transformed, starting as a deep purple-orange gradient, before cooling into more soothing blue and yellow colors. As the last of the night’s darkness disappeared, the clouds took the form of a large archway, as if they were welcoming us into the park.
The next hour or so of our hike saw us surrounded by largely uniform elevation, color, temperature and light situations, until I noticed that one of the fast-approaching clouds was much darker than the others. I also noticed that a group of animals far off in the distance had dramatically increased their pace of movement.
A cool, impossibly quick wind began blowing over the dunes and before we knew it, Willan and I were being drenched by a sudden downpour – the source of the lagoons in the Lençóis Maranhenses.The rain disappeared as quickly as it had shown up and we got back on our way without any further ado. Just as my clothes had finished drying, however, Willan motioned to me to put my backpack on top of my head – and walked straight down into the lake in front of us.
It was clearly one of the several permanent bodies of water in the natural park, not only because of its chest-high depth, but due to the complexity and scale of the plant and animal life that had taken root in it – there were even small fish!
Speaking of animals, once we got dry for the second time, I noticed that a beautiful, white bird seemed to have taken a liking to us. Now, again lacking the vocabulary to ask what it might be, I wrote my own answer to this question in my head. Unfortunately, it was precisely that – my head, this is – that the bird was after.
It seems that our trek had taken us right through the nesting areas of these birds (I hope a biologist among you can look at the picture above and recognize them), such that they literally behaved like kamikazes for the next two to three hours of our hike, occasionally coming so close to the tops of our skulls that we could hear their wings – they sounded like airplanes.
Not that I could really be bothered to care much, given how gorgeous my surroundings had become. By this time, it was full daylight out, and the only thing more vivid in color than the azure sky was the variety of shades the lagoons took under it.
While some were a standard Caribbean or Mediterranean color, others were darker or lighter, while some took on strange hues like chartreuse or iron red. I wanted to stop and swim in all of them, but I could tell from his eyes that Willan was exhausted.
It was right around this time that I started to realize my feet, which I’d been walking on for almost six hours at this point, were also tired. Thankfully, it was also around this time that I noticed tire tracks on the sand. Within about 45 minutes, after trekking through an increasingly lush lagoon of the permanent sort, Willan and I arrived in the lilliputian village of Santa Luzia, which is so small it makes tiny Santo Amaro look like São Paulo.
I had planned to explore the village some, and try my Portuguese with the locals, but my creative will proved no match for the hammock at the pousada, so I crashed out. I did get a chance to eat some fresh chicken (really fresh, as in killed just for me!) and visit with/thank the family who made it, but most of what occurred between arriving in Santa Luzia and heading back the next morning (again at 4 a.m.) was a blur.
Arriving back in Santo Amaro after having hiked a whopping 36 miles (60 km) put into perspective why getting to the Lençóis Maranhenses had been so difficult. And why that’s a good thing: Were it not for the remoteness of this vast wonderful, it would’ve long since been destroyed by resort developers.
How to Reach Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
To reach Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, fly to São Luis (SLZ) and take a Denilson Viagens van to the town of Sangue. There, you’ll transfer to a 4×4 truck, which will take you to the town of Santo Amaro, located about two hours into the Lençóis Maranhenses. Check in at a local pousada (I recommend booking one in advance, if only because they can sort your transfer from São Luis out for you) and ask the staff about either or both of the activities I did.
Or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can hike for three days instead of two, and instead of returning to Santo Amaro like me, you can continue on to the city of Barreirinhas, where you can take one of several daily buses back to São Luis to catch a flight or, alternatively, travel eastward by land to destinations such as Jericoacora or Fortazela. You could also do this journey in reverse, starting in Fortaleza or Jeri.
Please note that while most travelers begin their Lençóis Maranhenses journeys in Barreirinhas, I made a conscious decision not to due this. First and foremost because Barreirinhas, as I learned during the night I spent there against my will, is disgusting. And secondly, because Santo Amaro is much, much closer to the best scenery of the park, its smaller and slightly more charming nature notwithstanding.
I was trepidatious when I left Rio Monday – and not just because I got into a taxi at 5:30 in the morning. My experience getting pickpocketed on the second day of my trip had put a serious dent in my confidence, the fact that I had only a vague idea of the trajectory I’d be taking to my next destination notwithstanding.
Actually, that’s a lie. I knew very specifically how I was going to reach the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, a strange, dreamy wonderland located along Brazil’s northern coast. After flying from Rio de Janeiro to the city of São Luis, I would immediately board a bus bound for the city of Barreirinhas, then disembark an hour before the terminus at the town of Sangue, where I would catch a 4×4 to the town Santo Amaro. It was just one sentence, which required only four actions, but something in my gut told me it would be easier said than done.
The first three steps were relatively simple, even if my flight departed nearly an hour late and it took longer to reach Sangue than it should’ve taken to go all the way to Barreirinhas. There was even an empty 4×4 waiting in across the street from where the bus dropped me off. I guess all that worry was for nothing, I thought smugly.
“Amanhã,” the weathered-looking driver shouted at me immediately as I walked toward his vehicle, as if he knew the only thing a gringo like me could be doing on his turf was looking for a ride to Santo Amaro. The word, so far as I could tell given my anemic Portuguese skills, meant “tomorrow.”
No problem, I thought, and attempted to tell the man as much in my broken Português. I walked toward the witchy-looking older gal who’d been watching me from the nearby shop, which seemed to be the main or even only business in the town. “Pousada?” I asked, hoping she had a small row of rooms behind her convenience store.
No such luck. “Não tenho,” she said, without even a hint of empathy in her gaze, which seemed deliberately mean once she elaborated. “Eu não tenho – e Sangue não tem.”
I was speechless. Granted, this stemmed largely from the fact that I’d already exhausted my Portuguese-language vocabulary several times over by this point, but she had given me basically the worst news I could’ve gotten that point. The sun was setting on the shithole of a town I’d been dropped off in (and it was the last bus of the day) and I had neither an official place to sleep, nor the linguistic prowess to ask if I might kindly use her concrete floor, to say nothing of my fear that deadly creatures might eat me as I slumbered.
And so, I did what any deaf mute would do when faced with the prospect of being totally and completely fucked: I sat still, said nothing, heard nothing and got completely lost inside my own paranoia.
Brazil has really done it this time, I said, thinking back on how angry and out-of-control I felt upon realizing my phone had been stolen a few nights earlier and struggling, in spite of my cerebral knowledge that doing so would be inaccurate, not to attribute either (or both) incidents to the fact that I was in Brazil, more than any other country. Yeah, fuck you Brazil.
Likewise, I did my best not to extrapolate the indifference I observed among every single person I’d met in Sangue (there were, for the record, two) to Brazilian people in general, toward a conclusion – that Brazilian people are not really very friendly – I already once held as truth and had swiftly disproven.
Left, so it seemed, without any action to take, there were few other avenues for resolution – at least in my mind – than blaming my circumstances and the people who were currently part of them.
But the fact is that I was at least partially to blame. I mean, I could’ve just continued on to Barreirinhas instead of attempting to make it all the way to Santo Amaro, in spite of the fact that everything I read said that Barreirinhas was a toilet (and Santo Amaro wasn’t), and in spite of knowing for a fact I could only see the dunes of the Lençóis by Jeep in the former and preferring the prospect of trekking, which was apparently possible in the latter.
I was fated to end up there anywhere, it seemed. After she took some kind of delivery from the man who’d parked in front of her shop about an hour after I arrived, the old witch had informed me that he was headed to Barreirinhas – and that I had essentially no choice but to go with him.
There was no point in feeling disappointed. Next time, I thought as I threw my bags into the back of his pickup, I’ll take the path of least resistance to begin with.
I giggled when I found out the parrot, whose colors matched the Brazilian flag exactly, was named Lauro – the only other living creature I’d ever met with that name was a recent one night stand.
Lauro was the second living thing (the first was a scruffy, black dog) I met upon arriving at the home of Gilson, the man who’d driven me to Barreirinhas, early the morning after my dramatic exit from Sangue. Gilson had dropped me off at a pousada just outside the city limits on his way to his house the night before, and had surprised me by explaining that he would be taking me back to Sangue the following afternoon to catch that day’s 4×4.
Or at least, that’s how it had sounded: Gilson would pick me up at 9 a.m. and take me back to Sangue – and that would be the end of that. I had a feeling something was up when we started driving in the wrong direction; I strongly suspected it when we went to the local market and he asked me whether I would prefer bisteca or peixe; and I knew it for a fact when I walked into his home and he introduced me to his pet parrot and pet dog (And, shortly thereafter, all four of his children).
Realistically, I knew this man had no incentive to hold me hostage and would eventually make good on his promise to get me back to Sangue. So, I leveraged all the sensibility and optimism within my being and focused only on how thankful I was to him for saving my ass. There were a few moments, as we walked on the banks of the beautiful Preguiças River, where I hallucinated that he might be trying to swindle me into booking one of the expensive resorts on its shores, but those thoughts swiftly dissipated once we headed back to his place for lunch.
Indeed, from the time I met him in Sangue to the time we said goodbye less than a day later, I felt genuinely humbled by the kindness of Gilson and his family, from the delicious food they fed me, to the extent to which they attempted to make conversation with me, in spite of the language barrier between us, to the constant reassurances Gilson would give me when I’d forget important details he told me on account of them not being in my own language.
Here was a person who had absolutely no reason to be kind to me, let alone to treat me like his own child for the better part of a day, and he single-handedly restored all the faith I’d lost in humankind.
And yet, I couldn’t shake the same paranoia that had overtaken me while sitting in the Rio airport 24 hours before: That things simply weren’t going to go smoothly for me.
The old witch was smiling when I returned to Sangue, which was a very good sign – I had never so much as seen her teeth during our previous interaction. Initially, I’d been scared that I missed the 4×4 (Gilson had not, in fact, driven me back to Sangue but rather, to the rodoviária, from which the bus departed quite late) but this alone calmed my anxious heart.
“Santo Amaro?” The handsome man who got off the bus at the same time I did asked.
I nodded. “Sim.”
“Quatro horas,” he said, and walked inside to watch the football match with the local men. “O ônibus sai a quatro horas.”
It’s been a while since I traveled independently in Latin America, you see, so it makes sense that I’ve partially forgotten how time works here. When Gilson said I’d leave Barreirinhas at 2 to arrive in Sangue by 3 to catch the 4×4, what he meant is that I would arrive sometime in the 3 o’clock hour, then leave at 4 p.m., which I now imagined would be closer to 5 (which, interestingly enough, would have been almost late enough for me to have caught the day before). But I digress.
A 4×4 vehicle did indeed show up just after 4 p.m., only a curious thing happened: Everyone disembarked, but nobody went anywhere. The old witch (I feel bad calling her that at this point, because she was being so friendly toward me) told me to put my bags by the others’ bags, I assume to hold my place on the vehicle.
But 15 minutes passed, then 30, then 45 and place held or not, nobody was getting onto the empty vehicle. And unfortunately, I lacked the faculty with Portuguese to inquire on a deeper level, so I decided to do what would’ve served me in every other trying situation I encountered up to that point and just wait.
Eventually, a van bearing the “Denilson Viagens” (the same brand as the 4×4) arrived, carrying a full load of passengers – and an even fuller load of cargo. The scene initially perplexed me, but it soon became clear what was happening: The van was coming from São Luis (edit: Why hadn’t information about this van’s existence been available on the English-language Internet?) and all of its passengers were boarding the now-empty 4×4.
Only it wouldn’t be empty anymore. Quite full, in fact. Actually, completely full.
Slightly panicked, I handed my bag up to the handsome man who’d ridden the bus in with me, who was packing other bags on top of the vehicle.
He laughed and shooed it away, and whispered something in Portuguese under his breath. I handed it up to him again and he once again disregarded it, motioning to the older lady standing next to me to explain what was going on.
“Ele disse que não há espaço,” she said, confirming my worst fear. “Você tem que esperar até amanhã.”
But I already fucking waited until “tomorrow!” I thought, shouting inside my head but powerless to say anything that wouldn’t make me sound stupid. So again I waited, until the vehicle was literally so full it looked like nothing else could fit on it. In the distance the witch was looking on, with an impossibly sad gaze – her eyes looked to be ready to burst with tears. Likely on my behalf. I knew what that meant.
I had emotionally thrown in the towel of getting to Santo Amaro that day (and, thus, ever – I wasn’t going to that rodeo again), when a linguistic fountain bubbled up in me. “Eu voei do Rio ontem e eu já esperei 24 horas!” I shouted in the general direction of the 4×4. “Não mais de uma vez!”
I was afraid all the other passengers, who’d up to that point had remained silent, would start laughing at me. But instead, one immediately voiced her support.
“Temos espaço aqui,” she said softly, and moved the bags that were taking up the seat next to her to the floor. “Por favor, sente-se aqui.”
Not wanting to receive a “no” vote from the driver, who already seemed stressed due to the load the van would be carrying, I got on the vehicle without asking, and began attempting to the thank the woman, whom I soon discovered had also come from Rio de Janeiro, and her husband, whom in addition to moving bags had also relocated their son to another part of the vehicle to accommodate me.
I doubted after all I’d been through that the 4×4 would actually be able to leave but sure enough, after more than a day of only sort-of-patiently waiting, I was on my way down the rough, sandy road to the Lençóis Maranhenses.
How to Get to Lençóis Maranhenses
KEY POINTS: That was long, huh? Imaging living through it! In any case, if you navigate to this article simply for the purpose of discovering how to reach Lençóis Maranhenses, here is the information you need.
1. Fly to São Luis airport, code SLZ
2. Take a taxi to the bus station (“rodoviária” in Portuguese), then a bus to Barreirinhas
or, if you want to take a road less traveled and see better dunes…
2. Contact Denilson Viagens before your flight arrives in SLZ and book one of their transfers to Santo Amaro
or, if you want to risk several heart attacks like I did…
2. Get off your Barreirinhas-bound bus at Sangue and pray to God the 4×4 is still there