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    EXPLORE

    A brown-haired woman in her thirties poses next to a green tent with two bicycles in a sandy landscape.
    For many, sandy beaches mean vacations. Let’s just say that with our bikes weighing over 65 kg each, this wasn’t always the case…

    Unusual adventure | Lençóis Maranhenses National Park

    If you’re looking for a unique adventure, you’re in the right place!

    Dream scenery? An unusual sand kingdom.
    Itinerary? Barreirinhas – Atins- oasis Baixa Grande – Atins – Paulino Neves
    Weather conditions? Hot and windy.

    Almost in the very north of Brazil lies a “desert” 70 km long and extending up to 50 km inland. This ecosystem of 10-30 metre-high white dunes looks like a bed sheet (lençóis in Portuguese). Because of its geographical location near the Amazon basin, the region is subject to a rainy season. While deserts, by definition, receive less than 250 millimetres per year, the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park receives around 1,200 mm of rain.

    Surprisingly, a layer of impermeable rock beneath the sand prevents rainfall from infiltrating. As a result, between January and May, freshwater accumulates, creating thousands of blue, green and even black lagoons between the dune tops. A true paradise for hiking, swimming and canoeing! Between May and September, life is in full swing, but in December, we admired a dry, windswept landscape. To tell the truth, we’d never thought of cycling through this “desert” until we met Mão, a local cycling guide from the town of Barreirinhas. And why not? 

    It’s a welcome change from busy roads. No more pedalling on the shoulder between bits of glass, branches, pieces of tires, holes and nails. In a few hours, we had planned this sandy adventure, and the next day we loaded three bikes onto a fisherman’s boat. To reach this unusual kingdom, we sailed on the Rio Preguiças for four hours to the village of Atins. We finally landed in the dark at high tide. The real adventure begins!

    Desert and sand dunes where a woman walks barefoot from behind. The ocean can be seen on the horizon.
    For our first night, we camp near the Canto dos Lençóis restaurant in the distance.

    After two hours of pushing our bicycles, we finally settle down at our base camp. And not least, the Canto dos Lençóis restaurant offers tasty meals of grilled shrimp! Shortly afterwards, we walk through this enchanting landscape as the moon rises over the dunes. What a magical place for a peaceful night in the tent!

    “We’re going to take advantage of the low tide to reach the Baixa Grande oasis,” says Mão, wide awake. After leaving the superfluous at our base camp, we set off on three bikes, Mão in front and us far behind, trying to keep up with him. Twenty kilometres of pedalling along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, four hours later, we cross the Rio Negro. Its completely dry riverbed will guide us for the next six kilometres to the famous oasis. This verdant refuge is home to a few families living in simplicity. And despite its desert-like appearance, the park is also home to some forty species of reptile and over a hundred species of plant and bird, including the red ibis. When we arrive at night (again), Maria says, “I can cook chicken if you can wait, as it’s still alive”. Finally, we tuck into the traditional Brazilian dish, rice with beans, then greet our hosts and quickly slip into our hammocks.

    Instead of staying another night in the oasis, we hit the road again in the late morning. What a mistake to drive in the heat! What’s more, Mão seems to have been exhausted by our slowness, as we make the return journey alone. Not to mention the wind blowing in our ears, “don’t dream too much, you won’t get to low tide at 2 pm”. And for the first time on the trip, I repeatedly tell Vanessa, “I can’t do it anymore!

    6 km to go…
    Another 4 exhausting hours…

    Once on the beach, we spot our first sea turtle in the distance! Moments later, we realize that she has died, apparently because of a fishing net. Then, as the sun sets, we discover a shaky shelter made of wood and palm leaves. Here we set up our hammocks, sheltered from the wind at last! A bad night’s sleep later, and we’re off along the ocean by 3:30 a.m. to reach our base camp. Our sandy challenge ends where it began, in Atins. Heading east, we reach Caburé in just a few minutes by boat. And there we land on a sandy peninsula as far as the eye can see…

    There’s no road! What’s next? There’s the option of loading our bikes into a 4 × 4. The $$ price tag encourages us to continue on two wheels at low tide. This time, the god Aeolus cheered us on and we covered 20 km in four hours, a real feat with our bikes fully loaded! Despite the difficulties of this adventure, we enjoy the ride, our senses on the alert. The smell of the ocean, the sound of the waves, our eyes feast on these astonishing landscapes. Here and there, we come across fishermen, children at play and a few tourists.

    Near a dune, a woman in her thirties pushes a loaded bike through the sand.
    In theory, the secret to riding on a beach (unless you have a fatbike) is to wait for low tide, when the wet sand is denser. You can also deflate the tires a little. But don’t get your hopes up, there will always be soft spots!

    After a refreshing morning swim, we slowly make our way towards Paulino Neves. And with good reason: our wheels are literally swallowed up by millions of grains of sand. Even lowering the pressure on our tires, we’re having trouble pushing one bike with two people. Our adventure seems to be coming to an end, as someone in the car tells us that “the city is only a kilometre away”. But a little later, another person arrives in a 4 × 4 and encourages us by saying, “only three kilometres!

    Anyway, our sixth day is over, after seven magnificently exhausting kilometres to reach Paulino Neves. As soon as we arrived, we chanced upon the Silva Feitosa family. Spontaneously, Roseane offers us an orange and fresh water. And a few minutes later, this charming family invites us to share their meal and spend the night in their home. Our bicycle touring friend from São Paulo, André Pasquali, was right: “the Brazilian people will always be there to help you.” Many thanks to this incredible Brazilian generosity!

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