Travel info for visiting Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Brazil

A coastal desert covered with freshwater lakes


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Barreirinhas, MA 65590-000, Brazil

GPS: -2.4852937577213, -43.127372882538

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Visiting Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, which covers more than 1,500 km², the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park (“Bed-sheets of Maranhão” in portuguese) is a coastal park located in the state of Maranhão. It was created in 1981 and forms a transition zone between the ecoregions of the Cerrado savannah, the arid environment of Caatinga and the Amazon rainforest. This protected site is nicknamed the Sahara of Brazil for the similarity of its sand dunes carved by winds from the Atlantic Ocean with the largest desert in the world. On the fringes of Amazonia, the sandy and salty terrain of the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park houses the largest dune field in Brazil (which occupies two thirds of the total area of the park within 900 km²). Called restinga, this huge dune set is typical of this humid, tropical and coastal area of the Northeast Region of Brazil (Nordeste).

Stretching over 70 kilometres of coastline, the sand dunes of the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park were shaped about 15,000 years ago. They are the result of a natural geological phenomenon, born from the encounter between water, wind and sand. Having no equivalent in the world, the dunes extend even up to 50 kilometres inland. Contrary to appearances, this geographical area cannot be qualified as a desert. The rainfall of the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is indeed 300 times greater than that of the Sahara. After the dry season, it feeds a large network of salt marshes and interunar lagoons which shelters an unsuspected biodiversity. By meeting in the dune field, fresh and salt water create a multitude of ecosystems in a marine coastal biomedic area rich in dry and humid environments. This generates a mysterious nature where flora and fauna are constantly regenerating in an ephemeral environment. A total of 300 species of plants including herbaceous plants and two species of carnivorous plants occupy the restinga fields and the dry beds of the interdune lagoons of the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.

It is between June and September that heavy rains add magic to the place. These precipitation generate oases to the blue-green lagoons of fresh water, nestled between the large white sand dunes. Still preserved from mass tourism, the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is also appreciated by the air. A flyby in a small passenger plane offers spectacular views to the contrasts of striking colours.

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  • The vast sand dunes bordering the Atlantic Ocean; the whiteness of the fine sand of the park’s dunes; sand areas backed by lagoons formed by tropical rain
  • The beaches, lagoons, rivers, small freshwater lagoons, palm trees and mangrove areas evolving in an intertropical transition zone
  • Islets rich in birds (black vulture, tern, blue-winged teal, scarlet ibis, burrowing owl…) and aquatic or terrestrial animals (lizards, six-banded armadillo, foxes, Brazilian guinea pigs, frogs, snakes, fishes…); the different species of sea turtles (including the endemic species pininga); the dexterity of the animal world which must constantly adapt to a new environment (dry then wet)
  • The crystal clear waters of the Azul and Bonita lagoons; the isolated lakes Verde and Do Mario; the oases of freshness Queimada dos Britos and Baixa Grande (where small village communities live)
  • Fishing, swimming and hiking activities; boat excursions on the Preguiças River; the mouth of the Rio Negro (the only permanent river in the park); the simplicity and traditional way of life of the inhabitants
  • The visit of the Preguiças lighthouse (or Mandacaru) and the wide panorama at its summit
  • The small and sparse villages of Atins, Caburé and Santo Amaro do Maranhão near the park boundaries
  • The contemplation of a sunset over the dunes that undulate endlessly
  • The ban on driving in the perimeter of the park
  • The formation of landscapes of the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is the fruit of a long natural process. It is the sediments of the Parnaíba River, deposited by the tide for thousands of years which have agglomerated and formed dunes with the help of the wind (some dunes can reach 40 meters in height).
  • The exceptional whiteness of the dune sand is explained by the nature of its mineral fragments, which are composed of polished quartz grains (originating from the mountains south of the park).
  • Each year, under wind pressure, the sand dunes gain ground. They eat away at the vegetation and threaten the homes of the local communities of Queimada dos Britos and Baixa Grande (the population lives mainly from breeding, fishing and more recently from tourism). These dunes have already buried houses and are advancing at a steady pace.
  • It is the presence of bushes and thorns in the restinga that stabilises the dunes and slows their progression.
  • The Lençóis Maranhenses National Park area receives as much water as the north of the United Kingdom (around 2,000 millimetres of rain per year).
  • A gigantic invisible underground lake, hidden under the sand, gathers all the lakes and lagoons of the site. These water basins, visible to the naked eye, are in fact interconnected and rest on a huge shallow water table.
  • During the dry season virgin of lagoons and devoid of vegetation, the site turns into a desert (the lakes are partially dry). But some fish still manage to survive the lack of water by infiltrating under the sand to take refuge in wetter areas. When the first rains arrive, they leave their retreat to take full advantage of the temporary water basins. Fish eggs, some of which are brought by birds from the Atlantic Ocean, also succeed in resisting the evaporation of water by remaining buried in the sand.
  • Unlike the main northern countries, the majority of animals in the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park return to a state of aestivation. In the absence of water and food for a prolonged period, they slow down their metabolism by reducing their physical activity to a minimum until the temporary lakes formed by the rains return.
  • At the end of 2019, as part of a national privatization program for the Brazilian government, President Bolsonaro signed a decree which provides for the privatization of the management of the park (in the same way as Jericoacoara National Park or the National Park of the Iguaçu whose concession contract will be renewed). The government’s objective is clear: to increase by all means the economic benefits of these federal conservation units and to double the number of tourists in Brazil in the long term (from 6 to 12 million visitors per year).
  • Towards the end of the rainy season (which normally lasts from January to June), the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park sees its lagoons filled with water.
  • The neighbouring town of Barrarinhas has a small airport connected to the city of São Luís, capital of the state of Maranhão (daily buses connect the two cities and serve the park).
  • Only an off-road vehicle will allow you to reach the hilly dunes of the park (the head office is located on the edge of the Preguiças River).
  • If you embark on a long hike, it is advisable to call on the services of a local guide (orienting through the huge sand dunes can be difficult or even dangerous).

Where to eat

  • Hot Dog Do Jânio
    (wide variety of hot dogs)
  • O Jacaré
    (by the river)
  • Porto Preguicas Resort
    (fresh and local cuisine)

Where to go

  • Historic Centre of São Luís
    (very beautiful architecture)
  • Preguiças River
    (wonderful excursion)
  • Parnaíba River delta
    (wild sanctuary)

Where to stay

  • Pousada Sao Jose
    (family inn)
  • Pousada Sossego Do Cantinho
    (lush frame)
  • La Ferme de Georges
    (little corner of paradise)