Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, in Maranhão State, is one of Brazil's top natural attractions. It is an ecosystem formed of white sand dunes which cover 383,000 acres and look like bedsheets (lençóis in Portuguese) spread out on the Northeastern coast.
Seasonal lagoons which fill up with rainwater, mostly during the first six months of the year, make Lençóis Maranhenses a unique kind of landscape. Mangroves, deserted beaches, buritis - a graceful kind of palm tree - and the Preguiças River help compose the park's diversity.
The park is about 156 miles from São Luís, the state capital.
Sand Dunes and Lagoons in Lençóis Maranhenses:
Lençóis Maranhenses has been formed over thousands of years, as the sand from riverbeds is deposited at the mouth of the rivers and brought back to the continent by winds and sea currents.
The dunes advance as far as 31 miles into the continent and stretch along 27 miles of coastline, mostly deserted beaches.
Some of the lagoons at Lençóis Maranhenses National Park are huge. Lagoa Bonita and Lagoa Azul are near the town of Barreirinhas. Lagoa Tropical, also worth a visit, is closer to the village of Atins.
Lagoa da Gaivota (Seagull Lagoon), one of the park's largest and most beautiful, is near Santo Amaro do Maranhão, a village located about 60 miles from Barreirinhas.
What to Do in Lençóis Maranhenses:
- Ride the sand dunes aboard a jeep with experienced guides and stop for a dip in the lagoons
- Ride a boat on the Preguiças River with a stop at Pequenos Lençóis and at riverside kiosks
- Visit the Preguiças lighthouse in Mandacaru
- Fly over the park (Operatur, phone: 55-98-8149-5717, about $100 for a 30-minute flight)
- Take a day-long quad ride to Pequenos Lençóis
- Go tubing on the Formiga River in Cardosa
Access to the park is controlled by ICMBIO and only certified agencies can take travelers. There are no amenities except in Barreirinhas and in the villages.
House of Sand:
The area around Santo Amaro do Maranhão and Lagoa da Gaivota can be seen in the Brazilian movie Casa de Areia (House of Sand, 2005), directed by Andrucha Waddington.
The isolation of Lençóis Maranhenses at the beginning of the 20th century, when the movie starts, is not such a distant reality for the region's communities: the paved road (MA-402) between Lençóis Maranhenses and São Luís was only finished in 2002.