To go north in Brazil you have to go south first. The major airline hubs are in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, cities with a combined population of nearly 30 million. So I find myself, three hours out of Guarulhos airport in São Paulo, face pressed tight to the window, as the landscape below me changes from the hard, weathered crust of the interior to the green, thickly forested banks of a river delta.
We're descending towards the coastal city of São Luís. Two wide rivers curl through the dense greenery below. As our path and theirs converge I see small settlements; red-roofed houses surrounded by palm and banana trees. São Luís, named by its French founders after Louis XIII, grew rich shipping cotton and sugar from the plantations. Its economy collapsed after slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, but there are signs of 21st-century life down there. Long lines of high-rise blocks run parallel to the sea, and I count a line of 17 ships waiting to enter port. This is our introduction to the northeast, that great jut of coastline projecting Brazil into the Atlantic and giving South America the face of its elegant sea-horse outline.
Our hotel is by the beach. I don my Havaiana flip-flops and set out for a walk. You can just wander over this vast space any way you want, restricted only by the land on one side and the sea, quite a long way off, on the other. After breakfast — passion fruit, papaya, fresh mango juice, tapioca and coconut cake — we head for what promises to be an even more spectacular open space. Around 300km southeast of São Luís is the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. Here is sand in its most majestic state. Piled up to 50m high by the Atlantic breakers and honed and smoothed by the wind, the dunes spread and billow over roughly 1,600km sq. So extensive are these sheets of sand that, except for the fact that this is a very wet as well as a very sandy coast, it could be Namibia or the Sahara.
Way to go
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