Published On: March 5, 2016

Jericoacoara: Brazil’s Paradise

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Atlantic Ocean sunset

Brazil is famous for its alluring attractions – friendly people frolicking in tropical waters. Not only are there no hurricanes, earthquakes, or tornadoes to worry about, but you can swim in the South Atlantic Ocean all-year round with its mild temperatures.

For beach enthusiasts, anywhere you look along Brazil’s 8000 kilometers of coastline is inviting. Brazilians, however, accustomed to the geographic luxury of their own country, expect more than lovely beaches and spectacular scenery. They are connoisseurs of the littoral life, and there is one beach whose name they all whisper with reverence – Jericoacoara.

Explorers like Pedro Cabral, who discovered Brazil in April 1500, or Ponce DeLeon, who believed he’d found the Fountain of Youth in Florida, never lost hope of reaching paradise. For those travelers who haven’t given up hope of finding paradise, here it is.

As the early explorers discovered, encountering paradise isn’t easy. Arriving in Jericoacoara is a challenge although it won’t require a dangerous 3-month sea voyage across the South Atlantic. The easiest way to reach Jericoacoara (pronounced Ge-ree-qua-qua-ra) is to fly into Fortaleza, the capital of the northeast state of Ceará. From there, you need to arrange van transportation for the five-hour ride to Jericoacoara.

 

Jericoacoara

Jericoacoara

 

As an American who gets easily lost in the US, I opted for the premium travel van package, which provided door-to-door service from my hotel in Fortaleza to Jericoacoara, known by the locals simply as “Jeri.” I was picked up in the lobby of my hotel right on time, 7:30 am, by a cordial driver and escorted to his 12-seat Mercedes van parked at the curb, where my wife and I joined one other excited couple.

We knew it would require hours of traveling, but in a nearly empty air-conditioned van with soft music playing, we were more than comfortable. We already had a reservation in one of the nicest pousadas, located right on the beach in Jeri. (A pousada is the Brazilian version of a Bed & Breakfast.) Our only concern was that the comfy Mercedes wouldn’t bring us all the way to our pousada, and I wasn’t sure exactly why.

We left Fortaleza, weaving our way among the narrow streets, past an outdoor church on the beach, and headed north. Once we reached the newly paved highway, my wife struck up a conversation with the other couple, who were from a city in Minas Gerais not far from Rio and booked into the same pousada as we were.

 

Natural Lake

Fresh water lake at Jericoacoara

 

As promised by our otherwise silent driver, we stopped around 9:15 am at a dusty roadside restaurant for a bathroom break. I bought a bottle of water, and surveyed the quiet locals. Small towns in Brazil remind me of the Old West in the US, or at least what my childhood imagination conjures of the Old West, which is John Wayne in Westerns and black/white TV shows, like The Rifleman with Chuck Connors.

My wife and I sat at a table with the other couple, Fernando and Dani, who looked to be around 30 years old. Dani is an unemployed accountant, and her husband works on an offshore oil rig for Petrobras. I pumped him for information on the Petrobras scandal, and like a diplomat, overly polite, he spoke cautiously. He told me about his long hours on the oil platform, 14 days consecutively, but said that the scandal hadn’t affected him personally. Petrobras was still pumping as much oil from the ocean floor as they always had, and no one he knew at Petrobras had been laid off. He said layoffs were happening at the large construction companies who had big large contracts with Petrobras.

Meanwhile, I kept one eye on our van driver, who was sitting at another table to see if he would hold fast to our scheduled stop of only 15 minutes. He did, consuming only a small plate of fruit. As we pulled out of town, a kid on a motorcycle flagged us down and our driver stopped. The kid explained that his uncle, who was sitting on the back of the motorcycle, needed a ride. Sure enough, the passenger seat became occupied with a pleasant-looking, older Brazilian, certainly a local. With his leathery skin tired from the sun, he could have been anywhere from 40 to 70 years old.

 

Beachfront pousada

Beachfront pousada

 

Our new passenger chatted amiably with the driver, and I wondered if they knew each other. My wife, a Brazilian and naturally more cautious than I am, believed the driver knew the aging hitch-hiker, or he wouldn’t have picked him up. I saw only an old man who needed a ride from a small town with few criminals. (Unlike Brazil’s urban areas, where homes and offices are patrolled by armed guards and protected by razor wire, Brazil’s rural outposts are much like the US: Everyone knows everyone else and there’s no need to lock your doors.)

Our new passenger and the driver spoke for thirty minutes or so as our Mercedes glided down the highway. Eventually, they drifted off into a manly silence for another thirty minutes before the humble passenger disembarked. I couldn’t imagine an American bus driver showing such kindness.

Around 11:45 am, we arrived in Jijoca, the final destination for our van. There were several other vans and a bus parked in front of another dusty outpost restaurant. It was more lively than the other small towns we’d passed through, as Jijoca is the launching point for excursions out to the ocean and Jericoacoara. Our driver told us he couldn’t drive farther because the final 20 kilometers are through sand dunes and only traversable in 4 X 4 trucks. However, the driver assured us he would wait until our new driver arrived. Clearly, we were on the deluxe tour.

 

Tourists on the dunes for sunset

Tourists on the dunes for sunset

 

We elected to eat lunch while we waited, as I’m never one to avoid food. If our final destination was so remote, I had no idea what kind of food offerings we’d find there. We partook of the lunchtime buffet table, set out with the usual fare of rice/beans and salad and chicken and beef. Interestingly, they were also serving lamb chops, which is not something normally served in restaurants in Curitiba. The buzzing flies certainly approved of the food selection: the restaurant was open-air – no doors or windows.

As promised, about 15 minutes later, a pick-up truck arrived and backed up directly to our van. Half a dozen passengers disembarked and the driver, along with our van driver, exchanged the sets of bags between the two vehicles. Following lunch, with no sense of urgency, the four of us climbed into the back of the pick-up truck, where our luggage was waiting. The pick-up truck was outfitted with two padded benches along the perimeter. As always in Brazil, no driver tips were offered, mentioned, or even implied.

 

Our pousada

Our pousada

 

 

Soon enough, we were rumbling through the windy streets of Jijoca, where the warm moist air swirled above the sandy soil. We bounced along in the back of the pick-up, as streets turned into cobblestone and eventually dirt. Within ten minutes, we were riding through nothing but sand and underbrush. The path was clearly visible, but only wide enough for one vehicle. The ride from Jijoca to Jericoacoara resembled a slow but entertaining roller-coaster, as we meandered up and down natural dips and turns, twisting our way toward the sea.

The noonday sun was blazing, but the open-air travel provided a strong enough breeze for me to remove my baseball cap, afraid it would blow away. I learned from Fernando and Dani that Jericoacoara was so small only pousadas were available, no hotels existed. On the Internet, Dani had read that Jericoacoara was first discovered by the hippies back in the 1970s, and because of the foreboding sand entrenchments that stretched for kilometers in every direction, it had taken decades for the place to grow into a tourist attraction.

After nearly an hour traversing some of the most desolate areas of sand dunes I’ve ever seen, we arrived in Jericoacoara, and it was clear why only adventuresome hippies had been able to find it. The town was so remote there were only two or three streets, and I don’t believe these qualify as streets since there are made entirely of sand. There wasn’t a regular car in sight.

 

Streets made of sand

Streets made of sand

 

Needless to say, I’ve never witnessed a town built on sand. It was immediately evident why there were no large hotels in Jericoacoara – everything had to be brought in by 4-wheel drive vehicles from the neighboring small towns. (I later discovered that a recent developer had managed to build one small hotel facing the beach.)

Most of the pousadas were informal, consisting of no more than a few rooms. Ours was one of the biggest, with 30 or 40 rooms leading up to the ocean. The most surprising discovery about Jeri was it seemed no one actually lived there. The town consisted of shops and plenty of pousadas and restaurants, but there were no houses. The only people in Jericoacoara were the tourists.

No doubt this phenomenon had occurred because the locals who worked in the shops and restaurants needed to commandeer 4 X 4 vehicles to traverse the dunes back to Jijoca and other neighboring towns. When I asked two female employees at our pousada if they lived in Jeri, they said they traveled back and forth each day to Jijoca on the backs of motorcycles with their boyfriends.

 

Low tide at Jeri

Low tide at Jeri

 

Our room was comfortable, complete with a digital, remote-controlled air-conditioner and a private balcony. Every room had its own balcony with a large fabric hammock. There was a sparkling swimming pool and an outdoor bar/restaurant serving food all day, which the waiters smilingly carried to umbrella-shaded tables along the beach.

Arising early the following morning for a walk on the beach, I learned that the low tide at Jeri is rather extraordinary for its sheer distance. Later in the day, when I decided to take a break from doing nothing and left a beachside table for a swim, Fernando suggested I take a taxi to reach the water’s edge.

The remoteness of the location is what instills Jericoacoara with its heavenly ambience. Like all beaches in Brazil, the water temperature is higher than anything found in the US; it’s comparable to the Caribbean. Also, the beach is so protected it’s possible to walk out 50 meters and be only waist high, in water clear enough to see fish. However in my opinion, what truly sets Jeri apart is that no one lives there. It remains pristine in its natural innocence.

 

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

 

On a more practical note: As one might expect, paradise isn’t cheap. The shops and restaurants were pricey by Brazilian standards, as to be expected considering the inaccessibility of the location. (Our pousada was 300 reais per night.)

For me, walking down streets made of sand was extraordinary, and there was even more to add to the majesty. At dusk in true hippie fashion, people congregated on the beach and sand dunes to watch the sunset. For those readers who are GPS challenged, let me add a lesson in eastern wonders. Brazil lies on the Atlantic Ocean, where it’s normal if you arise early, as on the East Coast of the US, to view the sunrise. However, sitting cross-legged on the sand facing the Atlantic Ocean for the sunset is unique. Jericoacoara is a geographical anomaly, exactly the kind of trippy experience that would attract the hippies of old, and today provides the perfect inspiration for drummers and champagne toasts every evening.

Along with discovering the extraordinary Atlantic sunsets, the hippies’ love of nature permeates Jeri. The sand streets are free of garbage, stray children, and the homeless. Europeans comprised the bulk of the tourist population during the week I was there because it wasn’t the tourist season. Tourist season for Brazilians is the winter, July, and summer holidays, December-February. As Brazilians always travel with their children, they take their excursions during school holidays. With fewer Brazilian tourists during our stay, there were noticeably fewer children.

 

Pedra Furada

Pedra Furada

 

While Brazilians appreciate comfortable luxury and remote locations as much as Americans, probably the biggest attraction in Jericoacoara is safety. Crime is a greater concern in Brazil than in the US or Europe, but it’s of no concern here. Without any residents, the only people around at night are tourists and shop owners. I spent every day and evening with my large camera hanging from my neck and never felt nervous. This level of comfort is a rarity in Brazil.

Despite the glacially slow pace of life in Jeri, there are a few local attractions. Every evening, a crowd gathers at one of the restaurants for a trek to the famous rock with the hole (Pedra Furada). The hike takes about 45 minutes, but it’s not difficult, and it affords astounding views of the coastline from high above on the cliffs, not to mention the desert cactus. Parasailing is popular and the windsurfers come out for sunset. At the Pedra Furada, the sun can be glimpsed passing directly through the rock’s open middle during Brazil’s winter months.

Enjoying the sunsets in the Atlantic and reliving the romantic days of the hippies is worth the trip to Jeri, and once the sun goes down, there are plenty of upscale restaurants to tempt your palette. One evening after a terrific sushi dinner with Fernando and Dani, we strolled into a dessert shop for homemade warm brownies topped with chocolate sauce and ice cream. While we were imbibing our excess calories, a well-known Brazilian comedian, Fábio Porchat, came in with his beautiful companion. They bought some brigadeiros (unique Brazilian bite-sized chocolates) to go. The owner of the dessert place was thrilled, and the girls from the shop next door immediately arrived after Fábio had left to ask if we’d recognized him. The shop girls chatted excitedly about the celebrity, deciding Fábio was certainly staying at the new hotel. The following day, on our morning beach stroll, my wife and I located the new hotel of two storeys. We inquired about their daily rate – 1500 reais.

 

Ocean cactus

Ocean cactus

 

The sandy town square fills up each night with tourists, and while there’s not much in the way of entertainment, the leftover hippies have sprouted their own stalls selling various crafts, some of which showed genuine artistry. We watched a fire juggler. The few dozen clothing shops remain open late, as do the several massage therapy centers. For daytime adventure, Jericoacoara offers horse/buggy rides and boat trips, which are informal and must be arranged with the individuals who operate the rigs.

One day Fernando invited us to join him and Dani for a dune buggy ride. I walked onto the sand street in front of our pousada and let Fernando negotiate with a local kid to be our all-day buggy chauffeur. Our driver said he owned the buggy, which had originally belonged to his father. Each morning he drove around Jeri looking for tourists. Our driver, Sassa, was a part-time, phys-ed teacher in a school in Jijuca when he wasn’t driving.

While I was apprehensive about spending all day in a dune buggy, our tour was delightful and well worth it. We flew across kilometers of empty dunes, stopping numerous times to enjoy the ocean fragrance and local fisherman and favorite landmarks, like a tree growing sideways out of the sand known as the “lazy tree.”

 

The Lazy Tree

The Lazy Tree

 

Across the dunes in the distance, 30-meter tall wind turbines dotted the horizon, their tri-blades spinning lazily in the ocean breeze. Sassa told us Ceará had more investments in wind energy than any other state in Brazil. We spent the majority of the buggy ride lounging by two large natural lakes that arise in the middle of the dunes. The smaller one is called Blue Lagoon, while the largest lake in the dunes is appropriately known as Paradise Lake.

It’s easy to see how the hippies mistook Jericoacoara for paradise when they discovered large fresh water lakes in the middle of endless sand. For those Brazilian travelers who have seen Lençois Maranhenses, the landscape of fresh water lakes inside ocean sand dunes will be familiar. However, in Jeri, it’s not necessary to time your visit to the rainy season as it is in Lençois Maranhenses, which is farther north in the state of Maranhão. In Jeri, the lakes are spring fed and not dependent on the rains. We spent several hours at the two lakes, and there are a few smaller ones we didn’t see. Both of the lakes we visited come complete with a restaurant and hammocks nestled into the warm lake waters.

Fernando assisted us again in managing the budget by suggesting we avoid lunch at the pricey Paradise Lake restaurant. Our driver had provided us with a 90-minute lunch stop there, yet when we stayed for two hours, drinking ice-cold beer and coconut water, served in the traditional style – inside the coconut – the driver wasn’t the least surprised, nor did he come looking for us. He was only surprised when we then requested another stop for lunch. Sassa gladly took us to a tiny town that bordered the dunes, where he knew a bar owner who was delighted to serve us lunch.

 

 

Paradise Lake

Paradise Lake

 

The sun was blazing-afternoon hot as we sat outside in the sandy landscape, shaded by a thatched roof. Our lunch town was so small we had to ask its name. The bar was empty except for the owner and his wife. Menus were nowhere in sight, but the owner opened up his refrigerator for Fernando, who proceeded to order lunch for the four of us. It was after 2 pm, but they were happy to prepare a full meal for us. The owner filled his outdoor fireplace grill with charcoal, and onto the grill went a whole fish, complete with head and tail, of a variety unknown to me. Meanwhile, his wife prepared the rice & beans, steamed shrimp, potatoes, and salad. (Brazilian charcoal is simply chunks of wood, so it’s immediately hot. US-style uniform briquets filled with chemicals don’t exist in Brazil.)

As the air filled with the smoky flavor of lunch, we sat down to savor the local fish. Along with our fine fresh fare, Fernando also negotiated the complete price of the meal, so there was nothing to occupy our lazy thoughts but the isolated landscape and the rambling two-hour conversation with our companions and hosts. Even Fernando and Dani were impressed with the shrimp, which were so delicate we ate them with the shells on, a new experience for me. Fernando insisted on buying another kilo of raw shrimp from the owner after lunch. He said the same shrimp back in Minas would cost him four times as much. (He paid the owner 20 reais for a kilo, about U$2.50 a pound.)

Sassa was waiting patiently the entire time we’d been eating. Fernando invited him to join us for lunch but he declined. Satiated, we said goodbye to the owner and his wife and piled back into the dune buggy for the flying ride back to our pousada. The cobblestone streets of the nameless town lead us back into the dunes, where we passed several burros and goats feeding on the sparse grasses.

There isn’t a great deal of entertainment in Jericoacoara, but that’s essential to its charm. When you feel safe and are tanned warm by the sun, a fresh fish lunch with the locals is perfect. Staring at the ocean is hypnotic, so spending a cozy week on the beach doing nothing is splendid. As the hippies discovered in Jericoacoara, the contemplation of life’s simple joys is the basis of a great trip.

 

 

 

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

{All photos by the author.}

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