Strictly speaking, Lencois Maranhenses is not an actual desert, however when you are there, walking among the smooth white dunes without any vegetation, you can't help it but feel like you are in some place like Sahara. Only the color of sand is a bit different. What is really strange is that this National Park is located in the tropical rain forest climate, surrounded by the sea from one side and by lush green woodlands from the other. Nevertheless, it's not this fact that attracts thousands of tourists to visit Lencois Maranhenses from Brazil and all over the world. During the rainy season, starting from February, the gaps between the dunes become filled with rainwater creating unusual, spotty landscape, especially amazing seen from an airplane.
How to get to Lencois Maranhenses National Park
First, you will have to fly to Sao Luis (check my articles about the city), the capital of Maranhao State. This city is an attraction in itself, with beautiful colonial (although a bit neglected) architecture, the old part has the climate of old little European towns. During the flight you can already admire the dunes if the weather is good, the view is unforgettable! Book a seat on the right side of the plane while flying to Sao Luis.
From Sao Luis, you have a couple of options. You can buy a trip directly from Sao Luis, or from Sao Luis, by public transport, you can get to the village of Barreirinhas which is located just beside the National Park. There's many tours to choose from: one-day or for more days. I booked a two day trip directly from Sao Luis with Lencois Turismo and I was very happy, accommodation, service and the price were great. After 4 hours ride to Barreirinhas, we hiked the dunes which are the main attraction, and on the second day we had a speed boat ride down the Preguica River visiting the "small dunes" in Vassouras where we fed some monkeys and we walked up some 200 steps in a lighthouse in Mandacaru village to get the beautiful view of the area.
Visiting the dunes - When to visit Lencois Maranhenses
To visit the dunes, be prepared for quite a bumpy but really funny and adventurous jeep ride. You will go through Barreirinhas till you reach the river and the cars will be transported on the other side by a barge. Then, there's a 45 minute ride through the sandy terrain to the point where vegetation disappears completely.
The best time to visit Lencois Maranhenses is from May to September. I wasn't so lucky and I went there in February, just when the rainy season starts. Some other travelers discouraged me from even going there, saying that the ponds will be empty and it's not worthy. I decided to go anyway, it would be quite silly to visit Sao Luis and while I'm there not to go to the famous dunes.
The ponds were indeed shallow and you couldn't swim in most of them nor there were any fish. However the views and the landscape was so outlandish that I'm really happy I visited this place. I could only imagine how great it must be in the next couple of months.
The jeeps are not allowed to ride on the dunes, as they are a part of the National Park which is protected by law. So we visited only the outer part. In one of the ponds, it was possible to swim and we had a 1.5 hour break. I decided, instead of swimming, to go deeper into this false dessert. The sand there was much clearer and whiter, landscape no spoiled by vegetation at all and I actually found a few dark full ponds which contrasted beautifully with the bright dunes. Unforgettable experience.
I know that there are some longer tours, you can go camping in the dunes and explore the Park much deeper, which must be amazing.
When you're back in Barreirinhas, go to the riverside, you will find there great relaxing atmosphere and some good restaurants with excellent sea food.
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