Before I reached Fortaleza, I was feeling a bit stuck in Barreirinhas, not feeling quite at home, dreaming of the beach and the Lençóis Maranhenses, a national park in Brazil’s state of Maranhão. The park is made up of 155,000 hectares of white sand desert, and during the rainy season, hallucinating lagoons fill up the spaces between the enormous dunes which can be up to 40 metres high. Sadly, I was there during the dry season and only one of the lagoons had a tiny bit of water. Determined to see this place, even without the water, I decided to walk there from Barreirinhas with one of the local guides, Maduro.
I wanted to connect with nature like I did in the Amazon; I wanted the freedom that I only seem to get from physical exercise in a natural setting. I was so excited to get there, I didn’t worry about getting there and didn’t really consider what walking there would entail when I agreed to go. I got up at 4:15 am when it was still dark and even a bit chilly, had a quick, cold shower to completely wake myself up, gulped down a huge cup of coffee and some bread, and by 5:00 am, Maduro and I were walking out of town.
At about 5:20 am, we crossed the beautiful Preguiças River on a small ferry, and my struggle began as soon as we got off at the other side in Cantinho. The roads aren’t paved in Cantinho; in fact, they’re more like flowing rivers of sand than paths. And because it had rained overnight, the sand was wet on the surface but still loose underneath. This made what would already be difficult so much harder because a thick layer of sand got permanently stuck on my bare feet and grew heavier with every step, weighing me down and making me sink ankle-deep into the sand.
Maduro wasn’t struggling, of course, having walked through the sand his whole life. I would lose him sometimes beyond a curve in the path, behind the shrubbery, and consider running back, giving up, escaping this endeavour that was requiring way more effort than I had originally intended to exert. But I kept my mind focused on the sand dunes, on the sheer magnitude of this place I was about to see, and my stubborn reluctance to give up persevered.
We walked for about four hours over the wet sand, surrounded by shrubs and cacti, a few caju (cashew) trees, and plants that breed all sorts of strange and delicious fruit, like the jatoba and guajiru, which I greedily gobbled up as I told myself to enjoy the journey and not worry about how long it was going to take… But, how much longer will it take, Maduro? All he’d answer was, “What, you tired?” smile, and effortlessly walk ahead.
I was sweating so badly, I was licking the sweat off my own face to rehydrate. OK, catching the sweat with my tongue as it dripped down to my mouth was most likely just a reflex, but as I tasted the salty liquid that was mercilessly pouring down my face, I convinced myself it was probably a sustainable method of rehydration.
Just over half-way there, I looked up and saw a wooden bridge. I couldn’t believe it, firm land! I did my best to run toward it, sinking in the sand, blinded by the sweat, exhilarated at the thought of walking on solid ground for just a little bit. And it really ended up being a little bit—just over 4 metres to be exact. It was incredibly satisfying, so we stopped to rest for a few minutes and drink some water (rather than sweat) before moving on.
I kept telling myself, “You’ll make it, you’ll survive, don’t even think about the way back,” as I tried to keep up with Maduro. And then I saw them: dunes so big and white they looked like snow-capped mountains. I couldn’t believe it, we were there, I had made it to the Lençóis Maranhenses! At that moment, the exhaustion left my body, my legs were reenergised, my mind clear of worries or anxieties, and my smile huge and breathless.
We walked up one of the big dunes which led to one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever seen: rows and rows of white, yellow, and orange sand dunes, carved by deep crevasses (where the water gathers when it rains) and dotted by bright green shrubs and a few wind-swept trees. The immensity of this place left me speechless and made me feel so small; we were no more than specs moving along this unforgiving terrain. We walked toward the only lagoon that had water in it, to satisfy the promise of cooling off and taking a rest.
We reached the small Lagõa do Peixe—Fish Lagoon—which might have had 30 cm of blackish water at the most, but we dove in happily as a light rain started falling. I rolled down a dune and fell straight into the water, swimming among the tiny fish. On land, miniature frogs the colour of the sand jumped almost imperceptibly away from us. It definitely wasn’t what I’d seen in the pictures (do yourself a favour and Google this place), nor what I imagined as I looked at the deep spaces between the dunes, where traces of the water were still visible, but it completely stole my heart; the channels that become rivers after a heavy rain were teasing me with the promise of turquoise lagoons amid the white sand, and it was absolutely spectacular.
While Maduro took a nap under a tree, I explored the dunes with my camera. After a couple of hours of roaming around, being extremely careful to not lose sight of the lagoon, and eating some sardines and crackers, we saw a group of tourists arrive in a 4×4. Just like he’d planned (but refused to promise), he spoke to the driver who agreed to give us a ride back to town. Despite having spent an amazing morning in one of the most beautiful places in the world, hearing the news that I wouldn’t have to walk all the way back was one of the best moments of the day.
As we walked under deep, grey clouds to where the cars were packed, Maduro turned around and said, “It’s about to rain…hard.” About 30 seconds later, a storm exploded over our heads. The wind was so strong, I wasn’t sure if it was the water or the sand that was blasting against me, but it hurt! I was soaking wet and so happy. The rain slowed down by the time we got in the car and started making our way back. The ride was bumpy and branches were whipping my legs and arms as we raced through the trees, but it was still better than walking back.