Lençóis Maranhenses – Dunes and Lagoons

It’s challenging driving to Lençóis Maranhenses, but is it worth the schlepp?  “A spectacularly unique place… thousands of crystal-clear lagoons between dunes”… so they say. Our faith in travel journalists has been tempered slightly by our recent experience in Jericoacoara (see last blog), but we’ve not lost hope.  Actually, Lençóis Maranhenses manages to exceed our high expectations, there’s just the small matter of getting there, testing Cuthbert’s off-road capabilities and our nerves!

We know there are around 30km of deep-sand tracks to reach the entry-point village of Atins, but Cuthbert has recently been tried and tested driving in dunes at Mangue Seco, so we’re fearless about this… at least we are before we set off!

driving to Lençóis Maranhenses

This way… apparently

After around 20 km of sliding our way through deep, soft sand and bashing our way through narrow gaps in bushland (throughout which we are constantly apologising to poor Cuthbert for the many new scratches in his paintwork) the sand track ends abruptly and we’re confronted with a lake. Oh, we weren’t quite prepared for this! Our ‘Wallace & Gromit’ sat-nav (or GPS – Gromit Positioning System ) assures us that the track runs through the lake. Hmmm. There has been a lot of rain recently and we’re not surprised to find a little localised flooding, but is this the route? Really? This?

Lake test

Remembering his first rule of water-crossings, Marcus gallantly ‘volunteers’ his lake-testing skills and wades into the water to test the depth and the driving surface underneath (at least there’s no risk of crocs and hippos like the water-crossings we faced in Africa!). He ends up waist deep in the middle, which isn’t looking good for Cuthbert. Suddenly we hear shouting some distance behind us; it’s a 4×4 taxi-truck beckoning us to follow him. Hurrah! We’re saved! We reverse back to join him, then follow him on a new track through the bush and through many deep-water crossings. The water often gushes right over Cuthbet’s bonnet (1.5m high!) and we gulp nervously as we zig-zag behind the taxi-truck through the lakes. We would never have attempted most of these crossings alone, but (bravely or foolishly) we reckon that if he can do it, Cuthbert can too.

Oops… not his day

Soon we round a corner and find another large lake, this time with a 4×4 truck stranded in the middle of it, the water-line half-way up the side of the truck. Oops. Not his day. With a bit of winching from Cuthbert, the truck is hauled clear from the lake and our leading taxi-truck driver beckons us to follow him through the very same lake. More nervous gulps.

He enters the lake ahead of us, just a couple of metres to the right of where the truck had been stuck in deep! He makes it through and then Cuthbert splashes in too, following meticulously the track-line taken by the taxi-truck. If we ever needed proof of the theory, this clearly shows the risks of taking a slightly wrong line through a water-crossing. After we make it through, a couple of other local trucks arrive behind us. Hearing the story of the stuck truck, they hesitate to splash in, but after wading through first, they have a go and make it through the lake, with water washing up to their windscreens.

We continue to follow the taxi-truck through the water to the edge of the village where he goes off his own way. At this stage we’re happy and heaving a sigh of relief; the village is in sight and we’re nearly there! But soon we realise we shouldn’t be counting our chickens! In one of the last water-dips before the village we hear a hissing sound. It sounds a bit like air coming out of a tyre… and that’s because it is air coming out of a tyre! Luckily not a puncture, but a piece of wood stuck in the gap between the tyre and the rim; always a risk when driving on low-pressure tyres for sandy conditions.

Marcus manages to stop Cuthbert on one of the few dry bits of ground nearby, remove the wood and re-seat the tyre, before continuing into the village to face our next obstacle course: very narrow tracks through the village, thick overhanging branches and low power cables between the village huts .

Worth it all… for this view from bed

It’s hard to describe the stress of the situation… it’s around 35C and extremely humid (we always find that a bit of heat and sticky humidity adds a certain ‘something’ to stressful times like this ). As we move forwards into the village we’re trailing a heavy train of debris and broken tree branches down the sandy streets. Locals come out of their huts to gawp. We’ve no space to turn around, we can’t reverse back into the deep water, we have to push on.

Further into the village the sandy streets disappear under water again, so in addition to the tree destruction we’re causing around us, Cuthbert is now also causing bow-waves to wash into peoples’ gardens and over their flip-flopped feet as they try to edge past us. It wasn’t our finest hour! All a bit embarrassing really, and the first time that we’ve been in this position in Cuthbert within a village, but the locals don’t seem too bothered and give us the (now familiar) Brazilian smile and welcome.

Go-pro/Phantom time

How we avoid serious damage to Cuthbert’s bodywork is a miracle, but there are some deep scratches in the paint-work, the rear side-lights are smashed and we’ve lost a few peripherals like the hooter-trumpet. This is the point at which anyone travelling in a compact little Land Rover can rightly feel smug about their ‘go-anywhere’ capability! Cutting a long story short, we eventually find our way through the village and suddenly the bush opens up to wide-open desert: the Lençóis Maranhenses.

Taking in the stunning views of dunes and lagoons around us, we’re in no doubt that it really has all been worth the effort; we try to forget that this paradise sits at the end of a dead-end road and we’ll have to do it all again in the other direction! As a geeky aside, for an indication of how hard Cuthbert has worked: he normally consumes an average of 15.7 litres per 100km (18mpg) but on this drive he used a whopping 48 litres per 100km (5.9mpg)!! It’s thirsty work in those conditions!

Exploring the Lençóis Maranhenses is a truly amazing travel experience. Miles and miles of low-rolling, exquisitely sculpted dunes, layered between ribbons of fresh-water lagoons. It’s similar, but even more gorgeous than the Inland Sea on the Qatar/Saudi border where we spent many happy weekends during our years there. Unlike for Jericoacoara, the term ‘magical’ really does apply to the Lençóis Maranhenses and its enchantment really can’t be overstated. We pick a dune at random and park Cuthbert looking over the lagoons; one of our most stunning camp-spots ever. Brazil is full of surprises and this is another of the highlights of our time in the whole of South America.

Due to the season we have mostly moody, overcast skies but it’s no less beautiful for this. And when the sun comes out to play, the dunes change colour with the light and the lagoons shine with a dazzling sapphire blues and emerald greens. Our photos really don’t do justice to the beauty here.

Teeny frog… wildlife here too

Anyway… we do at some point have to leave this stunning place, but we have no guide-truck to follow back! We do, however, have the GPS track of our in-bound route to give us a clue with navigating the lakes. The good news at the start, is that we find track leading around, rather than through the village, so that saves a bit of wreckage and destruction. Now, we just have to follow the GPS track precisely, wiggling in/through/between the lakes back to civilisation, and it all goes pretty much to plan!

On the way back we have a few more issues with unseating tyres (it’s tricky finding the right balance of pressure: low enough to give traction in deep sand, but high enough to stay on the rim with perpetual twists and turns in the tracks) but nothing we can’t fix… well… I say ‘we’… you know that means Marcus, don’t you? When we reach dry land again we realise that all the bashing through water has damaged the electrics in the lifting mechanism on Cuthbert’s drop-down steps… another job to keep Marcus ‘Techie’ Tuck busy

Next blog we’ll be heading to the Amazon Delta…

Link to next blog: Amazon Delta        Link to full South America Blog

Driving to Lençóis Maranhenses – Video and Photo Gallery