We stood at the top of a sand dune looking out over the rippling surface of a monochromatic earth. At the base of lasciviously curving dunes, crystal clear pools of water flashed with sunlight. Overhead, fluffy clumps of white merengue floated through the sky casting leopard spot shadows across the scenery.
These were the dunes of the Lencois Maranhenses. An epic sprawl of rumpled bedsheets, the origin of its name: 900 square miles of white and golden sands shifting and reforming as infinitely slow rolling waves, flooded by pools of fresh rain water. We visited at the beginning of the rainy season and already the pools were deep enough to swim in, a crisp refreshing contrast to the baking sand around us. In August, the peak of the rain and of tourism, the water would be three times as deep.
In order to reach the dunes we first had to take a bus from São Luis to the tiny town of Barreirinhas, a four hour drive. The owner of the Pousada we’d arranged to stay with picked us up in a boat from a sandy beach at the end of the little town’s main street.
From the Pousada, which was accessible by river or rutted sandy road, a 4×4 truck picked us up. It had been converted to an open sided bus. With a half dozen other tourists, we drove through deep sand, splashed through puddles that threatened to be lakes and were tossed around in the back like a cement mixer.
From Barreirinhas, the Rio Preguiças slices through sand dunes and mangrove forests and is dotted with picturesque shacks of straw and palm leaved made by fishermen.
At the mouth of the river, some 15 miles downstream, sits the even smaller town of Atins. If we’d felt isolated in Barreirinhas, it was here at the mouth of the Rio Preguiças that felt like the end of the earth. There were very few tourists were here to share the handful of brick fishermans houses and sandy little farms. It’s here by the sea that the Lencois begins its journey inland. We climbed to a dune overlooking a freshwater lagoon and the miles of desert stretching away from us. With the sun setting the white sand turned blue, then purple then the color of white before complete darkness.
We caught a truck back to Barreirinhas. Filled with locals it followed the one sandy road it could, through rivers deep enough to reach the windshield, over the shifting sands. At one point a dune had encroached so far over the road that the truck threatened to turn over as it attempted to cross. We held on tightly at an angle while the driver negotiated his sliding vehicle and finally pulled us over the hill.
Once back in Barreirinhas we made our way The dunes at Laguna Bonita which are high enough to get an overview of the flooded desert. We rented a quad bike this time, and led by a guide and his friend, roared out over the sandy roads, sliding back and forth, never quite pointing straight towards our direction. It was a challenge not to plant ourselves face down in any of the rivers we crossed, and indeed as I approached a bridge, my left tire seemed to want to leave its edge. There was nothing as sophisticated as a guardrail, so I yanked the handlebars back to center as hard as I could and stayed out of the stream.
Once atop the dune overlooking Laguna Bonita, the rest of the world fell away. We contemplated the scene before us. Untouched faces of sand, rolling into the distance. After we had our fill of the vista we ran down to the pools, the wind whistling in our ears, sand avalanches racing below our feet.