Lençóis Maranhenses is one of the most unique locations on the planet. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a desert due to its sandy hills. However, when viewed from above, it becomes clear that the landscape is something else entirely, giving off the appearance of a spectacular mirage.
Located in north-eastern Brazil’s coastal state of Maranhão, Lençóis Maranhenses spans over 40 miles of the shoreline. Alongside that, the jaw-dropping landscape covers more than 30 miles of the surrounding inland area as well. On that note, the government adopted it as a national park back in the 1980s.
As we highlighted earlier, Lençóis Maranhenses boasts numerous sandy hills across the park. But thanks to their light color and bizarre shape, they resemble pieces of fabric on a washing line during a blustery day. In fact, the location’s name literally translates as the “bedsheets of Maranhão.”
While they might not look like traditional sand dunes, though, the hills still come under that category. Incredibly, they can hit heights of around 130 feet in size. Yet their appearance constantly changes throughout the year, so it’s highly unlikely that tourists will be able to recognize the same areas on separate visits.
Speaking of tourists, the Culture Trip website revealed that Lençóis Maranhenses National Park can be accessed in three different ways. The first entrance is found via Barreirinhas, a town just outside the wondrous space. According to the site, this is a welcoming spot for foreigners looking to explore the region.
As for the other two entrances, they’re located at opposing ends, with the sand dunes separating them. But unlike Barreirinhas, Atins and Santo Amaro aren’t particularly “touristy.” For instance, Culture Trip reported that the first spot didn’t have a steady stream of electricity until a few years ago. So there’s not too many places to go to eat, for example.
Meanwhile, the Travel Tranquilo YouTube channel gave some additional tips to tourists about Lençóis Maranhenses. In the clip, the narrator says, “We recommend you to hire a guide who knows what is worth seeing and doing. And [we suggest that you don’t] enter the park on your own.”
“You could easily get lost [that way],” the video’s narrator continues. “You would also have to know how to drive on the sand. The best time to visit Lençóis Maranhenses is between June and September.” Then he went on to outline what it’s like when you see the spot for the first time.
Yes, the Travel Tranquilo host adds, “The moment [where you get the] first view of landscape consisting of far-reaching sand dunes is indescribable. It will certainly take your breath away.” Carolina Alvite concurred with that point, as she sat down to talk with National Geographic magazine back in the summer of 2010.
You see, Alvite once plied her trade as the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park’s director, so she was all-too aware of the landscape’s natural beauty. However, she recognized some of the more bizarre aspects of it as well, summing up her thoughts with a succinct assessment. The ex-boss said, “It feels like a parallel world.”
Like we mentioned before, you might believe that Lençóis Maranhenses is a desert. Yet if you look between the swirling sand dunes, you’ll notice that the dips are full of water. These stunning lagoons have a gorgeous blue sheen to them and stretch throughout the park. In fact, National Geographic magazine gave the perfect description.
Yes, the publication noted, “It’s as if the sea near the Bahamas suddenly appeared like a mirage in the middle of the Sahara. Only in this desert the mirage is real.” But according to an expert named Antonio Cordeiro Feitosa, Lençóis Maranhenses can’t be described as a desert for one technical reason.
Now, Feitosa worked for the Federal University of Maranhão, specializing in geography. While talking to National Geographic, he revealed that normal deserts take on an average of ten inches of rain every 12 months. But in the case of Lençóis Maranhenses, just under 50 inches have been recorded in the same time frame.
As a result, the rain accumulates alongside the sandy hills, creating the lagoons. Given their picturesque appearance, people have been known to take dips in them too, which further offsets the idea that Lençóis Maranhenses is a desert. Yet the water doesn’t always look that inviting due to the changing colors.
Indeed, the lagoons aren’t blue and green all the time, especially if the water flows in from local woodland areas. Thanks to the trees, a substance known as tannin can discolor the rain fall, causing it to turn brown. When that happens, Lençóis Maranhenses’ landscape takes on a strangely psychedelic appearance, as the sand also mixes into it.
Despite those alterations, the beds of water do house some forms of plant life. For instance, National Geographic reported that the algae in the lagoons play a crucial role in giving them their lighter colors. Furthermore, the Brazilian national park is home to three other types of foliage.
Yes, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO, outlined the aforementioned plant life via its website. According to them, you can find mangroves, restinga and alluvial communities within Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. However, their numbers differ in major ways around the tourist spot.
That’s right, because restinga makes up more than 89 percent of the plant life at the South American location, according to UNESCO. As for the mangroves and alluvial communities, their figures stand at 10.2 percent and 0.4 percent respectively. What’s more, a number of different animals call Lençóis Maranhenses home too.
You see, when the beds of water reach a certain level, they can join up with rivers like the Rio Negro. As we touched upon earlier, that can lead to the discoloration of the lagoons, but it also allows aquatic life to move across too. The wolffish is one particular example, getting comfortable in its new surroundings.
And species like the wolffish are able to survive in the lagoons thanks to unexpected food sources, according to National Geographic. Indeed, the sand dunes house insect offspring beneath the surface, which can be accessed with a bit of digging. Out of the water, white-eared opossums and yellow armadillos are said to be lurking as well.
Meanwhile, a researcher on the Earth from Space television show shed some light on another animal living in Lençóis Maranhenses. His name was Bertie Allison, and he wrote up a post about it on the BBC website. As it turned out, he and the team were hoping to video certain creatures for the program.
Allison said, “We planned to film the Pininga, a slider turtle which travels from lagoon to lagoon searching for food. We also wanted to capture the mating behavior of several frog species. The Pininga proved to be very charismatic as it moved across the sand, before sliding down the steep slopes into the fresh water to feed.”
In addition to the animals, a small group of humans were also known to live within Lençóis Maranhenses. Yes, National Geographic magazine reported that their numbers stood at 90 back in 2010, spread across two different areas in the national park. Those oases are dubbed Baixa Grande and Queimada dos Britos.
And their people made homes of “palm-roofed mud huts,” and adapted to the ever-changing conditions throughout the year. From farming to fishing, they found a way to support themselves in their idyllic surroundings. Now, those surroundings only appear the way they are because of an unusual, and perhaps temperamental, weather system.
Yes, as we suggested earlier, the appearance of the sand dunes in the national park doesn’t stay the same over a 12-month period. According to National Geographic, that’s down to the wildly different weather conditions that hit Lençóis Maranhenses during certain seasons. The journey begins via two rivers called the Preguiças and the Parnaíba.
You see, the two pick up helpings of sand as they flow into the Atlantic ocean, but are then pushed by the ocean’s currents toward Maranhão’s coast. Due to that, a significant amount of the granular substance gets washed up around the edge of Lençóis Maranhenses. After that, it sits in place until the fall.
At that stage, Brazil experiences a dry spell that brings with it a very strong wind. And it’s particularly brutal from October to November, according to National Geographic. So thanks to that breeze, the deposited granules get picked up again and blown inland into the national park, hitting the various sand dunes.
In turn, the dunes are essentially “sculpted” by both the wind and the incoming sand, which helps them grow. To give you an example, Feitosa claimed that some of the hills could shoot up over 60 feet every year. He told National Geographic, “The landscape is radically transformed by each seasonal cycle.”
Furthermore, one of the tour guides in the national park made an interesting point during an interview back in December 2004. Known only as Dino, he spoke to The Guardian newspaper about the origins of Lençóis Maranhenses. He also touched upon the state of the sand before it joined the dunes.
Dino informed the U.K. publication, “No one is sure why the Lençóis are here. Although it is likely to be an effect of the unusually large tide margin along the Maranhão coast. The sand on the beaches gets especially dry and the high winds blow it for miles inland.”
Once the dry season ends, a rainy period lasts from January until June. And that’s when the water starts to build up along the sand dunes, with National Geographic reporting that the lagoons can reach depths of ten feet. By July, they’re said to be at their most prominent in the National Park.
Unsurprisingly, the wet conditions can alter the appearance of the hills as well. In some cases, a “sand wave” will pop up on the surface following a shower in the evening, with the moisture giving it a trippy look. But it’s not a permanent change, as the breeze can re-mold it when it hardens.
After the wet months, the lakes will slowly ebb away due to the warmer weather. That explains why the Travel Tranquilo video claimed that the period between June and September is the ideal time to see them. In the end, the beds of water disappear from November to February, ahead of the cycle starting again.
As a result, some of the wildlife need to adapt to those massive seasonal changes too, especially the aquatic animals. However, the wolffish has found the perfect way to ride out the drier months of the year. Instead of leaving Lençóis Maranhenses, it burrows into the sand and waits for the lagoons to fill up once more.
As for the communities in Baixa Grande and Queimada dos Britos, they face similar challenges too. As we highlighted a little earlier, the weather forces them to alter their way of living. During the dry spells, the people there are more reliant on the land, cultivating their own crops.
And the group would harvest items like cashews, cassava and beans. Alongside that, they also look after livestock such as goats, chickens and cattle. But as the weather starts to turn, their eyes immediately dart towards the coastline. You see, due to the showers, their crops aren’t as easy to plant.
So the people leave Baixa Grande and Queimada dos Britos until the rain stops. Yes, they set up a campsite along the shoreline and begin to scour the waters for fish. Yet the meat doesn’t just feed them. No, the communities work out deals with merchants who want to buy portions themselves, reports National Geographic.
Therefore it’s a fascinating cycle, and further highlights why so many people are interested in coming to Lençóis Maranhenses. By 2010 it’s believed that 60,000 tourists were making trips there every 12 months. But they all had one rule to follow. Carolina Alvite revealed, “Vehicles are forbidden on the dunes.”
Meanwhile, some of the individuals who’ve been familiar with Lençóis Maranhenses for a long time continue to be enamored by the spectacular landscape. For instance, the former leader of the Queimada dos Britos community was one of them. To sum up his thoughts, Manoel Brito spoke to National Geographic before he passed away.
And Brito told the publication, “Everything here always looks the same. But every day, if you look carefully, you’ll see that the sand is in a different place. God created these white mountains and made the wind play with them forever.” Quite simply, you’d be hard-pressed to name anything else like it.