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Off the beaten track on Brazil's northern coast

Just as new British Airways flights shone a spotlight on Chile, Peru and Costa Rica in the past two years, Air Europa will be hoping their new twice-weekly flights from London Gatwick to Recife have the same effect for the lesser-explored Northern Brazilian coast. It is a region beloved by Veloso Tours but often overlooked by, or unknown to, most.

Whilst travellers will be familiar with the country's exotic cities and natural wonders, most will be less familiar with the northern coastline. Here we find some of the continents most idyllic beaches, towering sand dunes interspersed with natural lagoons and historic cities with UNESCO World Heritage listed centres and fascinating mixes of European heritage. The region is interlaced throughout by a rich seam of Afro-Brazilian culture, embodied in an exotic cuisine, a busy calendar of festivals and the rhythmic movement of Forró dancing. All of this featured prominently on Michael Palin's 2013 travels through Brazil.

The new flight, which operates twice weekly and flies via the Spanish capital Madrid, will open up the possibility to fly straight to the heart of the region, without the need to begin in Rio or São Paulo in the south; a particularly interesting proposition for second time visitors to Brazil. Let's have a look at some of the best places to visit in Northern Brazil, split into three different states, all of which offer the quintessential experience on their own, or better yet in a combination of two.

Northern Brazil Map

Pernambuco

  • Idyllic beaches and exotic coral reefs, with vivid marine life
  • Sumptuous colonial era architecture and Baroque churches
  • Thriving arts and cultural scene and rich history

The new Air Europa flights transport you to Recife, the state capital of Pernambuco, in the very north-east of Brazil. It is a state that was occupied by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, establishing the town as the administrative centre and main export hub for the flourishing sugar cane industry along the coast. Recife grew to become a major city under Portuguese rule and the state was a hotbed of revolutionary fervour in the 19th century.

The dynamic city of Recife spreads out over a series of islands, encircled by waterways and spanned by bridges. We find an interesting mix of architectural eras and a thriving arts and cultural scene, with many festivals taking place throughout the year. There are some attractive city beaches, impressive churches and three lively football stadiums.

Northern Brazil - Recife

Recife (Photos by VisitBrasil) 

For decades, Recife had an economic rivalry with the town of Olinda, perched on a hilltop slightly north of the city. Today, Olinda is one of Brazil's most charming towns. The quaint streets of the UNSECO World Heritage centre are lined with colourful colonial architecture, exotic gardens, azulejo tililing and magnificent baroque Portuguese churches. The oldest convent in Brazil, dated from 1580, is thought to reside here, whilst spectacular views across lush vegetation and the inviting turquoise Atlantic Ocean abound. 

Northern Brazil - Olinda

Olinda (Photos by VisitBrasil)

A short drive south of Recife is the idyllic beach town of Porto de Galinhas; a paradise of perfect white sandy beaches, colourful coral reef and buggy-strewn sand dunes. Days here can be spent snorkelling the crystal-clear waters, lapping up the sun and the views, riding buggies down giant sand dunes or hiring a traditional jangada fishing boat. In the evening, relax to the sounds of live music or tuck into a traditional Brazilian barbecue.

Porto de Galinhas

Porto de Galinhas

Rio Gande do Norte

  • Towering sand dunes and natural lagoons
  • Beautiful beaches backed by red cliffs and lush forest
  • Marine archipelago with some of the world's best beaches

A short one hour flight from Recife is the city of Natal, capital of the Rio Grande do Norte state. Although not the most culturally rich or attractive city, Natal provides a good base to explore the pristine beaches of the northern coast, as well as other natural wonders, such as the nearby Genipabu sand dunes and the three lagoons of Jenipabú, Pitangui and Jacumã. These can be visited on a day trip from Natal, perhaps as part of a two night stay prior to a longer stay at a beach, and then onwards to Maranhão.

Natal, Brazil

Natal & its sand dunes (Photos by VisitBrasil)

Just outside the city is Praia da Pipa, an idyllic beach surrounded by red cliffs and exuberant forests and whose sheltered coves attract dolphins and marine turtles. As well as taking buggy rides on the sand dunes or relaxing on the soft sand, you can while away your days snorkelling, swimming and surfing, then relaxing in the laid-back bars and restaurants of the village.

Around 200 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, reached via a short and scenic flight from Natal, is the stunning marine archipelago of Fernando de Noronha. Snorkel with tropical fish, observe migratory birds, stroll between isolated bays or relax on some of the finest beaches on the planet; the Baía do Sancho beach here has twice been voted as the best!

Fernando do Noronha Brazil

Fernando do Noronha

Maranhão

  • Enticing blend of European heritage
  • Magical white sandscapes, interspersed with turquoise lagoons
  • Attend spectacular June Festivals for unique cultural insights

Further up the northern coast is the attractive city of São Luis, whose French, Dutch and Portuguese pasts are maintained in an interesting mix of architectural styles, enhanced by an extensive restoration project to restore the city to its former glory. Along the cobbled streets of the UNESCO World Heritage centre we find colonial buildings adorned with intricate azulejo tiling and some others which date back to the 17th century, established by the early French settlers.

São Luis is also one of the best places to experience the June Festivals, a month-long celebration of traditional country life. It takes place in a huge number of cities along Brazil's coastline, conforming the country's second biggest annual event after Carnival. Attending the June Festivals in Brazil provides a unique insight into local culture, as cities come to life with live music and traditional dancing, colourful costumes and stages and spectacular fireworks. Each region has its own unique customs and São Luis' Bumba Meu Boi is the most well-known of all; a vibrant retelling of a charming folk story.

Brazil June Festivals in Sao Luis

June Festival celebrations in São Luis (photos by VisitBrasil)

Brazil is a country blessed with natural beauty - the mighty Iguassu Falls, the wildlife-rich Pantanal wetlands and over half of the mysterious Amazon Rainforest to name but three. Around 250 miles to the west of São Luis is another phenomenon that deserves its place among such illustrious company; the magical Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. This constantly-changing coastal park is dominated by huge white sand dunes, stretching as far as the eye can see and sculpted daily into new forms by the sea winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean. Following the rainy season, turquoise and green rainwater lagoons form and interlock, providing bathing pools for visitors and new habitats for a variety of aquatic life. 

Sao Luis & Maranhao, Brazil

Lençóis Maranhenses National Park & São Luís (photos by VisitBrasil)

If you have been inspired to visit Northern Brazil and would like us to put together a proposal itinerary for you to consider, we would be delighted to hear from you and discuss your individual interests. Visit the contact page or give us a call on 020 8762 0616.