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Journey Latin America client Alan Chapman shares his experience of travelling the Rota das Emoções in Northeast Brazil.

Last September, I volunteered at the Paras in Rio and took advantage of being back in Brazil to visit a region I hadn’t been to before, namely, the Northeast. There were no group tours to most of the places I wished to see so JLA arranged a bespoke trip for me, organising flights, cars, guided tours and hotel accommodation. In particular, I wanted to travel the Rota das Emoções.

The journey started in São Luis, the capital of the State of Maranhão. Founded 400 years ago by the French, the city was soon taken over by the Portuguese and developed by them, apart from a brief interlude of Dutch occupation, as a sugar and cotton-exporting port. The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is reputed to have the greatest number of buildings with azulejo tiles in Brazil, although much work is still to be done on restoration.

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São Luis

It was a similar story in Alcântara, a colonial town across the Baía de São Marcos. It is now a sleepy backwater, reached by a motorised catamaran crossing the choppy 22km-wide bay; seasickness sufferers beware! A walk up the cobbled main street from the jetty, past the shells of former villas, brings you to the main square surrounded by restored colonial buildings, one of which serves as a museum. In the centre of the square is a ruined 17th-century church with a pelourinho (a post for whipping slaves) outside. The restored, whitewashed churches of the planters and the slaves are worth visiting as well as the museum of the Space Centre, located on the mainland nearby. We got soaked by a big wave on the 90-minute return journey and had to make a beach-landing due to the low tide on the river at São Luis. All good fun!

Alcântara

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Main square, Alcântara

It was a three-hour car journey to the next stop, Barreirinhas, a stopping-off point for the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. The park is part of the landscape of sand dunes which stretch for 140km along the coast and 50km inland, blown along by the prevailing easterly wind which draws windsurfers from around the world. In between the dunes are hundreds of lagoons which fill up during the rainy season in the first half of the year and which, from the sky and top of the dunes, look like bed sheets, “lençóis” in Portuguese.

Unfortunately, 2016 hadn’t seen lots of rain and, by the time I got there in late September, only a few of the lagoons had sufficient water for swimming or even paddling. To see the lagoons at their fullest, it’s best to visit in June and July, although that is the height of the season for Brazilians; the sunset spots may be more crowded! Nevertheless, it was a fantastic sight to see and exhilarating to walk and dune-buggy across.

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Lençóis Maranhenses National Park

Read part two of Alan's journey here.

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