Guide to São Luis & Lencois Maranhenses
São Luís has been called the “Athens of Brazil”, and has the largest and best preserved collection of colonial Portuguese architecture in all of Latin America. It's no surprise then that the historic centre of Sao Luis is a UNESCO World Heritage site. And because of its burgeoning population of writers and poets, another nickname for Sao Luis is the “Island of Love”. Possibly best of all, however, is that it’s the base for exploring the weird and wonderful world of the Lencois Maranhenses National Park...
As the capital city of Maranhao State, São Luis has a rich and varied cultural life and some superb museums. The city is the only capital city in Brazil to have been founded by the French, since which time it has also found itself under the control of the Dutch, before the Portuguese finally established a foothold on the place. The history of the city is on display in the various museums the city has to offer including the Museum of Black Culture, the Museum of Visual Arts and the Museum of History & the Arts. However, in many ways, the best museum here is the city of Sao Luis itself! And for those of you who simply can’t get enough of the colonial architecture here, a short boat ride away sits the town of Alcantara, where you will find even more untouched colonial treasures to explore.
The city also showcases some of Brazil’s best traditional festivals, especially in May and June when the Divino Espirito Santo and Sao Joao festivities occur. There are religious processions of the Divino and you can watch the locals perform the Tumber de Crioula, where they form circles and dance within them to samba music. A major attraction at this time is the Bumba-meu-Boi, which is a kind of pantomime taking place from June 13th to June 30th. During this folklore festival, performers take to the streets in elaborate traditional costumes to tell the story of the demise and resurrection of an ox through music, dance and theatre.
Tours of Lencois Maranhenses National Park
About 260km by road from São Luis is one of Brazil's most beautiful (and bizarre!) natural landscapes, the Lencois Maranhenses National Park. Although this vast area of rolling sand dunes appears to be desert, it’s actually not – the region experiences a regular rainy season which fills up the valleys between the sand dunes and creates blue and green lagoons throughout the landscape. Perhaps even more strange is that these lagoons support marine life, and there are a variety of fish species living in the park; enough that most people who live here work as fishermen.
Because of the lack of public transport, the easiest way to see the area is on an organised tour of Lencois Maranhenses from Sao Luis. While it may not be the easiest place to get to, it’s an unforgettable sight, and something most people never experience on holiday in Brazil, so if you’d like to get off the beaten track then a combination of Sao Luis and the Lencois Maranhenses is a great choice.
Getting to São Luis and Lencois Maranhenses
Even by Brazilian standards, São Luis is a fair old distance away from the next nearest big city – around a 14-hour drive to Fortaleza – so the best (and really the only) practical way to get to Sao Luis from other major Brazilian cities is to fly into the Marechal Cunha Machado International Airport. Once in São Luis there is an extensive public transport system, but we recommend private transfers and accredited taxis for journeys you can’t make on foot.
Public transport heading towards the Lencois Maranhenses National Park is limited, and travel within the park itself needs to be with a guide and a specialist 4x4 vehicle in any case, so it is a great deal easier to take an inclusive tour from Sao Luis.
When to Visit the Lencois Maranhenses and Sao Luis
The São Luis area has a monsoon climate, and in one month you'll see more rain in Sao Luis than you'd get in a year in many European cities. If you can avoid it, we'd recommend avoiding planning your holiday to Sao Luis during the height of the rainy season, as it can make transport to Lencois Maranhenses quite difficult, not to mention quite damp...
Happily, the best time for a tour of Lencois Maranhenses is just after the rainy season, when the lagoons that form in the desert are at their fullest - really anytime from July to September would be perfect and a much more pleasant time to travel as well.