About 20 years ago I bought a Lonely Planet guide to Brazil and was particularly taken by a photo of Genipabu beach near Natal in Rio Grande do Norte. It showed a sand dune several hundred feet high, studded with clusters of palms trees swaying in the breeze. There was no-one in sight except for local man walking along some rocks on the strand. I decided I would go there one day and experience it for myself.
Well, I have just done so and instead of peace and quiet and solitude I found hustlers on all sides, dune buggies polluting the air and destroying the peace and quiet, hundreds of tourists clambering to the summit where some went on tacky camel rides, bars and restaurants on the beach and real estate development encroaching onto the dune.
Looking at this confusion I found myself wondering once again why Brazilians are so careless with their natural treasures. Despite this, the location and view remain beautiful and there are still many other places in Natal where you can find peace and quiet and make it worth visiting.
Natal sits on the Brazil’s right hand shoulder and is probably as near to Europe as you can get. It has exploited this advantage and attracts tourists from places like Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia as well as southern Brazil.
This brings advantages in that the tourist infrastructure is of a fairly high standard, particularly in terms of roads and transport and hotels. I could not help but compare the clean, modern airport with the filthy shambles of João Pessoa, which I visited at the beginning of last year.
(I had plenty of time to admire it as the crisis which has gripped air travel for almost a year led to my flight being cancelled and a delay of almost six hours.) The disadvantage is that foreign visitors often push prices of products and services up. Local people often complain that foreigners are buying up land and property. It is common to see crudely painted notices on the sides of buildings in English offering help in buying property.
Some foreign real estate developers, with Brazilian partners, are also unveiling plans to build luxury resorts throughout the Northeast but I am a bit dubious about these projects. Brazil is still a long way from Europe and does not offer the infrastructure or security European and Americans require.
The luxury resort at Porto Sauípe in Bahia which opened a few years ago was targeted at foreign visitors and has not been a success. Even well-off Brazilians are more likely to go to places like the south of Bahia, the Litoral Norte between São Paulo and Rio or Florianópolis than further off parts of the Northeast.
Until recently many of these foreigners were sex tourists. A police crackdown has been in force since last year and there are now notices in English in tourist areas warning that child molesting is a criminal offense and punishable with up to 10 years in prison.
Whether this campaign will make a real difference is uncertain since girls can make a lot more money by going to bed with rich foreigners than working as maids or waitresses in the hotels and restaurants catering to them.
TV Globo presented an interesting item on this subject in March last year which described how trips are organized by Europeans who can “order” a girl or girls in advance in terms of weight, color, height and age.
Producers from the program posed as tourists, one as a foreigner, and they had no difficulty in being offered under-age girls by local pimps. The video can be seen at the following link to a feature entitled “Estrutura para o turismo sexual” http://jg.globo.com/JGlobo/0,19125,VTJ0-2742-20060308-154489,00.html.
The city of Natal itself offers little to the tourist. It is a big spread-out place, with an upper and lower part like Salvador, but with few interesting buildings or places to linger.
Brazilians may find the home of former President Café Filho, who succeeded Getúlio Vargas on his death, or the museum dedicated to the famous folklorist, Luis da Câmara Cascudo, of note, but these hold little of interest to foreigners.
The best historical attraction is the Forte dos Reis Magos, which dates from 1598. It is in the shape of a star and is located at the entrance to the Potengi river, which divides the city. It is well preserved and contains a stone pillar called the Marco de Touros, which bears the signs of the crown and cross of the king of Portugal and was originally placed at the Marco beach in São Miguel do Gostoso to mark Portugal’s claim to the territory it had “discovered”.
The fort is in a rather isolated spot alongside mangroves swamps which flood at certain times of the year and you have to walk along a causeway to reach it.
I was impressed by the guide who knew everything about the place and obviously cared about it very much. Like many other Brazilians I’ve met he was no admirer of the Portuguese even though the local people remained loyal to the colonial power in the battles against the French and Dutch who were also interested in controlling the area.
Nearby is the Farol de Mãe Luiza lighthouse which was built in 1951. It is 37 meters high but as it sits on top of a dune, it has an altitude of almost 100 meters and provides a magnificent 360 degree view. The lighthouse lies within a preserved area known as the Parque das Dunas where you can take guided tours.
The vegetation not only includes the usual palm trees but also tough shrubs and grasses and cacti which can survive the intense heat and constant wind blowing from the sea. While this wind provides a welcome relief from the constant sun it can be so strong that you have to hold onto your hat – literally – as I learned when two of my caps were blown away into the sea.
There were few seabirds around but the dunes and rock pools – which house crabs, fish and insects – provide food for lapwings, plovers, wagtails, hawks and vultures. There are groups of little owls which nest in holes in the ground and are active during the day. Crowds of hawks also take to the skies every evening just before the sun goes down, wheeling and circling.
This area, known as Via Costeira, lies between Ponta Negra and Areia Preta. It may not be as spectacular as other locations but the beaches are fine and the rocks and pools create little isolated spots. There is none of the movement or commerce you get in busier places. You are more likely to meet a solitary fisherman than a hawker trying to sell you sunglasses here. On several occasions I was able to look in both directions and see no-one else on the beach.
If you are more socially minded there are plenty of livelier beaches nearby, such as Ponta Negra with its giant Morro do Careca dune or Praia dos Artistas, which are popular with local people as well as tourists. The best beaches are reckoned to be Genipabu and Touros in the north and Pipa in the south but these are all distant from the city and require a taxi or car.
Other curios in the Natal area are the world’s largest cashew tree which has become a major tourist attraction, although it is difficult to see why, and the Barreira do Inferno, a 30-meter high cliff plunging into the sea.
This was a rocket launching area until Brazil’s space activities were moved further north to Maranhão some years ago but tourists can visit the site and see replicas of rockets and launching pads.
American troops and airmen were stationed in Natal during the Second World War to patrol the Atlantic Ocean and track German ships and submarines. There are a couple of remnants in the lack of anti-Americanism which is prevalent in other parts of Brazil and the birth of Forró music, which is supposed to be a corruption of the “For All” notices the Americans put on their invitations for dances. There are supposed to be quite a few older people around with American sounding names whose fathers were US servicemen.
The Indians who lived here were called the Potiguares which means “shrimp eaters” in the Tupi language and shrimp fishing and farming is a major industry. There are shrimp and fish restaurants everywhere.
Some of the busier places are like production lines, serving up indifferently dishes to a mass market of tourists arriving on tour buses. However, there are also some very good restaurants serving delicious meals at a fraction of the price you would pay in São Paulo.
For example, in one place the bill for three starters, four delicious shrimp dishes with side dishes of chips, rice, beans, sauces, vegetables, etc. plus three sweets, a bottle of wine, six Cokes and mineral water came to around 140 reais (about US$ 70).
Natal is very easy to reach (the current air traffic crisis permitting) and all the major domestic airlines have daily flights. There are also regular international flights.
If you live in Brazil, you can also book a package tour which is highly cost-effective although the red-eye flight times are generally inconvenient.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. You can read more by him at his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© John Fitzpatrick 2007