Where streets are paved with sand

Brazil’s northern coast serves up alien landscapes of vibrant beauty, nightly capoeira shows silhouetted by sunset and a paradise that forces visitors to embrace letting go.

It’s hard to say exactly how I settled on Jericoacoara, but in retrospect I often credit my innate compass, a sort of gut feeling, that drew me to Brazil’s northern coast. I bought my ticket on a whim, despite knowing that the practicalities of getting there involved a three hour flight to Fortaleza, a six-hour bus ride to Jijoca and another near hour journey via 4X4 once the road ended. In Jeri, the streets are paved with sand.

It took a full day to travel from the capital city of Brasilia, and I arrived far too late to see anything. Not only does the town lie in the intentionally underdeveloped Parque Nacional Jericoacoara, but local law forbids streetlights. This means that the hamlet takes on a subdued, romantic glow come sundown and the night skies are sights in themselves. I snacked on a folhadas, a pastry stuffed with ham and cheese, as I set out on foot to find my pousada, the guesthouse I would call home for the next 10 days. I had come with no plans but to relax, and already the sound of the nearby ocean and the bossa nova music floating on the breeze was crafting the strange, tranquil nostalgia of a moment removed from time.

Jericoacoara, located roughly 330km west of Fortaleza and straddling the equator, started life as a small fishing village where a barter system predominated and there was no electricity, phones or TV. The town drew hippies, artists and wanderers, and today’s visitors are a mix of those same free spirits, including international travellers and hip, young professionals from Brazil’s south. However, in the past two decades Jeri has also become renowned for its wind: in a country with 7,491km of coastline, the settlement draws kite boarders and windsurfers from around the world. In addition, a proposed airport just outside of town is expected to be completed by the end of 2013, making access easier (35km rather than the 330km to Fortaleza), and more change is likely with the influx of tourists for the June 2014 World Cup and the August 2016 Olympics.

Locals and people who have been coming for years have been watching the transformation with understandable resentment, especially when charter tours – remarkably noticeable in a town with only four main streets, all of which lead to the beach – started to trickle in. But these are few, and Jeri is a still a long ways from resembling any sort of tourist trap.

During the day you can find solitude along the coast, and I relished the horizon, the lone hammocks and the few Brazilians who would pass, walking miles to work or sell goods, such as fish or homemade crafts, in Jeri. There are many places to take windsurfing, kite boarding or even capoeira lessons, a uniquely Brazilian tradition that has slave roots and blends martial arts, dance, acrobatics and music, but I chose to pass the time reading books, swimming and hiking through the sparsely vegetated Serrote Hills, which, with its cacti and red rock, reminded me of parts of the California coast. I would spend the mornings drinking acai shakes at Café Brasil (Beco do Guaxeló 65A), where I’d befriended the waitress: a young girl from Rio, covered in tattoos, who had come on holiday months before and had yet to leave.

Though Brazil is full of beautiful beaches, the most famous of which are in the south, the north is less frequented and significantly more stunning. The area around Jeri is home to alien landscapes of vibrant beauty, such as Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Paradiso. I arranged an inexpensive day trip to the lagoons via 4x4 at  my pousada, and the trip through the isolated landscape was a pleasant surprise, passing huge stretches of undeveloped land, with mountains of white sand and pools of water in various shades of intense aquamarine. I whiled away the hours boogie boarding down Brazil’s shifting sandscapes into warm water and sipping Skol beers in the crystal clear lagoons.

The towns’ most famous attraction however, is just a 4km walk from Jeri: a rock formation known as the Pedra Furada, the unofficial symbol of the town. It’s essentially a large rock with a hole in it, but nonetheless, the energy is magnetic, both from the absence of development, the stretch of ocean beyond it and the sun that sets directly through the hole in July. 

Though sunsets in Jeri are hard to miss, I made sure I caught one at the Sunset Dune, a short walk west of the village. Here, people gather to watch the sun fall off the ocean’s edge, with the few remaining windsurfers silhouetted against the horizon. Once the sun has gone, a free nightly capoeira show begins on the beach, taking advantage of the last bits of light. Nothing compares to watching experienced practitioners flip, fight and thrill with their athletic prowess.

For dinner the options are endless, from the multiple inexpensive eateries that line the streets to the expensive restaurants aimed at honeymooners. A prato feito (dish of the day) is served most everywhere, pairing an entree of either grilled chicken, beef or fish, with rice, beans, salad, and farofa (toasted manioc flour). At casual fish joint Peixaria Peixe Brasileiro (Beco do Guaxeló), fishermen deposit their catch early in the day and patrons choose their dinner, from red snapper to grouper to lobster, to be grilled. The restaurant is often busy, so chances are you’ll have to wander and return in a couple hours when your feast is ready.

At night, the main beach  turns into a bar, with 20 or so stands serving cocktails. Try a caipirinha – Brazil’s national drink of cachaca (an alcohol made of sugar cane), sugar and lime – and personalise your beverage by adding anything from cacao to maracuja (passion fruit). Walk away from the beach along Rua Nova Jeri, and you’ll find Mama África, which always has live music and as much as a party scene as you’ll find anywhere in town– predominantly reggae merged with rock, electronic and more traditional Brazilian sounds.

People have been bemoaning Jericoacoara’s expansion for nearly a decade now, upset that their tropical idyll may become a smaller version of Rio de Janeiro. Regardless, in my memory it will always be a sort of paradise that forces visitors to embrace letting go and having fun outside their cultural norms. Had I not had a ticket home, I might still be there, content but bemoaning the visitors fresher than I, a caipirinha in hand.