At the first donkey sighting, you know you’re in for more than just a regular few days at the beach.
Twisting around sand dunes and scrubland in a 4×4 with the tires deflated for better traction is a surreal experience, like you’re auditioning for The Amazing Race. Then, the town of Jericoacoara appears out of nowhere, popping out from of behind the dunes.
About 300 km northwest of Fortaleza in the Brazilian state of Ceará, Jericoacoara Beach, population 1,200, was once a simple fishing village without electricity, roads or telephones. Now, it’s a full-on beach retreat, complete with kite and wind surfing, dune buggies and drivers to hire, surfing lessons to take, sand boards to rent for $1 an hour, palapas to sit under and beer to drink.
The town’s tourism boom is fairly recent history: Visitors started arriving in 1985; surfers lured by the calm seas and high waves. Electricity followed in 1998, and the region became a national park in 2002. Because there are still no roads; all the supplies for each and every hotel and business is trucked in over the dunes. A medical helicopter is on hand for emergencies and plans for an airport are in the works.
Visit the rocks. The stone arch at Pedra Furada is the photo-op-friendly rock formation but the real significance of the rock sites is their cave paintings dating to 12,000 BP. Archaeologists put the rock shelters at this place at more than 40,000 years old. (Fuck you, Clovis people.)
Hop in a dune buggy. Short hops by 4×4 are the order of the day. Check out the Lazy Tree and Dunas de Tatajuba.
Visit other beaches. At nearby Lagoa do Paraíso, a freshwater lagoon about 20 minutes away, a chilled-out vibe prevails, quiet and unfussy, rather bohemian. This is the best beach club in the area, the perfect spot to sip your caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail. Visit Lagoa do Amâncio and Buraco Azul (the Blue Hole) for more open space.
Do not miss sunset. Make sure you’re back in Jericoacoara before nightfall, when everybody congregates on the giant Sunset Dune at the water’s edge west of town to watch the sun sink behind the sea, the horseback riders and the determined sand boarders. This is also where you can watch the spins and kicks of kids performing the capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that dates back to the 16th century.
On your way out of town, you can understand why the wild donkeys—once domestic pack animals for the fishermen—never left this place. You won’t want to either.