Northeastern Brazil

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Northeastern Brazil by Dune Buggy

By Jasmina Kelemen

The "ski-bunda" in the sand dunes of Natal, in Nortwestern Brazil. photos by Jasmina Kelemen.
The “ski-bunda” in the sand dunes of Natal, in Nortwestern Brazil. photos by Jasmina Kelemen.

Usually a stickler about seat belts and other basic safety measures, I sat in the back of a roofless dune buggy roaring over mountains of sand, clinging to an overhead bar and wondering what the hell would happen if this thing flipped over. The driver must have caught me while I was in the middle of a thought, because apparently I answered affirmatively when he yelled over his shoulder “Com Emocao?”

Trips to Brazil

I likely figured he was asking in Portuguese if the ride was exciting, instead, I had unwittingly given the go-ahead to drive the buggy straight over the sandy edge, which from our vantage point seemed like the last ledge of land in Brazil and lead directly to the Atlantic Ocean.

I screamed like a banshee, my boyfriend probably did as well and the driver laughed like a madman as he sped us down the wall of sand.

By the end of the afternoon, all remnants of my safety-conscious and litigious North American society had oozed out of me and that plunge over that gigantic dune would seem like a breeze compared to the crazy air acrobatics that came next.

Natal’s Ride of Choice

Dune buggies are the transportation of choice for visitors that travel to Natal, which sits on the extreme northeastern edge of Brazil, to ride the famous sand dunes and explore glorious stretches of wild coastline.

Bugeiros can be found on nearly every street corner, standing in front of their diesel-spewing 4×4’s, hawking impromptu tours of the local dunes and the freshwater lagoons that lay scattered between the shifting sands. It’s best to find a driver either through a local touring agency or by asking the staff at your hotel to recommend a driver; otherwise you risk riding around with an out-of-work street racer who borrowed his cousin’s wheels in hopes of making extra cash that day.

Lacking any sort of literature on the region, we asked the unfailingly polite hotel staff at the Tulip Inn to assist us with finding a driver. English, as the international lingua-franca, seems to have skipped over northwestern Brazil, but usually, even rudimentary Spanish, a smile and a nod will suffice. An hour later in the lobby was Luis, barefoot, clad in Ocean Pacific beach-wear and sporting the obligatory pair of Ray-Bans. Over the course of three days and over 200 miles, Luis never bothered to wear shoes. For the bugeiros, it’s all beach and sand, all the time.

Going to Genipabu

Our tour began with a jaunt through Genipabu, 25 kilometers north of Natal and famous locally for its dunes. A ferry ride across the Rio Potengi took us out of Natal through dusty fisherman villages. As the villages receded into the backdrop, the sands accumulated around us and we were surrounded by gigantic hills of sand on all sides, careening fast towards the bottom of the craters in between the dunes.

Natal's transportation of choice: the dune buggy.
Natal’s transportation of choice: the dune buggy.

Though the zigzags through the Sahara-like landscape were exhilarating, we were still not prepared for the sheer drop over Genipabu’s most famous dune-a monstrous mound of sand over 300 feet tall that falls directly into the Atlantic Ocean. The driver must immediately maneuver the vehicle from the dune onto the beach and out of any tricky tides that are developing. I have no idea how Luis did it; I couldn’t watch.

Finally we were on flat land, zooming along stretches of undeveloped coastline. Truth be told, the dune buggy is better suited for the hair-raising, vertiginous rides through the dunes rather than the beaches, where wet sand and water, kicked up by speeds approaching 40mph painfully lash your face. We swerved inland, clinging improbably like a spider to the sides of gigantic bowls formed of sand, on our way to Lagoa de Jacuma to experience the thoroughly northern Brazilian sports of “aero-bunda” and “ski-bunda.”

60′ above a Yellow Lagoon

Perched over 60 feet above a yellow lagoon, a group of men operated a system of rope pulleys that stretched from the top of the hill to the water below. Visitors were invited to sit on seats fashioned out of sturdy but well-worn cloths hanging from the ropes and slide down the length of the cords into the freshwater lagoon below. I pleaded with the young Brazilian handling the ropes to steer me gently down the slope, insisting that I didn’t want to sink very far below the water’s surface.

It’s unlikely he understood a word of what I said, though the frantic tone needed little translation. Also, I wondered about his ability to keep control of the rope that supported my body weight, which looked to outweigh his wiry, underfed frame by at least fifty pounds.

Finally, I took a seat, sans life jacket, and lest I try to jump off and simply tumble down the dune, my handler immediately swung me forward and sent me rushing towards the water. Unlike the German daredevils ahead of me that outstretched their arms and flapped their wings, I clung for dear life at the straps on my sides but forced myself to keep my eyes open and enjoy the unrestricted views afforded at such heights.

After “aero-bunda” we drove to a different part of the lagoon for “ski-bunda.” For this strange sport, you sit on what looks like a skateboard without wheels, though the front end is curled inward, creating a pocket for the toes. While the rider balances the board with hands on the side and in the sand, again, undernourished-looking men stand at the top of the hill and control the board’s fast descent into the water. Of course, I shrieked the entire way down and subsequent pictures of my landing show legs outstretched wildly in the air over my head, while huge waves splash all around. My boyfriend’s more graceful landing barely caused a ripple.

On to Praia da Pipa

Fancying ourselves intrepid explorers of the Brazilian coast, we readily agreed when Luis said he would pick us up the next day and take us to Praia da Pipa, a surfing destination 90kms south of Natal. Buses, shoes and modest clothing seemed all too confining; the back of the buggy, with its attendant sense of freedom, was the only way we would go.

Along the southern path, behind every rough veer from the road, Luis led us to a new gem. Behind what looked like a steep ditch, a sandy hill descended to a stunningly turquoise, freshwater lagoon shining brilliantly at the bottom of the hill. A few steps from a side-street kiosk, an expansive view of the bay of dolphins spread out before us, where packs of fins playfully dove in and out of a liquid field of jade.

But the best surprise was saved for last. On first glance, Pipa resembled your typical sandy outpost of the international, bliss-seeking community. Internet cafes proliferated, next to cheap hostels housing dread-locked surfers. Our buggy continued up a maze of streets and wound its way up a hill to Sombra e Agua Fresca.

Buggies in the dunes.
Buggies in the dunes.

I’ve yet to find a travel book on Brazil that lists this unadvertised piece of tropical heaven. Walking to our rooms was a bit of a trek up a very steep but paved incline under a canopy of dense foliage. The effort was matched with uninterrupted views of the angry ocean below the cliffs.

After days of rumbling rides, falling and flying, I was content to lay on the chaise lounges, play scrabble and eat the African-inspired cuisine. Alas, all good things come to an end and it was time to go back to Natal, on a buggy, of course.


When to go: Billed the sunniest spot in Brazil, Natal and its surrounding beaches are a year round destination.

Getting there: Brazilian airlines Varig, Tam and Gol fly to Natal from Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. There are few direct flights to Natal, most of the flights jump between the major cities along the coast, flying to Salvador, Natal and Fortaleza. For visitors traveling to Brazil from international destinations, Tam and Varig offer air passes that cover multiple cities in Brazil but must be bought outside of Brazil.

Airline websites:

Where to stay: In Natal, Tulip Inn is widely recognized as the best buy, offering comfortable, full service apartments with air conditioners for roughly $60 a night, a few blocks from the prettiest beach in town, Praia das Artistas and the center of Natal’s nightlife. The hotel does not seem to have an internet address but rooms can be booked on various hotel websites such as Expedia and ravelocity.

More luxurious accomodations are available at Pestana Natal Beach Resort, which can also be booked on most major travel websites.

Tulip Inn, Rua Potengi No 521, Natal, Brazil

Pestana Natal Beach Resort, Av. Senador Pinarte Mariz 5525

In Pipa, Sombra E Agua Fresca is worth the relative splurge.

Buggies: Any hotel in Natal will arrange for a bugeiro to pick up guests at the hotel. An afternoon ride, that involves multiple stops along the dunes and a stop for food along the lagoons, costs anywhere from $50-75, depending on how many passengers are sharing the ride. Buggies are also available for multi-day, long-distance trips along the coast. is a good website that offers assistance with trips covering all of Brazil