These endless sand dunes stretching to the horizon might make you think you’ve wandered into the Sahara. Yet with countless blue-turquoise lagoons weaving like emerald ribbons between each valley of sand, farther than eyes can see, the sight is quite extraterrestrial.
But it’s a reality in one spot on our planet Earth.
Highly unique, Lençóis Maranhenses is actually a national park in the state of Maranhão in northeastern Brazil spanning 43 miles (70 kilometers) of Atlantic coastline. The unending sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses may seem desert-like but with its 47 inches of rainfall per year, it’s far from that—officially, deserts receive less than 10 inches of rain per year.
No, the sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses are caused by another natural phenomenon. The two rivers Parnaíba and Preguiças, south of Lençóis Maranhenses, carry sand down from the interior to the ocean, where it is deposited—this is how beaches are normally formed. Over centuries, though, wind swept that sand inland as far as 31 miles (50 kilometers) to gradually create these massive dunes that can reach up to 130 feet (40 meters) high.
Hence, the rare location garnered its name, Lençóis Maranhenses, which in Brazilian means the “bedsheets of Maranhão.”
As for the spectacular lagoons that look so unreal and out of place, these are a perennial phenomenon. During the wet season, between January and June, torrential rainstorms cause the spaces between the dunes to fill up with water to create thousands of crystal-clear lagoons. The water is prevented from draining by an underlying layer of impermeable rock. The sight looks so surreal—like something from a Salvador Dali painting—and so balmy that it draws tens of thousands of visitors per year.
The best times to visit are between the months of July and September. Traveling to nearby town Barreirinhas, about 50 minutes south of Lençóis Maranhenses, visitors may rent a four-by-four capable of handling the rough terrain to tour the park, though vehicles will have to be ferried across a river and ford several more to reach their destination. Some of the lagoons can span 300 feet long and reach 10 feet deep. Yearly temperatures at Lençóis Maranhenses range from 26 to 28.5 degrees Celsius (79 to 83.3 degrees Fahrenheit) on average.
Sightseers may swim in the welcoming waters with average temperatures of between 23 to 27 degrees Celsius (81.5 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit). Or they can simply enjoy the warm sand and jaw-droppingly unbelievable landscape. It’s been noted that the lagoons Azul and Bonita are particularly glorious to visit, though traveling with a guide is advisable, as one may easily get lost amid the rolling hills of sand and endless pools.
Nor is Lençóis Maranhenses deserted of wildlife. Both restinga and mangrove oases host local ecosystems, while wolffish can be found swimming in the tepid waters having gained access from nearby rivers. When the lagoons evaporate during the dry season, the wolffish become dormant, burrowing into the mud where they survive until the rains return.
As for the dry season, hot temperatures gradually cause these pools to disappear at a rate of about 3 feet (1 meter) per month. The wondrous sights of the Lençóis Maranhenses lagoons then vanish until rainfalls return the next wet season.
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