Discovery

Why Does This Surreal ‘Desert’ Fill With Endless Balmy Swimming Pools and Living Fish Every Year?

BY Michael Wing TIMEJanuary 29, 2023 PRINT

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.”

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An aerial view of Lençóis Maranhenses, located in the state of Maranhão in northeastern Brazil. (Thiago Mansur/Shutterstock)
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Perennial lagoons, caused by rains during the wet season, appear amid sand dunes in Lençóis Maranhenses. (guilhermespengler/Shutterstock)

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.

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Visitors enjoy balmy waters at Lençóis Maranhenses. (Luis War/Shutterstock)
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Lençóis Maranhenses, located about 50 minutes north of the municipality of Barreirinhas, is accessible via off-road vehicle. (guilhermespengler/Shutterstock)
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Visitors enjoy swimming in one of the countless lagoons at Lençóis Maranhenses. (Luis War/Shutterstock)
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A shoreline at one of Lençóis Maranhenses’ innumerable lagoons. (vitormarigo/Shutterstock)

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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Lagoons seen amid sand dunes in the distance at Lençóis Maranhenses. (FELIPE TAVARES/Shutterstock)
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Lagoons evaporate during the dry season, during the months of January through June, at Lençóis Maranhenses. (Renato Haas/Shutterstock)
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Visitors walk the warm sands amid the lagoons at Lençóis Maranhenses. (Lauren Squire/Shutterstock)
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An aerial view of Lençóis Maranhenses shows sands that were gradually swept inland south from the shore. (Caio Pederneiras/Shutterstock)
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A view of the lagoons and sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses from above. (jocaphoto/Shutterstock)
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Countless lagoons fill the spaces between the sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses annually. (Caio Pederneiras/Shutterstock)
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Dunes and lagoons stretch to the horizon at Lençóis Maranhenses. (Caio Pederneiras/Shutterstock)
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Tens of thousands of visitors come to Lençóis Maranhenses every year. (guilhermespengler/Shutterstock)
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Lençóis Maranhenses features crystal-clear waters that create a surreal sight amid desert-like sand dunes. (vitormarigo/Shutterstock)
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Local wildlife inhabit oases at Lençóis Maranhenses. (elleon/Shutterstock)
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Locals and visitors alike enjoy the incredible landscape at Lençóis Maranhenses. (guilhermespengler/Shutterstock)

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Michael Wing
Editor and Writer
Michael Wing is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada, where he was born and educated in the arts. He writes mainly on culture, human interest, and trending news.
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