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Jericoacoara. It's hard to spell, it's even harder to pronounce and it's not easy to find.
This little pocket of paradise located on the northern tip of Brazil has remained a well-kept secret for decades and only since the late 1980s has it emerged as a tourist hotspot.
Jericoacoara is the kind of place you'd happily maroon yourself for days (or weeks) on end, floating between activities, delicious meals and plenty of caipirinhas.
The enchanting beachside town, known affectionately as "Jeri", started off as a sleepy fishing village attracting hippies, dreamers and wanderers. It still entices the same crowd today… but now die-hard kite and wind surfers (Jericoacoara is known for having strong gusty winds ideal for wind sports) and in-the-know travellers come here too.
Still, it's not overrun with tourists (yet)… but you'd better book a visit fast if you're going to be the first of your friends to make it here.
Located about 300 kilometres north-west of Fortaleza in the Brazilian state of Ceara, the only way to get to Jeri is by four-wheel-drive, boat or helicopter. Most visitors opt for the 4WD.
It's about six hours drive from Fortaleza (Pinto Martins Airport in Fortaleza is the closest international airport), the last hour of which is over sand dunes that plunge down and skyrocket up, forming the unique landscape that makes Jericoacoara so special.
Not one person in my Intrepid Travel group knows the first thing about Jeri and our guide Pedro's eyes light up at the confession. "It's heaven on earth, it's like no other place in the world. Just wait and see," he exclaims.
The area around Jericoacoara is magnificently beautiful, although even 40-odd years ago barely anyone knew about it. It was declared an Environmental Protection Area in 1984 and soon after drifts of tourists began moseying their way in.
The Washington Post covered Jericoacoara in 1987, various other media outlets began sending writers here and subsequently more tourists arrived.
Then in 1998 electricity was installed, in 2002 the region was declared a national park, and in 2004 Lonely Planet voted Jericoacoara the best beach in the world. Fast forward 11 years and the sleepy undiscovered fishing village is no longer. However, remarkably Jericoacoara is not ruined yet. The roads are still sand thoroughfares, there are still no streetlights, and although people talk of an airport, most are hoping it won't happen for a while.
Perhaps the fact it's so hard to get here deters some… and probably encourages others.
Our group of 11 is divided across three 4WDs, all driven by dexterous drivers who know how to tactically manoeuvre their way around and over the hilly dunes. We leave Fortaleza early morning, but it's this last hour that has us all sitting up in our seats. We traverse kilometres of undulating sand dunes, skirting past herds of wild donkeys and occasionally almost toppling over. Our driver thinks it's funny. I don't.
And for a long time we see nothing but this beautiful and peculiar vastness out of our windows. It's hard to believe there's a village amidst this dune-covered enormity. Our driver assures us there is and about 50 minutes into the drive we see a patch of sand loosely crosshatched with small buildings from afar. "Welcome to Jericoacoara," he says grinning like a mad man. "This is my home."
He doesn't need to say more… it's obvious that he's one of the lucky ones.
Series of laneways lined with brightly coloured eateries, surf shops managed by laid-back wide-smiling residents, acai smoothie bars and real bars (of course) make up the cityscape.
After checking into our hotel we stop for lunch at Don Amelia, a charming restaurant that's chock full even though it's well past lunchtime. Here we eat creamy curry served in fresh pineapples and indulge in too many caipirinhas while listening to Jack Johnson's Brazilian cousin in the corner.
Come dusk I throw on my active wear and decide to run as far as I can. Jeri beach stretches on for what seems like forever and I figure this way I can soak up more of this heaven on earth before joining the crowd at Por do Sol (Sunset) Dune.
Every day travellers gather at Por do Sol to watch the sun flicker its last rays for the day. The towering sand peak is legendary for its epic sunsets and is believed to be one of the few spots in the world where you can often witness the marvel known as Emerald Sunset – best described as a flash of green light that lasts for a fraction of a second before the sun sinks into the horizon. Although this phenomenon can technically be seen almost anywhere, a clear sky and an ocean horizon are two factors that significantly increase the odds.
I head to the top to see what all the fuss is about and find myself among people chatting away and ordering cocktails from the strategically placed mobile drinks cart. Clusters of laughing youngsters pose for photos and plenty of cameras snap as the afternoon sun does its daily dance.
Although a place like Jeri incites most people to slow down, I want to take it all in and get back to my run. I jog past a couple trotting on their horses alongside the frothy breaking waves; I follow a lone cyclist pedaling through paradise until he fades into the distance; I spot the occasional dune buggy roaring down the sand; I watch a group of youngsters practising capoeira. The beach is an eclectic buzz of activity where anything goes.
I stop regularly to soak it all up – I greedily inhale the smell of the ocean air; I try to seize the sensation of the salty wind; I listen to the slosh of the sea. As the sun nears the horizon neon pinks and fiery oranges salsa over the sky and it becomes difficult to decipher where the sand ends and the sea begins. Or is it the other way around? It's the most beautiful unification of the bizarre and beautiful.
My run sets the scene for exploring Jericoacoara – everything is spectacular. The next day we jump in our 4WDs and head to Pedra Furada, a rock arch that has become the symbol of Jericoacoara. As we trek along the sand to the arch heavy rain starts bucketing down and within minutes our group is soaked to the bone. We take a group photo because we all look incredibly silly and want to capture this carefree memory of too much laughter for no good reason.
The rain doesn't last long and by the time we arrive at Lagoa do Paraiso (Paradise Lagoon), a large freshwater lake, the sun re-emerges to dry us off. The lagoon is the sort of place you'd never leave if that were an option. Ludicrously turquoise water surrounded by sand as fine as talcum powder, an onsite restaurant and bar, sun lounges aplenty… and hammocks in the water!
Doing like the locals do we leisurely order nibbles, sit back and relax. Crisp-fried cassava chips, a vibrant salad showered with olives and flame-grilled juicy chicken chunks turn up with a side order of Brahma beers and coconut water straight out of the coconut.
Between snacks I devote my time to doing as many versions of nothing as I can. I sit and lazily flick through a magazine, I sprawl myself out across two sun lounges, and my favourite activity, by far, is relaxing in a hammock that's ingeniously positioned in the lagoon.
Sipping fresh coconut water as I loll in a hammock partially submerged in water that gently laps against my body… now that's real paradise.
Intrepid Travel's 14-day Northern Brazil tour starts in Rio de Janeiro and ends in Fortaleza. It's priced from $3860 per person (based on twin share). The trip includes an expert local guide, accommodation, transportation and some meals and activities. See intrepidtravel.com
LATAM Airlines operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. LATAM also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago four times per week in codeshare partnership with Oneworld partner airlines. See latam.com
All the charming suites overlook the pool at Pousada Carcara, a charming hotel that's only a few minutes walk from both the central square and the beach. See pousadacarcara.com.br
FIVE USEFUL TIPS ABOUT TRAVELLING TO JERICOACOARA
Australians need a visa to travel to Brazil and unless you're based in Sydney (where a two-day turnaround is possible at the Consulate-General of Brazil), applications can take up to 15 working days to process.
There are no ATMs in Jericoacoara and you'll want dosh to eat, drink and sightsee. The closest bank is in Jijoca (located about 20 kilometres from Jeri), however, it takes time to get there by 4WD and the bank doesn't open until midday.
The type N socket is the official standard in Brazil and even if you're a seasoned traveller you may not have this socket as it's used almost exclusively in Brazil. Brazil is also one of the few countries that doesn't have a standard voltage. Although most other places in Brazil use 110V electricity, Jericoacoara has a voltage of 220V.
MOTION SICKNESS MEDICATIONS
Most people arrive by 4WD. It gets bumpy so pack the pills/bands to minimise the damage if you think you might get sick.
Although not obligatory, if you're happy with the services provided a tip is fitting, especially for guides and drivers that spend a chunk of their time making sure you're having a good time.
Tatyana Leonov was a guest of Intrepid Travel
See also: South America's must-do experiences