I blinked awake, trying to determine if my eyes had properly opened or not. Yup, lids lifted. Confirmed. It was just pitch black both in and outside the bus I’d been on for the last six hours. I checked my phone, it was just after midnight. No service. I scanned the darkness outside my window. I guess this is Jijoca, I thought.
Sleepily, I gathered my things and headed for the exit. Sitting on my backpack in my dream-like state, I didn’t blink when the bus — the bus that had deposited us on the side of a dirt road in remote Northern Brazil — pulled away and headed back towards civilization.
My fellow travelers also seemed unconcerned, though to be fair I didn’t actually understand a word they were saying. A Brazilian family joked in still-mysterious Portuguese, two young blonde girls whispered in French, and a rowdy group of Israelis debated in Hebrew. I sat quietly, wondering what my final chapter in Brazil had in store for me.
Eventually, I heard surprised laughter and the crunch of wheels, and I looked up to see the source of the commotion: an ex-military dune buggy worthy of a Transformer movie credit, a monster-sized open-air vehicle designed to carry us the final stretch through unforgiving sand dunes to our final destination: Jericoacoara.
Known simply as “Jeri” to its loyal fanbase of bohemian wanderers, adrenaline-addicted adventurers and end-of-the-earth seekers, Jericoacoara is still a well-kept secret. Or perhaps, at least, a well-hidden one. Tucked amongst unpaved sand dunes in a remote National Park in the far reaches of Northern Brazil, it’s not the kind of place you simply stumble upon.
The next two hours felt like another surreal dream as we bounced through the endless desert, lit only by the full moon and our truck’s headlights, passing only the occasional cow or a glimpse of the dark ocean in the distance. The Israelis attempted to play guitar but the vehicle’s constant jerking back and forth was uncooperative, so they sang — loudly — instead. I thought of all the times I’d fretted that a seatmate might be disturbed by the sound of wayward audio from my headphones, and shook my head with a smile while secretly admiring their unapologetic gusto. Little did I know, in that moment, that they’d become my constant companions for the week.
It was after 2am when we crawled down off the monster truck and I took my bags and dragged them through the sand until I found Villa Chic. As I drifted off to sleep, again, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a dream.
The next day, I awoke to a reality that left me pinching myself. A cute pousada with a pool, a breakfast room filled with travelers swapping tales, and a charming town awaiting beyond the gate. I spent most of the first day hanging around the pousada catching up on work, wandering around town trying to set wheels in motion for a trip to the Lençóis Maranhenses, and just marveling at the fact that this tiny hidden town was already everything I had hoped for and more.
At sunset, I closed my laptop and walked down the unpaved, sandy path toward the beach. I was joined, it appeared, by the entire population of Jericoacoara, who gather nightly to watch the sunset with the same gravity that some might attend the opera. Arrive early for a good seat, get a drink, marvel at the show, and clap when it’s over.
Scanning the crowds with a fresh caipirinha in hand from a clever local with a drink cart, I saw a group from my hostel and gave myself the standard solo-traveler-pep-talk before forcing myself over for an introduction.
I almost cried with happiness when I realized they were real, live, native-English-speaking Brits. Be still my heart! After five weeks of body-language Olympics trying to communicate in Portuguese, my brain did a happy dance at going into auto-pilot. Later, I texted Heather. The backpackers of Brazil, I hath found them! They are in Jericoacoara! After weeks of traveling we’d yet to find a core of travelers on the so-called Gringo Trail. Now I knew where they’d been hiding. We joined a crowd gathered around a circle of capoeira dancers complete with live musicians, like a scene from a tightly edited music video. But this was no work of fiction — it was the nightly ritual of Jeri.
Saying goodbye to my new friends, I bought an acai bowl from a street vendor and wandered back towards the hotel, planning for a wild night of reading in my hammock under the stars. I smiled and waved when I saw the French girls from my bus, who I’d later learn were in fact French Canadians. “We’ve been looking for you,” they told me in broken English. “So have the Isrealis!” I tilted my head at them. “Tomorrow, we go on ATV tour.” Confused but intrigued, I agreed to meet them back at the same spot the next morning.
The next morning, I obediently arrived in the agreed upon location to find a fleet of ATVs and the warm greetings of long long friends. By the time we arrived back from the dunes that night — a trip you’ll read all about in an upcoming post — I’d invited myself to Shabbat dinner the next evening. You know Shabbat? They’d marveled, amazed, when I overheard them discussing cooking plans. Of course, I replied. I’m from New York.
That night, I went for dinner at the town’s lone Thai restaurant, and remembered how much I enjoy eating alone. When I thanked the restaurant owner with a kap kun ka, her eyes lit up and she pulled me down to chat, bringing over souvenirs from her last trip back home to Bangkok, which I oohed and ahhed dutifully over. You come again, she insisted. Next time I cook you real Thai food. My heart soared.
The next day, I blogged away happily by the pool again, closing up shop just before sunset. Eliko, the ringleader of our new travel tribe, texted me to look for them on horses. On horses?
Down by the water’s edge, I caught them out of the corner of my eye. Five horses, cantering down the wide end of a dune. Who owns these horses?, I asked, when I caught up and realized the group was without guides. Yahel looked at me like I had asked why the earth was flat. We borrowed them. Very cheap.
And so went the week, rushing by in a blur of sunsets and unsupervised horseback rides and acai on the beach and long caipirinha-fueled conversations about Brazil and Israel and travel and life.
We spent hours on the sand, spread out on cangas, planning my future trip to Tel Aviv, recounting the routes we’d taken to get to Jericoacoara, discussing the challenges of traveling while keeping kosher (at least one in the group was traveling with a full set of pans and utensils in order to strictly adhere) and observing the sabath (on Saturday, we rested), and trading stories of life on the road. One more ATV adventure into the dunes aside, it was just about all we did.
In a way, Jeri was lacking in quite a few of my favorite things. There were no cheap and charming spas, no yoga classes, no scenic jogging paths, very few trendy cafes, and little infrastructure for travelers. (Fellow fitness fiends, fear not — there was a rusty gym that I never bothered going into, and I did stumble onto an outdoor zumba class one night in a dimly-lit courtyard).
But, there was a fairly epic show every night on the beach as the sun made it’s final farewell beneath the sea.
And while I had certainly cemented my status as an honorary Israeli for the week — the whole crew even moved over to my hostel, lest we have to walk the six minutes between ours too many times — I made more friends in that one week than I had my previous five in Brazil. I went to the beach with a programmer from Belo Horizonte, a government worker from Brasilia, a Canadian border agent, and even one unfortunate American post-grad who left us all cringing. I instantly clicked with a British girl named Gwen who was in the midst of a kitesurfing course and made an excellent wine-drinking companion, and whom I adored so much I visited a few months later when in England. I was spoiled for company.
And what of visiting the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses, the primary factor that motivated me to travel to Jericoacoara? It simply didn’t happen, though not for lack of passion or trying. From the first day I arrived in Jeri, I made daily rounds to the town’s travel agencies and hotels, hoping to find a tour to join. I quickly learned that I’d have to form my own group in order to take the multi-day trip across the desert. To my shock, I couldn’t find a single person who was also planing to go. As someone who’d dreamed of visiting this surreal and magical place for years, I couldn’t fathom that every single person in Jeri wasn’t also headed in that direction, even deeper into these wild dunes.
Technically I could have shouldered the burden of paying for the guide and driver and truck and other expenses alone, but it was wince-ingly expensive to do by myself, and it gave me great pause to consider going deep into the wilderness alone with what would surely be two men and little shared language between us. If I were to create a flow chart of my emotions as I struggled to get to and eventually ceded the idea of visiting the Lençóis Maranhenses, I would say it started strong and determined, quickly tipped downward into sadness and desperation, and slowly evened out to, who could be upset about anything, when there’s a sunset so gorgeous I have no choice but to applaud it?
Yes, it’s unfortunate. I was hours away from one of my dream destinations in peak season for visiting, and my circumstances prevented me from making the final journey. But it speaks to the magic of Jericoacoara that honestly, I’m not that broken up about it.
It was one of my favorite weeks of my travels, one I still look back on wistfully and with a smile. Turns out, I made the perfect decision on where to spend my final stretch in Brazil. Out there in the dunes, eight bumpy hours from civilization, people came together in a way that after five years of travel, I know is special. I say this about a lot of places, but I will be back to Jericoacoara. Perhaps to tackle the Lençóis Maranhenses, perhaps to take the kitesurfing course I’ve been lusting after for years…
or perhaps just to watch a few more sunsets.
Till next time, Jericoacoara…