Last time I wrote about Natal (Prohibition Town Blues) I was snowed under with abusive emails about the negative press I gave the place – the local tourist office even threatened to ‘send the boys round’. And so, being eternally fair to my readers, and not wanting to end up in a Brazilian hospital, I revisited my notes with a more open mind. For my money it’s still not all its cracked up to be, but there are sufficient interesting things to do there should you find yourself with five days to kill there.
5 Days in Natal
Got just a week off from work and want to see as much as possible? Simply print out this guide, add a six pack of beer and you are up and running. Don’t forget the sun cream though!
Day 1: The Dunes of Genipabu
Bombing around the beaches of Rio Grande do Norte in a buggy is somewhat of a local passion and has been a staple activity for tourists for the last tem years. Those of us who remember Natal before it was popular will be pleased to hear that now there is a licensing system for buggy drivers and most of the psychotic ones (whom I often felt were on some kind of special care in the community programme) have been weeded out – leaving only moderately sane drivers.
All drivers offer two tour options; with or without emotion. Being a founder member of the cowards club I have always opted for ‘without’, which is normally scary enough for me. With emotion involves hurtling down 90 degree dunes at mach 2 and some other improbable buggy driving skills.
Whatever you decide on, the tour will be something spectacular that you are unlikely to forget (my favourite buggy tour was with Nick “hold that pose there please” Kay, who has contributed many photos to the Brazil section of BootsnAll. As we came up a dune and pulled to a halt, for some unapparent reasons Nick simply fell off the buggy. He rolled half way down the dune before we could all stop laughing.)
Genipabu is a great place to head out for a buggy ride and offers the unique opportunity to take a camel ride along the dunes. Quite how these camels came to be on the beach in Natal is another long, and typically involved, urban legend, but if you feel the need to play Lawrence of Arabia for half an hour this is the place.
From Genipabu you can hotfoot it along the beach to Muriu for a succulent lunch of prawns and lobster (dirt cheap when it’s in season) before heading over to the Lagoa de Jucuma to partake in a little aerobunda. Aerobunda is the latest craze and involves whizzing down a stupidly long and high aerial sideway into the sea. Whatever next?
Day 2: See the Capital in all its glory
In the centre of town, which I promise not to ever describe again as the world’s worst urban disaster (the kind people at the tourist office threatened to knee cap me if I bad mouthed their city again) you can check out the tourist centre, the museum, the theatre, the church and the infamous Dutch fort.
Of course, last time I was there everything was closed – again – and I had to be content with looking at the outside of all the buildings and re-staging the storming of the fort (luckily I took along a couple of Dutch people as props). But people who are luckier than me tell me that you can easily kill half a day in the centre without too much effort.
From there, and if you don’t need a lay down after all this excitement, you can head off by taxi or bus to Ponta Negra for lunch. I am absolutely forbidden, by the knee-capping tourist agency, to describe the city as “a sad little beach town, no more than a strip of sunshades on the beach, some places to eat and some pousadas. A 50m high sand dune, fenced off less anyone should try to have some fun and climb it, looms over the far end of town. It feels like a border town.” So I wont.
There are actually some pretty good places to eat along there but they tend to keep weird opening times – you really have to follow the program and eat when the Brazilians eat which is normally about 12-2pm (or 11.30 – 4.15 at my university).
After downing a few cold ones whilst watching the sun set you can head off to the town’s top folkloric show (folkloric do Zas Tras) which, I am reliably told, is a fun filled night of joyous entertainment. Round the night off with a few beers in one of the local clubs – Chaplin’s seemed to be pretty kickin’ when I was last there or a beer at the local brewery where depressed looking waiters will fight to bring you home brewed beer.
Day 3: Go North Young Man!
Rent a buggy for the day, preferably with a driver, and spend the day pretending you are Magnum PI by speeding along the deserted northern beaches. Some places of beauty to check out on the way include; Prainha (reputably the most beautiful beach in Rio Grande do Notre) and Maracajau. Some of the best diving off the coast of South America can be had around here and there are many dive schools in town which can hook you up with some deep-sea adventures.
Day 4: A Day in the South
After filling up with the typically healthy Brazilian breakfast of cake, coffee, fruit and cold meat, head off to Pirangi. On my last trip I wrote that:
“The ride to Pirangi is sheer poetry. Off the main highway we bump along dusty roads, mud and red brick houses cuddle close to the road and we continually stop to let weary donkeys, loaded with sacks of corn, pass. In one town there is a market and as the bus arrives it blows up clouds of dust. The stall holders must spend hours each day wiping the dust from their fruit. Each stall has bananas, pineapples and some graviolas. Hung on hooks as they are they look like a sculpture in fruit of the Brazilian flag.”
Not only is the ride beautiful but you can visit, and this is truly something awesome, the world’s largest cashew tree which has an area of 8400m2 and produces some 60,000 fruits a year. From my notes last time I promised not to mention that, “I ask the bored looking guide, who has attached himself to us, if he thinks that the tree is just trying to go somewhere a little more lively. He is most definitely not impressed.”
From there you can take a scenic boat trip, about US$15, out onto the calm waters. Take plenty of film and lots of suncream. After a few cold beers, head on over to Pipa where the nightlife doesn’t really get going till the witching hour.
Day 5: Pipa and Praia do Amor
Some 80kms away from Natal is the famous beach of Pipa (avoid during carnival or new year as it will be packed to bursting with beered-up locals), where at times you can believe that you have found somewhere a little bit special. Spend the day tanning on the beach before joining the happy throngs to watch the sun set from the top of on of the local dunes. Spruce yourself up and head on out to sample some of Pipa’s infamous nightlife.
For more info check out:
10 Reasons for Going to Natal – according to a popular Brazilian travel magazine
1. You can visit the Dutch fort (Dutch people, unfortunately, not included) which was constructed in 1598. Its opening hours (according to the tourist information office) are from 8am to 4:30pm.
2. Shopping at the tourist centre. I agree on this. If ever there was a great place to buy tourist tat then this is it. Good value, great selection of tat and a really good juice bar outside which promises miracles and generally provides.
3. See the sun set over the Rio Potengi in the north of city. Does anyone else think these people at the tourist info office are on drugs?
4. Go drinking. Natal, according to proxima viagam, has some of the most funky night life in Brazil.
5. The church of Saint Antonio. This wonderful baroque church was inaugurated in 1799 and has a splendidly carved wooden altar piece (which reminds me of the time that I was in Wales and staggered out of the pub to have a pee in the local church yard. I had just zipped up my trousers when the local father wandered over. He pointed a finger at the ancient bell tower and said, “That’s Norman you know,” to which I replied, “yeah, and what’s the church called?”).
6. A night out in Ponta Negra – do you think they are labouring the point somewhat or want to turn all tourists in to slavering alcoholics?
7. Chaplin Night club – see point 6.
8. Buggy rides – oh yeah! Definitely – worth every penny.
9. Eat prawns – apparently the city is famous for them. I did have a wicked crunchy prawn soup at Ponta Negra which really was something to write home about and very cheap as well.
10. The folkloric show (Tel 211-1444)
Read Philip’s story on Natal: Prohibition Town Blues