Jericoacoara, Ceara (1 of 2)

Jeri at dusk
Is it or isn’t it? No place has generated so much interest from so many people. It seems that everyone has an opinion. Some people love it, go there for a few days and never leave, whilst others simply hate it and can’t wait to leave. Some have heard of it and plan to go there one day whilst others are convinced that it is a myth dreamed up by the world’s media moguls. I am one of the few people who still sit on the fence – sometimes it moves me to tears and sometimes I just can’t find peace there.

I am, of course talking about Jericoacoara, or as us old South America hands know it, Jeri. Less a beach than an urban legend, which if it did not exist I would probably have to invent anyway to keep my friends back home jealous. It is a place that sprung into public awareness when a number of magazines and even the New York Post rated it as the world’s best beach. I am not especially a beach lover much preferring the countryside of my youth, but the opportunity to spend the dying days of the millennium on the world’s best beach was something I could not resist. The romance of a chilled bottle of vintage champagne, the sun bleached sea and my girlfriend sharing a rare moment of tranquillity was inspiration enough to shake off my inertia, dig out my camera and head north.

Jeri was, till about 15 years ago, an isolated fisherman village, without any contact with modern civilization. There were no roads, no electricity, no phones, no TV’s, no newspapers, and money was something almost useless, since deals were based on trading fish for goods. I was there a few weeks ago, and things have changed a little bit – it is no longer possible to barter a haddock or even a kipper for an icy cold beer and some may say that civilisation has arrived with a vengeance.

In 1984 the place was declared an “Environment Protection Area” by a federal law which has presumably limited the town’s development – I think it is only the third place in the world where I couldn’t buy a McDonalds. Although to some extent tourism has reached the place it still keeps the unhurried and peaceful way of life.

Because of the EPA law, it is forbidden to hunt, pollute, construct roads, and buildings are limited to the village area (the EPA has 200 sq km, and the village is 1 sq km) which, for me, looks like the type of place war-torn foreign correspondents either go for a vacation or to learn their trade. Building of more accommodation was forbidden in 1992, in order to limit the quantity of tourists (but not, I am sad to say, the quality,) in the place. The streets of the main square are covered in blown sand; it would be a futile task to keep them otherwise. Each day there is more sand than the night before, one day, perhaps the sand will reclaim with its rightfully its own and peace will once again return. It is unlikely that I will return to see this for, aside from my restless nature, the sand is much more patient that I am. But eventually it will happen.

At 3am on a humid December evening we left the relative comforts of our normal tourist bus in the small town of Jijoca de Jericoacoara (a small village which exists it seems to sell tourists beers and hammocks – which no South American traveller should ever be without), from here on no roads exist and only the skill of the local drivers can get you to Jeri relatively unscathed. I mingled with the tourists and locals. I was tired, disorientated and overwhelmed by the hawkers – small children peddling cases of beer, the smells of twenty different food stalls, shouts of departing bus drivers and the flicker of hurricane lamps. Once again my mind wandered, to England so many miles away and so foreign to me now. The movement, the life and the language warmed me and gave me hope – it was good to be back on the road again.

From this point the trip became more interesting as we transferred to an ancient pick-up truck, which my fantastic guide book to the area had warned me “will probably be falling apart anyway”. The one I travelled in certainly was and was held together with the requisite number of pictures of saints, bits of wire and a lot of luck. As we bounced through the night, the dunes remained as enigmatic as the name Jericoacoara.

Although there are several versions for the origin of the name “Jericoacoara”, the most probable is that it is indigenous, from the tupi-guarani language: yuruco(hole) + cuara(turtle), meaning “hole of the turtles”, in a reference to the fact that Jericoacoara is a beach where sea turtles come to make holes to lay their eggs. But some old fishermen do not agree with this version taken out of history books. They say that the name has it’s origin in the small hill beside the village (where the lighthouse is situated). The hill, when seen from high seas, has the shape of a laying alligator, which in a local expression would be “Jacareqüara”, and with time the name ended up changing to Jericoacoara.

Accommodation, native style

It had been sometime since I was last clinging on to the back of a pick-up truck for dear life (thankfully, like riding a bike, it is a skill you don’t easily forget), and by the time our driver dropped us off outside our rented house, I was bruised, shaken and totally exhilarated. The sun was just beginning to colour the sky as we slung our hammocks and went off along deserted sandy streets in search of a calming beer.

Although the beach is said to be one of the world’s best, many travellers’ first impressions have been somewhat disappointing. Generally, there is a hard wind blowing and you feel sandblasted with grey sand after only few minutes. To find a place in the sea deep enough for swimming you could possibly walk miles – I gave up when I reached the customs post in Gabon. So this is definitely not the place for hanging on the beach – most people go there to soak up the hedonistic party atmosphere not admire the stunning dunes. But after all, isn’t that what beach life is all about?

If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.

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