by John Clites
At the point where Brazil juts farthest east into the south Atlantic, you’ll find sunny, beachside Natal, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte — mostly unknown among American travelers.
They’re missing out. Because it’s a wonderful destination for anybody looking not only for a sandy, surfside escape… but a bit of adventure, too.
Natal, with its population of 800,000, has a thriving downtown. But the major draw is the beach in the Punta Negra district. There you can grab a chair, wave-side, and order drinks and lunch. Sun too strong? Request an umbrella — though with the steady onshore breezes to keep you cool, you aren’t likely to need one.
Given Natal’s location, it is no surprise that seafood is a big draw. I recommend two restaurants: Camaroes (for shrimp) and Casa do Carangeju (for crab). Tip: In this area, plates are often intended to be shared by two people. Inquire when you order.
After lunch, stroll to the nearby shops, where you’ll find reasonably priced local handicrafts — like small, brightly colored figurines for fifty cents.
Or, if you prefer something more active, try boogie boarding, windsurfing, or kite surfing. Lessons are available, and the steady breezes here make this an ideal location to learn.
While the beach at Punta Negra is charming, be sure to set aside one day to ride in a dune buggy. You can book a bugueiro to pick you up at your hotel early and take you through an exhilarating all-day excursion.
You’ll ride a ferry and be poled across a river on a raft on your way to an adrenaline-packed ride through the dunes, a la The Rat Patrol. You’ll shoot over crests, slamming down the far side, then slue into a sideways slide — enough action to kick up the heart rate of even the most bold. (Note: Bugueiros are required to carry an official license and to keep to designated areas to avoid damage to the dunes.)
For something calmer, head south along the coast for an afternoon to the artists’ enclave of Pipa. There you can enjoy a light lunch with a Brahma beer while you sit at a table planted in the shallows, your toes playing in the Atlantic. Then meander through the narrow cobbled streets and shop for clothing or one-of-a-kind art work by regional artists.
While nightlife in Natal is tame compared to Rio and Sao Paolo, you can enjoy the traditional dance show at Punta Negra’s Casa do Carangueju. As an alternative, the liveliest night club in town is Bogart’s, a 7-minute taxi ride from Punta Negra, which features three different types of music under one roof. Many hotels and cabbies offer discount coupons for entry.
For more information about Natal, visit: http://www.natal-brazil.com/.
If You Go:
To get there: Natal is served by Augusto Severo International airport (NAT). American Airlines has service to NAT. For help booking in a flight, contact Brazilian Wave Tours in Ft. Lauderdale (954-561-3788).
Visas: Currently U.S. citizens need a visa to visit Brazil, which costs $100 and is generally good for 5 years. For details, visit http://www.brazilsf.org/other_consulates_eng.htm. Note: The Brazilian legislature is moving to lift the visa requirement.
Language: The official language of Brazil is Portuguese, though Spanish spoken slowly is often understood. You’ll find English-speaking staff at most hotels and restaurants in Natal, and many beach vendors speak a bit.
Where to stay: A great value in a great location is VIP Flats (http://www.vippraiahotel.com.br). Contact them for rates, which vary with the season. Rates include tax and a wonderful full Brazilian breakfast.
Renting a car: Unless you are adventurous, hire a local driver. While the roads in Natal proper are good, and the drivers less aggressive than elsewhere in Brazil, the roads deteriorate quickly once you leave town, and signage is poor at best.
Money: The currency of Brazil is the real (pronounced HAY-all). At press time, one US dollar buys about 1.96 reais (HAY-eyes, the plural form). One real buys roughly what one dollar does back home, although you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that food and drink are relatively cheap throughout Brazil.
Tipping: While not required, tipping is becoming more common with the influx of Europeans. 10% is considered a good tip. Check first to see whether a charge for service was added to your bill.
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