South America Brazil
Destination: Unplug in Brazil's Fortaleza
Fortaleza may be a buzzing metropolis—but tawny beaches, fishing boats and bars with hammocks are close at hand
BY COLIN BARRACLOUGH | PHOTOGRAPHY BY YADID LEVY
The Fortaleza shoreline; on Iguape Beach, near Fortaleza, two boys take a break on a jangada, a traditional fishing boat; navigating the sands at Cumbuco, northwest of Fortaleza.
It was salt and pepper that first attracted the Portuguese to the sultry coastline of northeastern Brazil. Drawn by abundant natural assets, they defeated both the local Tabajara tribe and Dutch incursionists to cement their rule in what is now Fortaleza, capital of the Brazilian state of Ceará (pronounced see-ar-ah). Today the destination is one of Brazil’s best-kept secrets. Some 400 miles of palm-fringed coast is home to salt flats, lagoons and towering dunes of shifting sand that rise as high as 300 feet and stretch for miles in unbroken ridges. Sea breezes moderate the equatorial heat.

In places the soft bleached sand is broken by sleepy villages of coconut glades and crumbling Portuguese-era churches. Life here has changed little over the centuries. On a timetable set by the tides, fishermen launch their curved-masted flat-bottomed jangadas—boats reminiscent of Nile feluccas but unique to Brazil’s northeast—directly from the beach. Lace makers in thatch-roofed shacks use wooden looms to weave local variants on old Portuguese designs. Recipes handed down over generations transform freshly caught seafood into hearty manioc-rich stews. And during the siesta hour and at night, hammocks are used in place of beds.

Gateway to the Coast
The jumping-off spot for exploring the coastline is the port city of Fortaleza, a fast-paced commercial center with a population of more than two million. The region’s finely executed arts  and crafts are best displayed in the downtown’s Mercado Central (199 Av. Alberto Nepomuceno; 55-85-3454-8586), where some 500 vendors offer a bewildering variety of lace, leatherwork and ceramics. Nearby at the Centro de Turismo do Ceará (350 Rua Senador Pompeu; 55-85-8825-8997), artisans demonstrate traditional methods in what was once the city’s prison. Today former cells are decorated with colorful lace and locally made fabrics.

By day, wander the Centro downtown district to observe the local way of life. Sample some freshly squeezed cajá or murici juice—tropical fruits that are exotic even to many Brazilians—at one of the ubiquitous juice stands. Around you, shirtless boys three to a bicycle will go teetering by, while old men chat beneath the rubbery leaves of a mango tree. At every turn you’ll see the Brazilian love of color in the turquoise, ocher and ultramarine hues of painted storefronts and houses. High-volume samba and silky bossa nova music mark the rhythms of daily life.

Brazilians’ sheer enthusiasm for music and dance makes the Theatro José de Alencar a compelling stop (525 Rua Liberato Barroso; 55-85-3101-2583). The popular arts center is housed in an eclectic building: Behind a classical stone facade is an arcaded Art Nouveau edifice of wrought iron and stained glass (which was made in Glasgow and shipped over in 1910 for the building’s inauguration). Performances often spill out into the public square beyond or into a diminutive garden designed by Roberto Burle Marx, the modernist Brazilian landscape architect best known for laying out Rio’s Copacabana Beach promenade.

Seaside Soul
While the Centro district is undeniably lively, Fortaleza’s soul lies by the sea. Back in the 1950s, a group of Brazilian poets created a bohemian café scene at Iracema Beach (Praia de Iracema), and locals still flock there today. Along the two-mile promenade, you’ll spot them sipping guava juice or snacking on rice and beans at kiosks on the sand.

After dusk the bars and restaurants housed in the city’s last remaining century-old houses come alive. Watch for groups of white-clad dancers performing capoeira, a ritual martial art invented centuries ago in the northeast by the descendants of slaves. A single-stringed instrument, the berimbau, sets the pace as dancers spin, leap and lunge with grace and agility, kicking high over the heads of their opponents. Capoeira is often danced spontaneously among friends at the beach, and at open-air schools, such as Mestre Kim’s (kimcapoeira.com; Iracema Beach on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 8–9 p.m.).

If you follow the Avenida Beira Mar farther east along the coast, you’ll reach Meireles Beach (Praia do Meireles),  which has an upmarket strip of high-rise hotels. The oceanfront restaurants here serve alfresco meals of lobster and prawns; crab is the traditional dish on Thursday night. If you’re interested in trying the superb native cuisine, start with peixada, a coconut-milk-based fish chowder unique to Ceará. After your meal, browse at the nightly Feirinha da Beira Mar handicrafts fair (Av. Beira Mar and Av. Des. Moreira).
    
Winding Down
Fortaleza’s city limits quickly give way to another world. Just 16 miles to the northwest, near the tranquil village of Cumbuco, powerful breakers and a laid-back scene draw surfers. A new road brings paragliders and kitesurfers looking to soar on the bracing afternoon breezes. Here you can ride horseback through beachside palm groves, try your hand at fishing from a jangada or skid and slide by dune buggy down the dips and up the peaks of a sand dune. The buggy, which has soft tires and a stripped-down interior, is a practical means of transportation, but driving one takes skill and attention: While the beach may look flat, it’s riven with inlets and dips, promontories and peninsulas. A dune’s gentle gradient can be rutted with drifts and moguls.

Life on the coast quickly falls into a languid, easy pattern. After a breakfast of mango, papaya and rich Brazilian coffee, you’ll spend the morning exploring the beach. Eventually you stumble upon a nameless tumbledown shack that seems to appear out of nowhere. There you’re greeted by a friendly restaurateur who brings you a plate of grilled grouper—or some other catch—accompanied by rice and roasted manioc. Once you’ve eaten, he’ll gesture toward the hammocks thoughtfully provided for sated diners. Settle in where you can watch the cashew and palm branches moving gently in the breezes and waves breaking loudly into towers of froth.

Head southeast of Fortaleza and things get sleepier still. A modern highway parallels the coast, but the most interesting villages are accessible only by boat, horse or dune buggy. Iguape, 30 miles from Fortaleza, is isolated from the world by sandy tracks. Here red-tiled shacks open onto tiny gardens where coconuts and bananas grow. Fishermen spend their days throwing weighted nets into the breakers and hauling their jangadas onto the sand on felled palm trunks. Beneath glades of stately carnauba palms, lace makers create delicate floral designs using wooden bobbins and burlap cushions.
 
There are plenty of reasons to drive on—the string of delightful beaches continues almost unbroken down Brazil’s northeast coast. Twenty miles farther, cliffs of colored sand edge the beach at Morro Branco. After dusk, crickets and cicadas set up a steady hum in the darkness broken only by the croaking of frogs and the crashing of waves. Adventurous types may be tempted to tackle the entire journey along the beach in a dune buggy, braving breakdowns and blowouts on the five-day, 300-mile haul to the city of Natal. But for most visitors, Morro Branco marks a convenient point to turn back and head northwest until the skyscrapers of Fortaleza once more shimmer into view through the haze of heat on the horizon.

EAT
Colher de Pau
Named for the wooden spoon used in local kitchens, this restaurant specializes in Cearense cuisine, serving ample portions at outside tables. Look for paçoca de pilão, sun-dried beef ground with manioc flour and red onions, and peixe á delìzia, fish with melted cheese, herbs and spices. 1178 Rua Ana Bilhar, Meireles, Fortaleza; 55-85-3267-6680; dinner for two, $70*

Coco Bambu Frutos do Mar
The slick seafood presentation includes camarões jangadeiro (breaded prawns on rice) and whitefish with white wine. 3698 Av. Beira Mar, Meireles, Fortaleza; 55-85-3198-6000; dinner for two, $50

Cemoara
A chic upmarket eatery, a block from the ocean,  specializing in grilled lobster. Try cashews for dessert. 166 Rua Joaquim Nabuco, Meireles, Fortaleza; 55-85-3242-8500; dinner for two, $80

Sabor da Praia
Expertly prepared food in a laid-back surfers’ hangout. The lobster is grilled and served with coconut and lemon. 1 Rua Almirante Pedro de Frontin, Cumbuco; 55-85-3318-7455; dinner for two, $40

*Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.

STAY
RCI affiliated resorts near Fortaleza, Brazil, include:

Beach Park Suites Resort 8768 This 198–suite resort offers refined cuisine, a charming beach and a huge water park. 2734 Rua Porto das Dunas, Aquiraz (about 22 miles southeast of Fortaleza)
Member Reviews: “I traveled alone and enjoyed the week. The big pool and the hydro gym were fantastic for burning breakfast calories.”
“The restaurant at the hotel serves excellent food, and every night, they have family activities, such as ‘Guess the music’ and hide-and-seek. The staff went out of their way to help. If you’ve got kids, the resort has full-day attractions for them.”

Oceani Resort C531
This family-friendly 131-room resort has beach volleyball courts, tennis courts and games galore. 455 Av. dos Golfinhos, Aquiraz
Member Review: “The interaction between the hotel staff and children is good. This hotel has a good synergy, and the best entertainment park in the region.”

Beach Park Acqua C792
A 123-room retreat with a warm-water spa and an aquagym, plus a delightful artificial river that delivers guests to the Beach Park recreation area. 34 Via Local, Aquiraz

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.


Non-RCI affiliated resorts:

Hotel Gran Marquise
A beachfront location, helpful staff and comfortable beds make this 230-room upper-end property one of the best in town. 3980 Av. Beira Mar, Fortaleza; 55-85-4006-5000; granmarquise.com.br; doubles from $250 per night

Hotel Pousada Jardim
A friendly B&B in a handsome red-tiled house surrounded by a verdant garden. The generous, varied breakfast is terrific. 950 Rua Ildefonso Albano, Fortaleza; 55-85-3226-9711; hoteljardim.jimdo.com; doubles from $85 per night

Hotel Sonata de Iracema
A solid mid-range property with 117 spacious rooms in a handy location on Iracema Beach. 848 Av. Beira Mar, Fortaleza; 55-85-4006-1600; sonatadeiracema.com.br; doubles from $100 per night

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.

Published: Summer 2013 
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