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On Brazil's northeast coast, an oasis beckons

John Briley travels to northeast Brazil in mid-September with four friends on a kite-surfing safari.

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By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 8, 2010; 12:57 PM

Arriving in Jericoacoara, a fishing-turned-tourist village nestled in the dunes of a national park on Brazil's northeast coast, is like coming upon an oasis after days of wandering the Sahara: People! Action! Cocktails! Retail! I haven't been roaming the desert for days, just bouncing for 30 minutes through a desert-like landscape in the back of a dune buggy. But Jericoacoara (pronounced Jerry-kwah-KWAHR-ah and known, mercifully, as just Jeri) is by far the most touristy settlement for miles around, and brings a rare hint of Brazil's raucous southern beach towns to the more subdued north.

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For me, Jeri prompts conflicting emotions. The 20-something Briley sees the cafes, bars and tanned, barefoot backpackers wandering the sand streets and says, "Let's party!" But 15 years have intervened since I was actually a 20-something, and Briley circa 2010 has a competing impulse: "Get what you need and let's get outta here."

It's not that there's anything wrong with Jeri. In fact, until recently it was an extraordinarily special place: Into the early 1980s, money wasn't used here (the barter system prevailed), and travelers slept not in the pousadas, or guest houses, that dominate today but in hammocks slung on locals' porches. Electricity didn't arrive until 1992.

The town remains small and charming. Coconut and cashew trees sway over tile-roofed restaurants, shops and pousadas. They sell a lot of flip-flops here, but the prevailing footwear is bare. The vast majority of locals - human, canine, equine and porcine - are friendly and harmless, and you can see in the tourists' lazy gait the settling effect that Jeri can have on the spirit.

But these days the cafes, shops and kite-surfing schools blend into one another, as do the wayfaring hippies and hawkers. Motorcycles and dune buggies, some under questionable control, vie for space on the narrow streets with donkey carts and pedestrians.

Jeri is ideal for a hot meal, a cold beer and a killer view, but I hadn't come to this sliver of Brazil, a remote outpost of endless beaches and otherworldly dune-scapes, to party with itinerant youth. Besides, with Jeri's growth over the past 20 years, resorts have sprung up in far mellower villages nearby, so travelers can stay near - but not in - Jericoacoara and dip into the park as desired.

Dust and dunes

I'm in northeast Brazil in mid-September with four friends on a kite-surfing safari. The wind rips all along this coast from July into December due to thermals that fire like clockwork: Daytime temperatures climb into the 90s, and as that hot air rises over the land, cooler air from the 80-degree ocean blitzes in to fill the gap.

We started our trip in Cumbuco, a small town about 15 miles northwest of Fortaleza. Cumbuco's rutted streets and weedy, half-built lots could use a makeover, but the town is evolving quickly, carried almost exclusively by the burgeoning kite-surfing scene. Numerous beachfront resorts, like Windtown, where we stayed, tempt visitors with gated, manicured grounds, swimming pools and open-air bars.

It's a familiar scene all along the coast, and we see it as far up as Barra Grande, in Piaui state, three hours west of Jericoacoara. A poorly marked, potholed road snakes down from the highway, eventually terminating in a sleepy, dusty town where the most visible and freshly painted sign screams, "Kitesurf School!"

We find our most tranquil base in Prea, eight miles east of Jeri. A maze of sand roads winds through the sedate fishing village, eventually depositing us at Rancho do Peixe (the Fish Ranch), a sprawling resort almost hidden in a forest of coconut trees.

We park our rented VW hatchbacks, and a donkey cart appears to shuttle our luggage to the bungalows. All the public spaces here are open-air - wood-plank platforms shaded by high thatched roofs and linked by sandy paths.

Modernity is not absent - a 37-inch flat screen TV sits in the lobby, WiFi reaches throughout the property, and there is a well-stocked kite-boarding center - but the overarching feel is simple comfort. The food is good, the bar serviceable and the vibe sans souci. It doesn't hurt that we have the 20-bungalow resort almost to ourselves, save for a honeymooning German couple and two other pairs whom we see only fleetingly.

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