Ribbons of dunes trap the rains.
Ribbons of dunes trap the rains.

A Sea of Dunes

Conjured by wind and water, a magical sandscape on the northeastern coast of Brazil is no mirage.

Seen from the air, the dunes look like white linens hung out to dry on a windy afternoon. In fact, the name of this place, Lençóis Maranhenses, means the "bedsheets of Maranhão," the state in Brazil on the tropical northeastern coast where the half-moon-shaped dunes are found. By any name it is a magical desert, with wave after wave of shimmering white sand. Shoals of silvery fish swim in brilliant blue and green pools left behind by the rains. Shepherds lead caravans of goats over towering dunes. And fishermen head out to sea, guided only by the stars and the ghosts of old shipwrecks.

"It feels like a parallel world," says Carolina Alvite, former director of the 600-square-mile national park created three decades ago to protect this unlikely ecosystem. It's as if the sea near the Bahamas suddenly appeared like a mirage in the middle of the Sahara.

Only in this desert the mirage is real.

Read This Next

Battle to control America’s ‘most destructive’ species: feral pigs

How coffee can help forests grow faster

The forgotten fossil hunter who transformed Britain’s Jurassic Coast

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet