Things to Do in Natal
With its white sands, palm-studded dunes, and coral reef, Maracajau Beach makes a picturesque alternative to nearby Natal. Sip caipirinhas at a beach bar or snorkel amid schools of tropical fish in what’s dubbed the Brazilian Caribbean.
South of the city, Ponta Negra Beach (Praia de Ponta Negra) is one of Natal’s most accessible beaches and fills up with locals on the weekends.
It’s a popular spot year-round and has seen a fair amount of development along its 3km (1.8mi) stretch. Its northern end has a pedestrian-only boardwalk and a few large resorts and tends to be a lot less lively than the rest of the beach, which is chock-full of restaurants, bars, pousadas, surfers and travelers.
Apart from taking its fair share of the natural beauty that seems to be a given along Natal’s coastline, Ponta Negra’s most impressive natural attraction is an enormous sand dune - the Morro da Careca - whose 120m (390ft) slopes sheer directly into the sea. These days, its sandy slopes can only be appreciated from the beach due to increased erosion and damage to the surrounding rainforest.
This large sand dune located in the center of the city of Natal has become the main symbol of the city and the state of Rio Grande do Norte. Pictures of Morro do Careca grace the front of most all Natal postcards.
Covered in part by lush green vegetation, it rises 120 meters from the ground below at the southern end of Ponta Negra beach—one of Natal’s most popular. Its combination of rich Atlantic forest and smooth sand surface gives it its name, due to a visual likeness to a bald head. Once a popular recreation spot for skibunda (sand boarding,) it is now prohibited to climb the hill for the natural preservation of the forest and for erosion prevention. Colorful Brazilian fishing boats called jangadas dot the coastline beneath it. Morro de Careca remains a iconic place for beach-goers and photos.
Considered to be one of Brazil's ten most beautiful beaches, Pipa Beach (Praia da Pipa) is in fact not one beach, but four beaches, that between them stretch for over 10km (6.2mi).
Backed by coconut palm plantations, sand dunes, cliffs and Atlantic forest, the beaches are spectacular, while the warm waters of the surrounding ocean attract native turtles and dolphins.
Pipa first became popular with surfers in the 80s and its fame spread, causing the little beach town of the same name to grow accordingly. Pipa town is now the place to party and traditional Brazilian music (as well as non-traditional!) is a nightly feature here. The town is also good for shopping.
Pipa is surrounded by natural beauty and there are plenty of adventure activities available here to help you experience it first-hand.
This long, white sand beach outside of Natal is divided into two parts by the Pirangi river, creating the areas Pirangi do Norte and Pirangi do Su. Its calm, turquoise waters make it popular for swimming and water sports like surfing and diving, so competitions often take place on the beach.
There are also clear natural pools located 500 meters from the coast. Boat trips to the swimming pools, as well as coral reefs and other beaches, run frequently, and it's best to visit the swimming pools at low tide. There is a long boardwalk that makes it fun and easy to explore the shoreline, while a side trip to the massive Pirangi Cashew Tree — the largest of its kind in the world — is a main draw to this area, so don’t miss it!
If the string of shallow coral reefs that grace Natal’s gorgeous, sandy coastline could be called a necklace, then Maracajaú Reef (Parrachos de Maracajaú) is its biggest, most beautiful jewel.
Known as Parrachos de Maracajaú, (coral reef of Maracajaú) this complex reef formation full of coral, iridescent fish and other marine life, covers over 3.5 acres (15 sq km) and is about 7km (4mi) offshore from Maracajaú beach.
It is possible to dive in the area but, if you time your visit with the low tide, its natural pools are shallow enough for some fabulous snorkelling – possibly Brazil’s best. Floating in the warm, clear water above a coral garden as dozens of fish dart around you is a memorable way to spend the afternoon.
Most people visit Maracajaú on a tour. A boat will take you from the beach out to the floating platforms - a jumping off point to the reef but also a handy rest stop should you wish to come up for the occasional breather.
At first glance, it seems as if you’re looking at an intricate forest— but this massive network of branches is actually just one cashew tree whose circumference measures 500 yards, producing over 60,000 nuts per year. It holds the Guinness Book of World Records spot for the biggest cashew tree in the world.
Covering an area of nearly 8,000 square meters and roughly the size of 70 normal-sized cashew trees, it can be difficult to distinguish between the original tree trunk and the rest of the tree. The massive branches extend sideways and eventually also take root and continue to grow across the land around it. Though its exact origins are unknown, it is believed to have grown due to a genetic abnormality and is over 1,000 years old. If accompanied by a tour guide, visitors are allowed to pick cashews right from the tree. There is also a large observation deck 10 meters high that allows for a panoramic view of the tree.
The star-shaped Fort of the Magi (Forte dos Reis Magos) predates the founding of Natal by nearly two years. The Portuguese began building the fort on January 6, 1598, the same day they celebrated Epiphany, hence the name and shape of the fort.
Natal, named after the Portuguese word for ‘Christmas’, was founded 23 months later on December 25, 1599.
Religious considerations aside, the decision to build the fort at the mouth of the Potengi River was purely a strategic one. Located on a sand bar that is covered at high-tide and positioned at Brazil’s easternmost point, Forte de Reis Magos was ideally placed to defend the continent from European and African advances.
The whitewashed and turreted fort walls were built to last and inside you’ll find a chapel, a well, cannons and soldiers' quarters. If you don’t come for the history, come for the views – its prime location at the tip of the peninsula affords fantastic vistas across the city to the south and the surrounding sand dunes.
Natal is known for its spectacular beaches and Barra do Canhaú is no exception. Its clear waters and white sands are backed by palm trees and mangroves, as saltwater meets freshwater at the mouth of the Curimatau River. Canhaú, the small fishing village near the beach of the same name, has retained many of its original charms.
More Things to Do in Natal
Genipabu is a beach village known for its large sand dunes and freshwater lagoons. There are a few different ways to explore the mounds of shifting sand, with varying degrees of adrenaline — from camel rides to sand buggies to sand-boarding (esquibunda or skibunda) down the hot dunes and into the cool water.
The winds shifting across the sand means that the landscape of Genipabu is always changing. The sands pile up into dunes that rise and fall, creating ridges and mounds across the shores and eventually plunging into the sea. Certain areas of the dunes are accessible only by certified dune buggy drivers, who will ask if you want your ride “with emotion” or without, to determine the level of desired thrills. Sand boarding into the lagoons’ fresh water is a great way to beat the heat.
No matter the method of adventure you choose, the unique landscape and natural beauty of both the sand and water at Genipabu is worth seeing. Afternoon is a particularly popular time to visit, with the sunset being a highlight for many.
Via Costeira, also known as Senador Dinarte Mariz Avenue, is a significant beachfront walkway and paved road that extends from Ponta Negra beach in Natal. It is one of the most important avenues in Natal, with two lanes in each direction and no traffic lights. It winds along the coastline and is popular with visitors for its views of the beaches.
At 12 kilometers long, it climbs through Natal’s coast up to Meio Beach. It is bordered on one side by a secluded beach full of Natal hotels, and on the other by the Dunes Park natural protected area. It connects all of the local urban beaches of Natal with the city center, with Redinha Beach connected via the Newton Navarro Bridge. The sidewalk of the road is great for walking and biking, with access to different beaches throughout the route.
The Natal Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Natal) was recently restored and is decidedly modern, making for an interesting stop in the city and an architectural landmark worth seeing. Its jagged shape and use of stained glass and light are departures from traditional cathedral design. Three interlocking crosses stand at the front entrance.
It is dedicated to the Lady of Presentation, the patron saint for which the city of Natal gets its name. Natal translates to Christmas in Portuguese and the city is was founded on Christmas Day in 1599, so there is a statue of the Virgin Mary in the cathedral designating this fact. The cathedral was famously visited by Pope John Paul II, and the site's small chapel has several beautiful paintings to see. Mass takes place daily, and a small basement shop sells souvenirs.
This large pool of fresh water grants a place to rest and refresh from the sun, wind, sand and adventure of the Natal beaches. Though nearly five meters deep at its center, it is shallow around the edges, making it a popular place with all types of swimmers. Its stunningly clear waters make this a scenic place to kayak, paddle board, and fish.
Surrounded by the towering sand dunes of the area, it is accessible only by a small trail or on a dune buggy over the sands. Once you arrive, there are several areas to relax, including restaurants and bars serving local dishes and fresh seafood. If adventure is more your style, the local aerobunda (zip lining over the dunes with a dip in the lagoon) or skibunda (sliding down the sand on a wooden board) are both a few of the activities available that will get your heart pumping. Snorkeling among the lagoon’s small fish is another option.
Baia Formosa translates to “beautiful bay,” a fitting name for this scenic city in eastern Rio Grande do Norte, bordering the nearby state of Paraíba. It is a well-known South American surfing spot with areas for both beginning and advanced surfers.
The central fishing village of Baia Formosa is home to many scenic beaches and lush landscapes, with green, preserved Atlantic forests and mangroves and a nearby lake known as “Coca Cola lake” for its dark reddish color. There are no paved roads outside of the main one that leads into town, and with numerous colorful fishing boats dotting the turquoise bay, the village maintains its quaint feel and charm. Some of the area’s smaller beaches are accessible only by dune buggy.
Popular with swimmers, the “Lagoa da Coca Cola” water is rich in iron and iodine and is believed to have curative properties. There are also three rivers that run alongside the bay, including the Guaju River where sea cows can be spotted.
Tranquil Jacumã Beach (Praia de Jacumã) is surrounded by reefs that break up incoming waves, creating a peaceful environment and a cove that is ideal for swimming. The white sand beach is lined with tall palm trees that provide shade.
Located in the small fishing village of Jacumã, it is a relatively secluded beach not inundated with tourists or beach-goers. Known for its calm waters, tropical scenery, and fresh seafood, Jacumã Beach is a refuge away from the winds and the crowds of other Brazilian beaches.
For those craving a bit more adventure than relaxation, the nearby Jacumã Lagoon is a popular stop on dune buggy tours. The lagoon is naturally formed from rainwater falling on the sand dunes. Both “aerobunda,” or zip lining across the dunes, over the water and finally into the lagoon, and “skibunda” or boarding down the sand dunes into the lagoon as well, are available here.
Of Brazil’s many beaches, Cacimbinhas (Praia da Cacimbinhas) is known both for being a quieter beach — accessed only by walking down a long staircase — and for its wind sports. It’s a popular place for both kitesurfing and paragliding. The beach is framed by tall cliffs, which overlook the sprawling shoreline, turquoise waters, and reddish sand dunes below.
At almost 5 kilometers long, there are also expansive views of the coast between Tibau do Sul and Pipa. Walking down to the beach area grants visitors a more private, secluded Brazilian beach experience. Dolphins can be spotted in the waters off the coast. Others explore the Atlantic forest or the red sand dunes from which the beach gets its name.
With a lack of crowds, the remote beach is a favorite for those seeking calm. Surfing and swimming are other popular activities, depending on conditions.
Dunas Park or Parque das Dunas is the second largest urban park in all of Brazil, offering a retreat into nature from the hustle and bustle of city life for both locals and visitors. Its scenic mixture of lush rainforest and tall, golden sand dunes creates a unique landscape to experience. It’s a chance to see some of the region’s natural environment.
Walking and aerobic exercise are popular activities in the park, and a stroll along one of the many trails allows for sighting of the area’s trees and plant life. There are over fifty types of native trees alone, many of which are located in the popular Bosque Valentine. Guided tours are given daily to help visitors spot the different native plant species. The entrance to the park through the Bosque dos Namorados has information about activities and orientation for the area, along with various recreational facilities.