By Marilyn Diggs
I’m often asked, If you could choose one place in Brazil to visit, where would it be?” (Maybe this is because Brazil has been my home for over twenty years.) My enthusiastic reply is Fernando de Noronha – Brazil’s eastern-most island. Here’s why.
The fascination begins with the approach by plane – a short one-hour ride from Natal, Pernambuco. The archipelago, composed of over twenty islands and islets, looks like emeralds scattered on endless, shimmering turquoise silk. Nature’s Kelly green vegetation attempts to hide (without much success) its intriguing sculptures, parts of a submarine mountain of volcanic origin. Morro do Pico, an awesome 323-meter high peak, is the tallest rock formation of its kind in the world and the trademark of the island. Fantastic panoramas and peach, gray and violet sunsets (preferably from the old fort ramparts – Forte dos Remedios) are island calling cards.
Who is the caretaker of such natural treasures? The archipelago has been protected as a National Marine Park since 1988. All visitors pay an “environmental tax” upon arrival at the airport, used for conservation and preservation of the islands. The hilly island has rough stone roads and the shortest national highway in Brazil. The population is about 3,000. It is very difficult to obtain permission to live there – an option no doubt pondered by many tourists smitten by the enchanting island.
Homes-turned-pousadas (bed and breakfasts) are rustic accommodations run by locals and the best way to get a feel for the island. Several neighborhoods exist; ours was Vila Nova, centrally located and the meeting point for tours.
Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci discovered the island in the early 1500s. The Dutch and French occupied it until the Portuguese laid permanent claim in 1737. It was often used as a prison from 1737 until 1938. During the 20th century several nationalities, such as Italians and Americans, had military bases here due to its strategic location. (The name of one of the beaches, Praia do Boldró, is how the locals pronounced the name “Bold Rock” given by Americans.)
Although many beaches can be reached by walking, dune buggies zip visitors to areas for quick accessibility to even more of them. Some, like Baia do Sancho, are a challenge to get to but the crystalline water with reefs hosting dazzling tropical fish make the grassy trail hike and the descent inside stone crevices (by ladder) well worth it. Skin diving is an option; snorkeling is a must. Locals rent flippers and snorkels to new arrivals. Shallow waters teeming with brightly colored fish make snorkelers feel like “Searching for Nemo.” Even beginners become addicted. Sighting sea turtles and dolphins is the coveted marine Grail.
A sure way to see the dolphins and travel amongst them is by boat. After sailing around the islets, the boat slows down in front of the Caverna de Leão to hear the “lion’s roar”; oxygen enters the cavity in the cave’s depth, and as the next wave displaces the oxygen, it exits making a roar. Then, from one moment to the next, the water comes alive with sleek gray backs speeding beside the boat. Some guides say the male dolphins accompany intruders to distract them from females and babies, while others insist they are just having fun. Whatever the reason, once past the Dolphin Bay, the entourage of maybe 30 dolphins departs; the excitement remains.
Did this glimpse into an ecological Eden peak your interest? Great, but go soon. The recently built hotel, against locals’ and environmentalists’ approval, may be a premonition of a paradise soon to be lost to “progress.”
Marilyn Diggs is an American living in Brazil for over twenty years. She is a freelance writer, artist, lecturer and author of nine books – two about Brazilian art history. As an art reporter and travel writer she has two monthly columns in Sunday News, Brazil’s English language newspaper that circulates in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. She has written for the Miami Herald and Museum International, a UNESCO publication. Marilyn has a degree in Latin American Studies and is often contracted by intercultural training services to give talks on expat challenges. www.mdiggs.com“