The Northeast: Places to Explore


Fernando de Noronha

This group of 21 islands is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an underwater volcanic mountain chain more than 15,000 km (9,315 miles) long. It was discovered in 1503 by the Italian explorer Amérigo Vespucci, but was taken over by Fernando de Noronha of Portugal. Its attackers have included the French, Dutch, and English, but the Portuguese built several fortresses and, with cannons in place, fought them off.

Brazil used these islands for a prison and as a military training ground. As word of its beauty and spectacular underwater wonders spread, it was designated a protected marine park. Today stringent regulations protect the archipelago's ecology.

The mountainous, volcanic main—and only inhabited—island of Fernando de Noronha is ringed by beaches with crystal clear warm waters that are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and diving. In summer surfers show up to tame the waves. There are shipwrecks to explore and huge turtles, stingrays, and sharks (14 species of them) with which to swim. Diving is good all year, but prime time is from December to March on the windward side (facing Africa) and from July to October on the leeward side (facing Brazil).

If you're an experienced diver, be sure to visit the Ipiranga, a small Brazilian destroyer that sank in 1987. It sits upright in 60 meters (200 feet) of water and is swarming with fish, and you can see the sailors' personal effects, including uniforms still hanging in closets. Another good site is the Sapata Cave, which has an antechamber so large that it has been used for marriage ceremonies (attended by giant rays, no doubt).

Well-maintained trails and well-trained guides make for enjoyable hikes. You can also enjoy the landscape on a horseback trek to the fortress ruins and isolated beaches where hundreds of seabirds alight. In addition, Projeto Tamar has an island base for its work involving sea turtles. One of the most fascinating exploring experiences, however, is an afternoon boat trip to the outer fringes of the Baía dos Golfinhos (Bay of the Dolphins), where dozens of spinner dolphins swim south each day to hunt in deep water.

There are two daily departures to Fernando de Noronha from Natal and three from Recife; flight time from either is around an hour. Only 90 visitors are allowed here each day, and there's a daily tourist tax of R$43.20, including the day you arrive and the day you leave. Divers pay an additional R$20 a day. In 2012, a new tourist tax (R$130 for foreigners and R$65 for Brazilians) was introduced by Econoronha, the company that administers the national park, for those who want to visit the island's most popular beaches. The money is to improve infrastructure and increase preservation. Bring enough reais to last the trip, as credit cards are not widely accepted and changing money is difficult. There is only one bank in Fernando de Noronha, so withdraw cash before your trip here.