The Northeast: Places to Explore


Photo: Vitoriano Junior/Shutterstock


Natal has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past decade. The capital of Rio Grande do Norte has become an important industrial center, yet no industry has had more effect on the economy than tourism. The past few administrations have invested heavily in the infrastructure and promotion, effectively placing it on the map as one of the prime tourism destinations in Brazil.

Although it has little in the way of historical or cultural attractions, the city's main asset is its location along one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in Brazil. In fact, Natal's foundation and much of its history have been all about location. In 1598 the Portuguese began construction of the Fortaleza dos Reis Magos in present-day Natal. Its location was strategic for two reasons. First, it was at the mouth of the Rio Potengi. Second, it was near the easternmost point of the continent and therefore was closest to Europe and Africa. On December 25, 1599, the city was founded and named Natal, Portuguese for "Christmas."

Because of its valuable location, Natal was a target for the Dutch, who ultimately seized control of the city in 1633 and renamed it New Amsterdam. The Portuguese repossessed Natal after the Dutch abandoned the city in 1654. Yet it was never a major colonial center for the Portuguese. The city had to wait nearly three centuries to regain importance, again due to its location. In World War II the United States built several military bases in and around the city that they deemed "the springboard to victory"—its position at the far-eastern point of the continent made it ideal for launching aerial attacks into Europe.

While bustling Ponta Negra and the sprawling nearby holiday resorts may conjure up summer destinations in Southern Europe, the towns and beaches that lie to the north and south of the city are distinctly Brazilian.