This year my birthday week was spent in Natal, Brazil. Natal is the capital city of the north eastern state of Rio Grande do Norte. Like most holiday makers and travellers alike, I stayed in the beach suburb of Ponta Negra.
Ponta Negra is the perfect destination for a beach holiday with all the comforts of a modern city (i.e decent wifi). The area is geared towards tourists (most of whom are Brazilians from other states) so there is an abundance of great restaurants and accommodation options to choose from and it is also the best beach in town for locals, known in Brazil as Natalenses, to enjoy on their weekends. In the whole week I only went into the city centre for one day of exploring and instead chose to make the most of this breathtaking beach and lively little suburb. It is by no means quiet or off the beaten track but the water is beautiful and warm and there are plenty of beach loungers to sunbath and catch up on some reading.
The most outstanding feature of this beach is the big hill and steep sand dune at the end of it, named the Morro do Careca (pictured above). Climbing the dune is now prohibited in order to preserve it but there is a huge stretch of dunes called Parque das Dunas that separates Ponta Negra from downtown Natal and you can take buggy rides and even camel rides through them if you so desire. Ponta Negra beach is one of the busiest I've seen in Brazil in terms of vendors eager to meet your every possible need. You can buy bikinis, sarongs, sunnies, bathmats (bit weird but whatever), and hand crafts on the beach. There are carts selling crepes, cocktails and all sorts of other refreshments as well as barracas with full a la carte menus, you can order from your beach lounger and have it delivered right to you. You don't need to move other than when you want to go for a dip. You can also hire stand up paddle boards or go for a ride on a giant inflatable biscuit. There is plenty going on at this beach to keep you entertained all day long.
We took a bus from Ponta Negra to the Centro de Turismo in the city centre, which is an interesting destination in itself although, strangely, there was absolutely no helpful information available there. The centre is set up in an old military building which was also used as an orphanage at one point, among other things. There are now several artesenal product stores and a restaurant called Marrenosso serving awesome north eastern food with stunning views of the sea. We had a pastel (a rectangular deep fried pastry filled with cheese and sometimes meat, shrimp or chicken) and two bolinhos de macaxeira (mandioc fritters, one with sun-dried meat and the other with shrimps). They were delicious! After lunch we wandered around the down town area but quickly realised there wasn't much to see and it was eerily quiet , so we jumped in a taxi and headed to Fortaleza dos Reis Magos, an old colonial fort on the coast. It's free to take a little walk around but the guided tours are in Portuguese only. From the fort you can also admire one of Natal's most famous architectural features, the Ponte Newton Navarro bridge. From there we walked back along the beach where there is a reef and lots of rock pools at low tide. It happened to be a public holiday so the beach was absolutely pumping with families and people playing sports or drinking in the sun. It's a lot of fun walking around in Brazil when there's any kind of holiday or festivity - they are a people who like to have fun and the place was just buzzing, making for some great people watching! Some people spotted us from a restaurant across the street and called out "Welcome to Brazil!" in English. Are we so obviously foreign? Yes, we really are.
I really liked Natal and can see myself returning one day to see more than just Ponta Negra. The weather is fantastic year round, the beach is beautiful and it's a big enough city to have everything you need without being as overwhelming as some of Brazil's larger cities.
There's no question - when in Natal you should stay in Ponta Negra. We stayed in a great little aparthotel so we could do a little self catering. Praia Calma Aparthotel is rated 9.2 on booking.com and I can personally vouch that we had a great stay in a nice new apartment within a short walking distance to the beach, restaurants, supermarkets and bus stops.
The best meal I had in 4 months of traveling in Brazil was in Ponta Negra at a place called Camaroes Potiguar. It is rated the number 1 restaurant in Natal on Tripadvisor and its sister restaurant Camaroes (also in Ponta Negra) comes in at number 2. We went to Camaroes Potiguar for my birthday and had the most amazing meal. Camaroes is the plural form of the Portuguese word for prawn and Potiguar is another name for people who come from Rio Grande do Norte. Potiguar is made up of two words in the indigenous language of the area to mean 'prawn eater'. So needless to say our meal included prawns and they were amazing big juicy ones too. I can't recommend this place enough. Both restaurants are chic and the service is great. Meals are designed to be shared between two, as is quite common in Brazil, but you could easily share them between three. It is a really great place to enjoy a contemporary take on traditional north eastern flavours. 5 stars for this place, I'd go back to Natal just to eat there again.
I'm not a big advocate for holiday shopping and I rarely buy souvenirs but I thought the Mercado de Ponta Negra deserved a mention as it was such an interesting shop. It's a food store specialising in local artesian produce and all kinds of whole foods. There is an elaborate array of nuts and dried tropical fruits as well as all kinds of Brazilian home made sweets and an impressive selection of locally made hot sauces and cachaças. Even if you don't buy, it's interesting to have a look through.
I arrived by bus as I was already up in the northern state of Ceará, but most people will enter Brazil via São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, in which case you should fly up to Natal. Brazil has 4 competing airlines, Latam, Gol, Azul and Avianca, which means with the right planning you can get great deals on domestic flights. I have now had a chance to fly with all 4 and found them all to be good. Get onto Skyscanner to look out for cheap flights. If you happen to have arrived in Fortaleza, as many Europeans do, then it's very doable to take a bus if you can't find a good deal on flights. I have found intercity buses in Brazil to be excellent quality.