Buggy tours are big business in Natal. The area is famous for more than just its beautiful beaches and year around sunshine. In the northeast of Brazil, sand dunes reign supreme. These salty mounds not only serve as a backdrop to an assortment of secluded beaches and hidden lagoons, but they also provide an endless amount of entertainment in themselves. If looking for a thrill, you can hire a buggy (pronounced boogey in Brazil) to drive you up and down some of the nearly vertical sand slopes. Mia and I heard lots of chatter about these tours before even arriving in Natal, so we were stoked when the hostel we were bartending at offered us a chance to join in on one of these tours for free.
It’s possible to hire a buggy on your own to drive along the beach. Yet, in order to have access to the sand dunes, you must go with a licensed buggy driver. There are dozens of companies to select from due to the popularity of these tours. However, there is only one driver worth riding with.
Professional boogeyman and full-time party animal, Muau is a legendary figure in Natal. He’s been giving boogey tours for over 25 years, and my guess is that he has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
As I quickly came to learn, a tour with Muau involves much more than just a few hours riding around some sand dunes.
Muau arrives at hostel. He’s about an hour late, and decides to shower and have breakfast there before we start the tour. We quickly learn that time is not of the essence for Mr. Muau. After another month in Brazil, we will learn that time is rarely of the essence in this country.
Soon we are joined by our our buggy brethren for the day, Ferdinando and Troy. Ferdinando is from Belo Horizonte, a city inland from Rio de Janeiro. Trey is Canadian, but is in the process of buying a home in Natal. He’s the fellow with the backwards, baby blue golf cap in all the photos. (Aside: Please know it is taking great will power not to insert additional commentary on said hat.)
First stop of the tour: a shop that specializes in cashews and cachaça. It’s a tiny place literally overflowing with every kind of cashew possible: sugar-coated cashews, roasted cashews, jalepeno cashews, cinnamon cashews, cashews with chocolate; Bubba would’ve been proud. The man who runs it is a kindly fellow who is keen on having us sample everything we could stomach.
Unfortunately for me, that would be zero. I’m allergic to cashews and thus turn all my attention to cachaça. For those of you unfamiliar with the spirit, cachaça is a strong alcohol made from sugar cane, and is unofficially known as the national liquor of Brazil.
That’s the long winded explanation. In short, cachaça is the devil, bottled up and usually served with fresh lime juice and sugar.
However, myself of 10 months ago didn’t know this.
So I say yes, sure, I’d love to try some cachaça. And then I immediately regret that decision.
But Trey is ready to ride the party bus so he says, “another round!” and we shoot another sample back and next we’re on the
buggy, but this time with beers in hand.
We hit the dunes. In the guide books, I read that one can choose to ride the dunes “com emoção” or with emotion. Supposedly, requesting such a ride meant that you wanted it to be scary. No such conversation was had while in the hands of Muau. He cranks the tunes (hear: Fat Freddy’s Drop), hits the gas, and doesn’t stop.
It isn’t scary. But it is ridiculously fun.
My stomach drops with every dune we barrel down. Sometimes it feels as if we are going to be thrown out of the buggy.
Then suddenly Muau crevices over one of the hills, and we are greeted with a large lagoon. The beach is off in the distance, but it seems as if we won’t be able to reach it because of the water separating.
I needn’t despair.
We pull up to the water’s edge and are immediately loaded onto a small wooden raft than is then guided across by a man who works the lagoon. Seems that this is standard practice. Simple and effective and totally bizarre to the American mind.
The beach we arrive at is empty except for a small tent that some men are sitting under. They are selling beer and grilled lobster, so we stop for a drink and a snack. Third beer before noon and I feel like I’m 19 all over again.
Muau knows everyone. He comfortably sits down and grabs a beverage himself. It’s clear that he stops by everyday. I wonder if he gets bored, but he’s seems utterly content. Never rushed, never stressed, never bored.
Time to continue down the coast, seeing some men on horseback and the occasional stray donkey along the way. Trey wants to go check out the lot he recently purchased. Muau doesn’t seem to mind, and Mia, Ferdinando and I are sitting fat and happy in the back after the break.
We arrive at the lot. It’s in a beautiful location, right along the cliffside. As we’re driving by, the people who live at the house next door step outside to say hello. Apparently Muau knows them as well. Go figure.
In typical friendly Brazilian fashion, they invite us over. Their home is gorgeous. Mia and I take advantage of their outdoor shower to rinse off all the sand stuff to our skin while simultaneously enjoying the view.
They suggest we walk down the cliffside to the ocean. The beach here is completely secluded.
We notice what looks like a massive white rock near the stairs. The family tells us that it’s actually the skull of a whale. They found it last week. Any chance we could help them haul it up the stairs?
That’s the beauty of brazil. That’s why it’s my favorite country. Because people are kind, humble, and so inclusive, especially in the northeast of the country. These strangers casually invite us into their home and treat us like old friends, despite the fact that we don’t speak a common language. And when they ask for a helping hand, everyone jumps at the opportunity.
Eventually we say our goodbyes. Muau says that he has a lot to show us still.
We drive back through a small town, grabbing more drinks along the way.
Our next stop will involve a little off roading, Muau says. Or at least that’s what Ferdinando translates for us. Muau doesn’t speak the best English, and as this is only a week into our trip, our Portuguese is rather limited. Doesn’t matter though. We turn up more Fat Freddy and continue onward.
We pull up to a small wooden stand that’s situated in shallow water. Again, there are men ready to offer us beers, lobster, or even a caipirinha. This is my first experience with the famous (and easy to make) cocktail. We order a few, then all sit down in the water.
But we still had more to see. Three Caipirinhas later and it is time to check out another set of dunes and take a ride down a zip line into the lagoon below.
I am slightly intimidated as I look over the edge, but I’ve built up some serious cachaca courage so my trepidation doesn’t last long.
The ride down is fast and I land in the center of the lagoon. There’s a small wooden dock that I swim to. I am then greeted by a young man who offers to paddle me back to shore. Before I can answer, I am soon joined by Mia and the rest of the gang. We’re too happy and excited to sit on the raft, so we volunteer to swim back and then try running up the dune.
Muau is once again sitting contentedly with his friends who run the zip line. They are chatting animatedly, as if they hadn’t spoken in a while, though I know that can’t possibly be true. I’m impressed with his ability to connect with so many people on such authenticity and engagement.
But we’re not done yet. Muau wants to introduce us to more of his friends.
This time we stop at a tiny little pond, completely isolated from anything else. There are small waterfalls that feed into the main pool. White, plastic chairs have been set up in the water, and there are a bunch of people lounging around, playing music and eating fresh pineapple. Muau immediately takes a seat and is handed the guitar.
It’s clear that this place is very different from the others that we visited. The others, while fun, clearly catered to tourists. This stop wasn’t on the tourist track. Furthermore, Muau had no obligation to bring us here. By this point it was well past 4pm — the time the tour was originally meant to end — but he seemed to be enjoying himself just as much as us and thus continued to tour us around well into the night. That sort of mindset — that of not just liking your job, but loving it enough to do it whether it benefits you financially or not — doesn’t seem to be very prevalent in the United States, especially in Washington, DC.
By the tine we leave that last pond, we’re all hungry for dinner. Muau says he will take us to get food. But first? One last buggy ride around the sand dunes in the pitch black night. I can’t even see my own hand 10 inches from my face. There are no lights and no people out on the dunes with us. I have no idea which way Muau is turning, nor can I predict when we’re about to plummet straight down a hill.
Earlier I said that the buggy ride wasn’t scary.
It’s scary now. But again, so ridiculously fun.
We conclude at a local bar. Well, it’s not quite a bar. More of a corner store with plastic tables out front and music blasting from inside. There are a bunch of people sitting outside, and they immediately offer us some of their beer. Muau orders us steamed fish, served whole. In the mean time, we all begin to dance. Brazilians love to dance and seem to be inherently talented at it. Some of the men there attempt to teach us a samba step or two. This goes over poorly. I blame the booze.
The whole evening is perfect. Again it feels like we’re hanging out with long, lost friends. Eventually, the fish arrives on a platter and everyone picks at its fleshy body with their fingers, leaning their heads back and dropping bits of fresh fish into their mouths. Normally, this would freak me out. I’m not particularly fond of sharing finger food with strangers, and I also really detest having to peer into a fish’s eyeball as I eat away at its body. However, as I sit there watching Mia crush the toes of every man attempting to dance with her, listening to Muau strum away at another guitar, and ignoring Troy throw another haole shaka my way, I can’t help but smile and pick a fat chunk of up. This is Brazil.
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