The state of Ceará, covering a vast area but with less than nine million inhabitants, has long borne the brunt of the vagaries of the northeastern climate. In the 1870s, as many as two million people may have died in a famine provoked by drought. During the 1950s and 60s the population of Fortaleza more than doubled, partly due to the city’s prosperity and partly due to occasional severe droughts in the interior. As recently as the early 1980s people were reduced to eating rats.
Yet for all its problems Ceará has kept a strong sense of identity, making it a distinctive and rewarding state to visit. Its capital, Fortaleza, is the largest, most modern and cosmopolitan city in the Northeast after Recife and Salvador. In contrast to the city’s skyscraping, futuristic architecture, the sertão is unforgiving to those who have to live in it, but in Ceará it rewards the traveller with some spectacular landscapes: as you travel west, the flat and rather dull plains of Rio Grande do Norte gradually give way to ranges of hills, culminating in the extreme west of the state in the highlands and lush cloud forest of the Serra da Ibiapaba, the only place in Brazil where you can stand in jungle and look down on desert. To the south there are the hills and fertile valleys of Cariri, with the pilgrim city of Juazeiro do Norte. And the coastline boasts some of the wildest, most remote and beautiful beaches in Brazil.
Despite an economy based on poor soils and cattle ranching, in recent years Ceará has nevertheless developed economically as well as culturally, earning the state a reputation as one of the best governed in Brazil.