Until the late 1980s, the small state of Rio Grande do Norte and its capital, Natal, were sleepy, conservative backwaters rarely visited by tourists. There’s little of historical interest among Natal’s modern hotels and office buildings, and the interior is poor and thinly populated, the only place of any size being the town of Mossoró. But two things have transformed Rio Grande do Norte into one of the Northeast’s biggest tourist centres: beaches and buggies.
North of Natal, the sertão drives down practically to the coast, and the idyllic palm-fringed beaches give way to massive sand dunes. The landscape becomes less fertile and flatter, dedicated largely to scrawny cattle, who scratch a living alongside the people. The black Brazilian population shrinks with the sugar zone, and in Rio Grande do Norte dwindles to almost nothing.