NATAL is a medium-sized city of about 600,000 people, built on the banks of the Rio Potengi and founded sixty years later than planned, after the Potiguar Indians stifled the first Portuguese landing on the coast in 1538. They continued to hold the invaders off until 1598, when the Portuguese built the star-shaped fort at the mouth of the river – the city’s most enduring landmark. From Genipabu just north of Natal you can drive north in a beach buggy for 250km of uninterrupted dunes as far as Areia Branca, practically on the border with Ceará.
Natal has become a popular destination for Brazilian holiday-makers, lured by sun and sand rather than the city itself, which is mostly modern and has a sloppily developed seafront: you will look in vain for the colonial elegance of João Pessoa or Olinda. But the glorious beaches do compensate, and amid the development and hotels there are some good nightspots and dancetarias.
Going to Natal without riding a beach buggy is a bit like going to Ireland and not drinking Guinness – you may or may not enjoy it, but you might as well try it seeing as you’re there. Buggies have become a way of life in Natal, providing employment for the young drivers or bugeiros who race around the city and its beaches in their noisy, low-slung vehicles. After a period of explosive, unregulated growth during which unqualified cowboy bugeiros risked their and their passengers’ necks, the buggy industry has settled down a bit, though you should still check that your driver has accreditation and insurance – most of them do.
There are two basic kinds of buggy ride. One possibility is to go on a day- or half-day trip, which involves riding either north or south down the coast, mainly along the beaches. Many firms offer a full day’s outing with the litoral norte in the morning and the litoral sul in the afternoon, or vice versa. The bugeiro will perform a few stunts along the way, surfing the sand dunes, but it’s mainly an opportunity to explore the beautiful coastline around Natal.
However, the real thrills and spills are to be found on specific beaches, especially at Genipabu to the north of Natal. Here you pay by the ride or by the hour for fairground-type stuff, with the bugeiros making full use of the spectacular sand dunes to push your heart through your mouth. These rides are not cheap, and you may find yourself paying over R$100 for an hour’s entertainment.
Conditions inside the buggies are cramped. Most bugeiros will try and fit three or four people in on each trip, with two people sitting outside at the back hanging on to a metal bar. You’ll need plenty of sun protection and an extremely tight-fitting hat. It’s an exhilarating business, with the wind whipping through your hair as you bounce around the dunes.
Most hotels have deals with buggy companies, and you’ll find yourself besieged by offers of rides wherever you are in Natal. Most rides cost between R$25 and R$50 per person for a day’s outing. If you want to deal with the companies directly, try Passeio de Buggy (t 84/3219-2450, w www.passeiodebuggy.com.br) at Rua Manoel Satíro 1, Ponta Negra.