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.
Most people arrive by plane or bus and head for the beach area, where the best hotels are found. The rodoviária (t 85/3230-1111) is a twenty-minute walk away from the centre in the southern suburb of Fátima, but getting into town is relatively easy by bus (R$2–3). A taxi costs around R$20 from the rodoviária and around R$30–35 from the airport (t 85/3392-1030) to most places in the city. A local bus station is located in the old city centre, in a large square by the old railway station.
The tourist information office (in theory open Mon–Sat 8am–6pm, Sun 8am–noon; t 85/3488-7411) is in the Centro de Turismo in the city centre, at Rua Senador Pompeu 350. There’s also a tourist telephone hotline (t 0800/99-1516) and state website (w www.ceara.gov.br/turismo). Any of these could supply information on the complicated bus journeys necessary to get to the out-of-town beaches. There’s also an information post at the airport (t 85/3477-1667; 24hr). ATMs can be found in the shopping district and along the beachfront.
Budget hotels tend to be in the centre and are mostly run down. The nicer and more expensive ones are out by the city’s beaches, notably Praia Iracema and Praia Meireles. You should remember that Fortaleza can get very hot, and either air conditioning or a fan is essential.
You’ll be all right in the centre during the day if you want something to eat, as there are countless places to grab a snack. However, most of what Fortaleza has to offer your palate is to be found on the beaches, especially around Rua dos Tabajaras on Praia de Iracema. The pier here, known as Ponte dos Ingleses, is very popular with couples and families in the early evenings and a lovely place to have a beer or simply watch the sunset. In two or three small streets around Rua dos Tabajaras you’ll find a score of brightly coloured bars and restaurants, and glamorous young people out enjoying themselves. Whilst there are bars dotted along the beachfront of both Meireles and to a lesser extent Iracema, the busiest concentration is around the Ponte dos Ingleses and Rua dos Tabajaras; close to here, the Centro Dragão do Mar is also a hotspot at weekends and fiestas.
Forró: dancing and clubs
Fortaleza is justly famous for its forró. Nowhere is it so popular, and there is no better way to see what cearenses do when they want to enjoy themselves than to spend a night in a dancetaria here. Pirata at Rua dos Tabajaras 325 (t 85/4011-6161 or 3219-8030), one of the most easily accessible nightclubs in Fortaleza, has live music from Tuesday through Saturday, including forró but with other sounds as well; it’s a great night out (cover charge around R$10). Opposite Pirata, there’s the Lupus Bier club, with live music at weekends, good food and a cover charge (also around R$10). One of the best venues for live dance shows is Docas Bar e Café Teatro, beside the Centro Dragão at Rua José Avelino 491 (t 85/3219-8209), which showcases costumed dance styles every Wednesday from 9pm, among them Afro (slave), Caboclinhos (jungle) and Maracatu (colonial). On Fridays the same venue usually presents local pop bands, while on weekends the music tends to be more mixed, though with heavy doses of samba.
The beaches of Ceará are what attract most visitors, and both east and west of Fortaleza they stretch unbroken for hundreds of kilometres. They are invariably superb, a mixture of mountainous sand dunes, palm trees and Atlantic breakers, wilder than the sheltered reef beaches of the southern states of the Northeast. The area has strong and predictable winds which, combined with good surf, means it’s a windsurfer’s paradise, and many small fishing villages now depend on the tourist dollar. Any description of the beaches becomes repetitive: they are all stunning, among the most beautiful anywhere in the world. To reach them, as a rule, you will need to get off at a town and catch a connection to the nearby coast, and the local bus network covers most places: at the better-known beaches, shoals of pick-ups and beach buggies meet the buses from Fortaleza.
The choice of beaches west of Fortaleza is fabulous. Frequent buses from Fortaleza’s rodoviária head for the beach town of PARACURU, 80km from Fortaleza, which gets crowded during weekends, but is less frenetic during the week. From here, you head out of Fortaleza’s influence and the further west you go the less crowded the beaches become. A good place to head for, reasonably remote but not impossible to get to, is TRAIRI, 118km from Fortaleza, also served by direct buses from the rodoviária, which take around three hours. From here it’s a few kilometres to the beautiful and usually deserted beaches of Mundaú, protected by a 100m reef, and Fleixeiras, more deserted still. When the tide is out, you can walk for an hour along the beach to the fishing hamlet of GUAJIRU, named for the indigenous local fruit that still grows abundantly in the scrubby bushes scattered around the dunes. There is no electricity or running water, but the people are friendly and the scenery marvellous.