Piauí is shaped like a ham, with a narrow neck of coastline 59km long that broadens out inland. Despite its size it has fewer than two million inhabitants and by far the lowest population density in the Northeast. Subject to drought, and with virtually no natural resources except the carnaúba palm, it is Brazil’s poorest state.
Few travellers spend much time in Piauí. The capital, Teresina, is strategically placed for breaking the long bus journey between Fortaleza and São Luís, but it’s a modern, rather ugly city where the heat can be oppressive. The southern half of the state merges into the remoter regions of Bahia and forms the harshest part of the Northeast. Much of it consists of uninhabited and largely trackless arid badlands, in the midst of which lies, ironically, the oldest inhabited prehistoric site yet found in Brazil. Cave paintings show that this desert was once jungle.
There are really only two places worth making for: the pleasant coastal town of Parnaíba, which has excellent beaches, and the Parque Nacional de Sete Cidades, good walking country with weird and striking rock formations. Strangely, this poor state has an excellent highway system, and the main roads between Teresina and Parnaíba and towards Ceará are very good: as the country is largely flat, the buses really fly.
Apart from cattle, the only significant industry revolves around the carnaúba palm, a graceful tree with fan-shaped leaves that grows in river valleys across the northern half of the state. The palm yields a wax that was an important ingredient of shellac, from which the first phonogram records were made, and for which there is still a small export market. It’s also a source of cooking oil, wood, soap, charcoal and nuts, and many livelihoods depend on it.
The rodoviária (t 86/3218-1514) is on the southeast outskirts of the city and has a tourist information post (Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 2–6pm, Sat 8am–noon; t 86/3216-5510), where you can pick up free booklets with a city map. Frequent buses run into the centre, and there are cheap taxis, too. You will also find an information post on the corner of Magalhães Filho and Alvaro Mendes in the centre of town five blocks from the Praça da Liberdade. It’s very easy to find your way around as the streets are organized in a grid pattern.
There are a number of good hotels opposite the rodoviária. The Elite (R$41-70) and the São Francisco (R$41-70) are no-frills options. Among those in the city centre overlooking the river is the more upmarket Luxor Piauí, Praça Mal. Deodoro 310 (t 86/3131-3000, w www.luxorhoteis.com.br; R$121-180), with disabled access, a restaurant, quite smart rooms and a pool, while cheaper places can be found nearby around Praça Saraiva. Restaurants in the city are not cheap, but good seafood is served at Camarão de Elías, Av. Pedro Almeida 457, in the bairro of São Cristóvão (t 86/3232-5025). Piauienses excel at meat (try paçoca, prepared with shredded jerky and manioc meal), the best of which can be found at the lively Favorito Grills, Rua Prof. Mario Batista 69, São Cristóvão (t 86/3233-3333).
The city’s nightlife lacks the focus of the coastal capitals, but there is life here after dark. The bank of the Rio Parnaíba is the best place from which to enjoy the sunset. A kilometre or so south of the centre, along the riverfront road, is Prainha, a series of bars and restaurants built along the riverbank, shaded by planted trees: buses run there, but are very infrequent by late afternoon – use the taxis in Teresina, which are cheap.
There are two main places to stay in the park. At the entrance, the Fazenda Sete Cidades (t 86/3276-2222; R$181-260) has a restaurant, pool and regular pick-up shuttles into the park itself, which you can use whether you stay there or not. More convenient for walking, and just as comfortable, is the cheaper Abrigo do Ibama (t 86/3343-1342; from R$25 per person) hostel and campsite in the centre of the park, again with a restaurant and bathing nearby in a natural spring.
Walking in Sete Cidades is not particularly difficult in physical terms, but it’s important to get good local advice, as well as maps and ideally a guide before setting off. Bear in mind that the park does get extremely hot; stout walking shoes, plenty of liquid and a broad-brimmed hat are essential. Staff at the accommodation options listed above can advise you as to decent routes and the campsites dotted around the park. The rock formations themselves make very good landmarks and their different shapes have lent them their names: the “Map of Brazil”, the “Tortoise”, the “Roman Soldier”, the “Three Kings”, the “Elephant” and so on. Watch out for rattlesnakes.