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.

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