Around 35km up the coast from Fortaleza, the sand dunes of Cumbuco provide a playground for thrill-seekers in northeastern Brazil. Lucy McGuire took an exhilarating ride across the dunes, discovering a wild and beautiful side to Ceará state.
‘Ready?’ the driver asked as he glanced at us in his rear view mirror. I looked out of the corner of my eye at my companions, perched on the back of the jeep beside me. I think so, I thought. The problem was, we didn’t really know what lay ahead of us.
I understood that dune bashing involved driving at high speed. What I didn’t realise was that the beach buggy didn’t come equipped with car seats and safety belts. It was a hang-on-for-your-life operation and so my nervous predisposition started to surface.
We’d arrived in the fishing village of Cumbuco after a 48-hour stop over in Fortaleza. Brazil’s fifth city and the state capital of Ceará, Fortaleza, which translates to ‘fort’ or ‘stronghold’, it’s a favela-like sprawl of shacks and high-rises, built from the area’s rich granite sources.
The beaches – namely Praia do Futuro and Iracema – draw many foreign visitors to this coastal metropolis. But many boho escapists leave the city’s oppressive humidity behind them and take the 35km potholed drive past ramshackle houses to Cumbuco – the gateway to Ceará’s 600km of unspoilt coastline.
Thrill-seekers like us are lured by the high-adrenaline activities that create an adult’s playground in Cumbuco’s honey-coloured dunes. And as we abruptly veered off the comfort of the road and onto narrow dirt tracks, the speed of our bright yellow buggy stepped up a notch. Branches hung perilously overhead and lizards darted away from the wheels. The adrenaline started to kick in.
We emerged into an ethereal expanse of dazzling yellow peaks. The driver knew every incline, pothole, twist and turn like the back of his hand – but this offered no confidence for me. We ascended the hills without a hint of what would be waiting for us at the top; sometimes there were flat plains with glorious coastline views, at others there was a terrifying downward slope.
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As the buggy dipped into a near vertical drop, we began to scream. I could feel the rollercoaster-like motion pushing my body into ‘fight or flight’ mode and my pulse started to race.
I’m not sure if the driver understood the word ‘slow’, which we gesticulated many times, or whether the growling diesel engine was deafening him. If he did, he played ignorant. I caught him chuckle to himself as he pushed his right foot firmly down onto the accelerator. The roaring exhaust was competing with our cries.
As we neared the first stop, I could feel my heart thumping in my chest and my ears. We were at the ‘ski-bunda’ shack. The thrill-seeking element of the tour wasn’t quite over yet.
Ski-bunda is essentially surfing on sand on a makeshift wooden board. In Ceará, it’s a sit-down sport and the aim is to build up enough speed to make a splash into the Parnamirim Lake.
After several attempts, it proved to be brilliant fun, but my instincts had me flinging out a leg or an arm now and again. I didn’t quite make it into the refreshing waters.
Back on the buggy, we returned to our tour around the otherworldly dunes, feeling like pinballs as we were hurtled along narrow dirt tracks.
The adrenaline rush had become surprisingly addictive. So when we pulled into our next stop at Águas Cristalinas, I felt an appetite for another challenge.
There were two choices, a zip-wire that dropped into the deep murky waters of Águas Cristalinas, and a slide, fashioned crudely from brightly coloured tarpaulin.
I concluded that being harnessed onto a zip-wire was fractionally less daunting than being hurled off the end of the slide. I squealed my way down, legs instinctively kicking. After swallowing some pond water.
Back on the buggy, the penultimate leg of the journey was the scariest. Exhausted from all the adrenaline, it was harder to steady myself and after one particularly sharp swerve, I was thrown up and down on the seat. There would certainly be bruises the next day.
After a much-needed stop at the lookout point over the beautiful Banana Lagoon, we turned into the shores of Águas Cauípe. Brightly coloured kites from the surfers filled the sky and beyond the lagoon were the lapping shores of Cumbuco beach.
We waded our weary legs into the bath-warm water: the most blissful way to end our white-knuckle ride.
Prices for a three-hour dune buggy excursion with Cumbuco buggy co-operative start from R$260.00. All trips can be booked at the Vila Galé hotel. TAP Portugal flies from London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Manchester to Fortaleza seven times a week, with fast and convenient connections via Lisbon to Fortaleza. Prices start at £702 return including all taxes and surcharges. Transfers: For airport transfers and transport between Fortaleza and Cumbuco, visit Ernanitur.com.br. Find more info about Brazil on the Tourist Board website, Visitbrasil.com.