I stayed with Abílio in Barrinheiras for more time than I was expecting. He had contacts in various tourism offices and so was trying to see if I could get on a tour to see the Lençóis for free. The problem was that even though it was holiday season, the lack of rain meant that there weren’t too many tourists. The tours don’t leave unless there are at least 5 or 6 people on them and as I’d be going for free, I obviously didn’t count! On my second day in town, a Wednesday, a Brazilian cyclist called Aramis arrived. He was riding the Brazilian coast in multiple stages, the current one being from Natal to São Luis. He was a delight to speak to, and had lots of useful information about the route that I’d be taking, albeit one he did backwards.

That afternoon Abílio, who organises some bike touring in town, took us out to see part of his favourite route. We rode about a 20km loop along the river and back to visit the small community which shared the Portugese version of my name – São Domingo. There was a fair amount of bouncing along unpaved roads, and some pushing through sand, but it was worth it for the pretty views along the way. Apparently the whole route (which is called Ruta dos Águas), is around 150km – far too much for me to ride on a day off!

The idea had been to ride a bit more of the Ruta dos Águas on the Thursday morning, before I’d leave by taking the afternoon pick-up truck along the 40km sand trail to the next town of Paulino Neves. While I was packing up, Abílio phoned his friends again and finally got a positive; there was going to be a tour leaving in about an hour and the three of us could tag along! A tour normally costs about 60 reais ($25-30), which given the apparent lack of rain didn’t seem worth it, but for free? Count me in!

In Barrerinhas nearly all of the vehicles are pick-up trucks, and for some reason Toyota seems to be the preferred model. The one that picked us up was no exception. Being the first people in the truck, we got the front row, making for a slightly better view. After stopping by hotels to find the other 6 passengers, we headed off to the outskirts of town to cross the Rio Preguiças, taking its name from the sloths or preguiças that used to live in the area. Unfortunately, they’re quite rare nowadays. There is no bridge over the river, so we went over in a small ferry that carried us and 4 other trucks, 3 with tourists and one taking supplies over. As soon as you cross the river, you hit deep sand and you spend the next 30 minutes swerving and bumping through well-worn tracks in the sand, much to the delight of the passengers.

We were dropped off at a parking area. From there, it was a 30 minute walk to get to the one area where there was some water. We walked up and down endless dunes of sand that were blindingly bright. The sand was so fine that we could walk barefoot without problems – such a lovely feeling. The lake was so refreshing to swim in and made the trip worth it. I would definitely like to return in May-September to see the park as it looks in photos, with water everywhere, but Aramis agreed with me that it was a worthwhile way to spend the morning.

When we got back to the house, we cleaned up (slightly painfully as I was impressively sunburnt), had lunch and then it was time to leave. We had timed it well, as the truck left a few minutes after I arrived. The two hour trip was similarly bouncy to the trip to the Lençóis, and near the end of it we even passed through some small dunes just outside Paulino Neves.

The brother of a friend of Wilson lived in the town of Tutoia, some 30km after Paulino Neves. Being wonderful, Wilson had arranged for me to stay there. They didn’t know Wilson and I didn’t know Wilson’s friend, but that’s Brazilian hospitality. A friend of a friend of my brother is my friend too! I’d made it about 15km before it got dark and the heavens opened. I waved my arm at a passing truck and was astonished that it stopped (Peter and I spent hours trying that out a few times in Mexico) and offered me a lift to Tutóia. I gladly accepted. Even in the back of the truck, I got soaked, but at least I wasn’t riding up and down pitch-black hills into a headwind at the same time.

They dropped me off in Tutóia and I set about finding the house. Of course I didn’t have an address, but I didn’t need it. I asked a few people if they knew where Edilson lived, and they pointed me in the right direction. I got to the house and was welcomed right in and immediately directed to the shower, so I could clean up again.

Edilson and his family were so friendly. He had family living next door, so some of his nephews and nieces were over to play. I hung out with them and learnt to play a card game. While I was doing that, Edilson barbecued a fish and some meat for me to eat. He is a maths teacher now, but had previously worked as a fisherman, so knew the best place to go. Tutóia is located at the entrance of the Delta das Américas, so there is plenty of good fishing. It was a Thursday and, over dinner, they explained all of the fun things I could do, the islands that I could go and see and the seafood that I could eat that weekend. Even though they barely knew me, they had lots of ideas, and looked saddened when I told them that I could only stay for a night. The problem is that while I meet so many wonderful people, I would never go anywhere if I stayed with them all for as long as I could. I’ve got a flight out of Salvador on the 7th of March and spending 3 days with Edilson’s family would make that difficult, especially as I know along the way I’ll meet more wonderful families who will make similar offers.

The next day, after breakfast and meeting Edilson’s mum, it was time to hit the road towards Fortaleza. The wind had started to get stronger and will continue to do so until I get to Natal, but thankfully it’s mainly from the east and leaving Tutóia I was going south. There were endless short climbs, which for the first 40km had a nice shoulder, and then for the next 60km had no shoulder.

The definite highlight of the day came when I arrived at the border between the state of Maranhão and my next state of Piauí. There was a checkpoint of some description and I stopped there as being early afternoon, I was hot and hungry. I had been sat down for just long enough to get a packet of biscuits out of my bag before a worker came out and asked me if I’d had lunch. I explained that’s what the pack of biscuits would be. He let me know they’d make a better tea and, a few minutes later, I was shown towards the dining area, where a plate of food was on the table, as well as a chunk of watermelon and a 2L bottle of ice-cold water. Wow. I’m not sure what I did to deserve it, but it was definitely welcome.

After lunch I took advantage of the shade to read my book and think about the next part of the trip. I had planned to follow the coast to Fortaleza, but I saw a couple of national parks just south of me – well a mere 150km to the first one. Parque Nacional de Sete Cidades – named after the rock formations – and Ubajara; both sounded really interesting. There were a couple of problems. If I went down that way, I’d not only be heading to the interior, where it’s even hotter than up by the coast (the relatively chilly 41c when I arrived in Barreirinhas), but I’d also end up on the main east-west trunk road, which sounded like it had horrific traffic and often a complete lack of ridable shoulder. I knew that if I went there, I’d enjoy the two national parks, but I’d hate the riding, so I decided to stick to the coast.

That evening I made it through the outskirts of the city of Parnaiba with some poor planning. The main road headed into the city and then bounced back out again. I saw on my GPS a track that would let me cut 2-3km off by heading straight east. It seemed a good idea, but wasn’t. The first third of the detour was on cobbled streets and the other part sand. It started out ridable at first, but for over a kilometre I was having to push my bike in not the nicest part of town after the sun had gone down. As well as that, it also meant that I didn’t go past any shops where I could have bought something for dinner and breakfast. As I said, not the best idea I’ve ever had.

I made it about 10km further to the next petrol station, where I asked about camping. They said that of course I could and showed me where I could hang my hammock. Thankfully, it was covered. As it is the beginning of the rainy season, while it might not rain that much during the day, it generally does at night. As well as that, there was a plug to charge my electronics and a shower where I could clean up. I was very glad to have flip-flops, because the bathrooms in petrol stations are very much a crap-shoot and this one was a seven.