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Brazil's Northeast Coast: The next tropical paradise
Hundreds of kilometers of pristine beaches, trade winds out of Hawaii, reasonable prices, vibrant local culture. Here’s your primer on the next big tropical destination
Put the words “Brazil” and beach next to each other, and the instant image is Ipanema or Copacabana.
Places as infinitesimally small in the Brazilian coastal universe as the “dental-floss” bikinis adorning the sands of Rio de Janeiro.
With a shoreline 7,500 kilometers long, Brazil has one of the world’s most extensive collections of tropical shores, led by an area well off the usual beach circuit: Brazil’s Northeast coast.
That may be about to change.
Buoyed by economic growth stronger than in the rest of the country, Brazil’s Northeast coast is rolling out the welcome mat for the next big tropical coast, one where shores you’ve never heard of can hold their own with the vistas of any other sun hub on the planet.
The city of Natal, capital of the Northeast state of Rio Grande do Norte, is building what officials say will be South America’s largest airport, to cater to an expected boom of sunseekers.
That’s something already well under way in places such as Fortaleza, in the neighboring state of Ceara, which sports 300-plus days of sun a year and a thriving tourism economy; and at one of the most popular destinations for Brazilians, Porto de Galinhas, in the state of Pernambuco.
Brazil’s Northeast coast also comes with rich cultural traditions, from a host of baroque churches and colonial buildings to the heartbeat of Afro-Brazilian heritage manifested in the martial art of capoeira, the spiritual tradition of candomble and more musical rhythms than you can shake a pandeiro at.
Thanks to a steady flow of trade winds, the climate is good almost all year. It’s cooler and less humid in Recife, near the equator, than stultifying Rio, 2,170 kilometers to the south.
Brazil’s Northeast coast: Best beaches
Here are a few of the offerings in four of the nine states of the Northeast: Ceara, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco and Bahia.
Ceara: Vacation station
With some 370 kilometers of beaches, many with few people on them, it’s no surprise that Ceara is the biggest vacation attraction in the Northeast.
Fortaleza is a well-established beach destination for Brazilians and Europeans, and a good place to acclimate to the Northeast.
Though the city has a Waikiki-style beachfront, the best beaches are outside town.
Praia do Futuro, about 10 kilometers south of Fortaleza, is the best, an enormous expanse of white-sand shores.
The surfing and swimming are excellent, and it feels remote -- if you can find a spot sealed off from the local beach vendors.
North of the city, Cumbuco and Iparana beaches are also worth checking out.
The Ceara coast is stocked with prime beach stops, many of which are in small towns and villages whose shores are dotted with jangadas (traditional fishing boats).
The giant pink sand dunes and laid-back hippie vibe of Canoa Quebrada have made it one of the top beaches in Ceara.
The languid beach town of Paracaru is a favorite with locals, and the small fishing hamlet of Jericoacoara is one of Brazil’s top windsurfing sites.
Rio Grande do Norte: Sand safari
Rio Grande do Norte wants to be the beach capital of Brazil, and there’s certainly no shortage of raw materials on its dune-draped coastline.
Natal, the state capital, has become a center for adventurous travel activities -- dune buggy riding, sand surfing, windsurfing, spectacular diving at the reef pools of Maracajau -- and offers miles of beaches, restaurants, food stands and nightlife.
South of town, it’s one big sand safari.
Ponta Negra beach is one of the most popular destinations. Stuck into a jungled hillside, it’s a stunning arc of sand sporting a 30-meter high, ski-run-like gash of dune on its south end.
Further south, they keep coming, from Praia da Pipa, lined by pink cliffs, to the secluded knockout of Baia Formoso, whose azure waters are straight out of the South Seas.
Pernambuco: Beach bum paradise
As the engine of the Northeast’s economic boom, Pernambuco is known more for its economic and cultural offerings than beaches, though it has plenty.
Its capital, Recife, known as “the Venice of Brazil” for its many waterways, is well stocked with 17th-century churches and edifices, including the well-preserved Dutch enclave of Olinda.
But it also has Boa Viagem, a picturesque stretch of reef-lined beach and waterfront, where you can pull up a chair and knock back cashews and cold cerveja.
The prime beach action is about an hour south of the city.
You can take your pick between smaller beach towns such as Tamandare or one of Brazil’s premiere beach resorts, Porto de Galinhas, which offers all the modern conveniences but will put a dent in your wallet.
Tamandare is an unpretentious beach town with a shore you can wander for hours and explore nearby wetlands.
A few kilometers away, there’s Praia dos Carneiros, a private beach in a lagoon-style setting that costs US$30 per car per day (which can be applied to food, drinks and boat cruises) and is well worth it.
Serene, great swimming, white sand like sugar -- Praia dos Carneiros looks like a postcard of paradise.
Porto de Galinhas is famed for its reef formations, which create a dizzying array of turquoise swimming/diving holes. The upscale resort was dubbed by one Brazilian mag Brazil’s best beach.
Bahia: Afro-Brazilan culture
The headquarters of colonial Brazil and Afro-Brazilian culture, Bahia is Brazil’s Northeast coast mother lode of historical and folkloric fare, brimming with arts, music and pastel-colored colonial facades, all on display in the capital of Salvador.
Bahia also has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
A good start is Salvador’s Praia Itapoa and Piata, and Barra Grande on the island of Itaparica.
South of Salvador, there’s a steady stream of beauties stretching down the Bahian coast.
Morro do Brasil has no trouble creating the vibe of an island, since it is one. It has superb beaches, no cars and is a favorite of Brazilian sunseekers.
The small town of Itacare has become a top surfing spot.
Bahia’s best-known beach destination is Porto Seguro, which despite its massive popularity, can dish out postcard scenes with the best tropical sites on the planet.
With hundreds more beaches in the region, the hardest part of any trip to Brazil’s Northeast Coast is getting through the decision-making needed to whittle down your ports of call.
More on CNN: The world's 50 best beaches