Natal: a mystery to me!
I have to be honest and admit that I don't really get Natal. I have been, once, back in 2002. It's a pleasant enough place, but quite why it's been singled out as a tourist destination is a mystery to me. That's not to say I dislike Natal and its surroundings - I enjoyed my time there very much - but it doesn't have the wealth of things to see and do that other parts of Brazil do. Yet when I visited it was a magnet for Scandinavian tourists and since then it's taken off as a destination for other European travellers.
I stayed in a hotel in the city of Natal itself, which appears to centre around a motorway (our hotel was by the side of it). We had to take buses to go anywhere, including the tourist centre and museums in the smallish town. These were not convenient to say the least.
"Reasons to visit"
You should see Natal not so much for the city itself, but as a base from which to visit the beaches of Genipabu, Pipa and Ponta Negra; it's in between these destinations, making it a perfect location.
The initial inspiration for our own trip was to see the world's biggest cashew tree (in Genipabu) and we did not leave disappointed - I never thought I would be so delighted by a tree!
The reason we went at the time was to experience Natal's calmer take on the festival, which mainly centres on a parade featuring giant puppets. It is an interesting celebration, and is closer to the Portuguese traditions. We had a really enjoyable and chilled-out night eating on the beach and watching the celebrations.
"Natal the city"
What Natal does offer as a city is an insight into the culture of the North East. Having come from Salvador on my first real trip outside that city, I was struck at the very different feel of Natal. And that sense is strongest away from the touristy centres. Even a trip to the mall or a short bus ride brings it out. People look very different here to other parts of Brazil and their attitude is different - one of the real pleasures of travelling in Brazil, as I have discovered, is the idea of the preservation of very distinct cultures. And the people of Rio Grande do Norte are largely charming.