This is certainly the most famous tourist spot in Natal.
The village of Ponta Negra is a few square kilometers large. It used to be home for fishers and other working people; around early 1990's, the tourism businesses began to take ove the area; a few years ago, foreigner investors (notably Italians, Portuguese and other Europeans) started to pour money into the area, and tourism oriented businesses flourished.
Today, there are men at work all around the village. Medium and small hotels and flats are being built everywhere (there is no free space for bigger hotels). Houses are being refurbished and adapted to become restaurants, shops, etc. There are few slots of real estate left (naturally, prices are rising).
However, if the hotels and flats are spread all over, most of the fun happens at the beach strip.
Ponta Negra beach is about 4 km long. In the south end is Morro do Careca, the most famous landmark of Natal. Walking northwards, one first sees about 2km of av. Erivan Franca, crowded with bars, restaurants, hotels, party houses, small shopping galleries, etc; then, the avenue ends, and the next 2km have just a walk way, lined with small hotels and some small snack barrows.
It's not hard to see why this is the hot spot in Natal.
Morro do Careca is a combination of sea, mountain, dunes and green. Climbing the hill is forbidden, but many people don't care; the gay guides repeatedly mention the lateral trails of the hill as a good meeting point. The avenue sideways is where most fun happens. That stretch is always crowded with tourists, both Brazilian and foreigners. It's not luxurious or posh, but it's cosy and clean. The sun is almost always shining, but it's always accompanied by a refresing wind. It's always busy with people of all walks of life, but everybody respects each other.
The Praia do Meio area is in the northern part of Natal; there are several beaches, with undefined boundaries: Praia do Forte (around the fortress), Praia do Meio, Praia dos Artistas (around Chaplin) and Areia Preta.
There is a tourist office at Praia dos Artistas, close to Chaplin; also, right beside, a 24/7 Banco do Brasil ATM.
Until about ten years ago, this was the busiest area in Natal; the today closed Hotel dos Reis Magos was famous for the parties which congregated the high society of Natal.
Today, the place is decadent; the city government has been trying to revitalize the area (the pavement was refurbished, a communitary sports court was built), but results are still incipient. The beaches are frequented mostly by locals who live around the area.
Don't walk very far towards the fortress by night. Even though very diminished from recent years, street prostitution still exists, both on main avenue and lateral streets.
The beaches are lined by reefs; when the tide lowers, water pools are formed, good for children. During the high tides, the waves here and bigger than in Ponta Negra, making Praia dos Artistas a favourite place for surfers.
Hotels along the beach avenue are cheaper than in Ponta Negra. Quality and prices vary much, but you can certainly find comfortable places here.
Praia do Meio and Ponta Negra are about 12 km apart.
The cleanest urban beaches in Natal
Via Costeira is the 10 km highway which goes from Praia dos Artistas to Ponta Negra. There are about ten high category hotels on one side, and a nature reserve Parque das Dunas,on the other.
Differently from Ponta Negra and Praia do Meio, there is no sewage running on the sand; also, because few people (basically, only the guests of the hotels) go to these beaches, very little garbage is thrown out, and the hotel staff cleans it often.
If you are staying at one of the Via Costeira hotels, then going to these beaches is just a natural option.
However, even if you are not a guest, you can use part of the structure of the hotels to enjoy the beaches. Always remember this: the beach is public property, whereas the hotel is private property; the hotel can't stop anyone from going to the beach; the hotels could prevent you from using their premises, but it is not to their benefit to do so. Usually, you can leave your car at the parking loot; use the restaurants for water/drinks or to have a full meal; use the external showers to wash the salt.
One week of carnival is not enough for many Brazilians.
Almost every big city tries to capitalize on that fact and organize an off-season carnival. Fortaleza has Fortal, Recife has Recifolia, Brasilia (a city famous not just for not having carnival, but also for not having any other means of having fun) has Candango; Natal has Carnatal.
Carnatal takes place sometime in early November. It has happened in the streets around Machadao (traffic around the stadium changes radically during Carnatal days), but every year a discussion arises about the convenience of moving the party somewhere else (people who live around that area claim they pay too much tax and are unhappy with all the noise that Carnatal makes).
While in Rio it's difficult (though possible) for foreigners to participate directly of the parades (most tourists just watch alegories passing by), in Carnatal participation is the norm.
There are several "blocos", which consistly basicly of a famous band playing music very loudly on the top of a big adapted truck; the truck moves slowly along the streets, and the members of the block are allowed to follow it, singing, dancing and enjoying themselves (plenty of drinking, flerting, hugging, kissing). A membership costs around R$100, and you are identified by a characteristic t-shirt, called abada; only people wearing abadas can follow the block.
You can also just watch the blocks; either you pay a small fee to be allowed in the cabines mounted around the Carnatal streets, or just wander around for free.
Parque das Dunas is a legally protected enviroment which occupies an area of 1,172 hectares (1 hectare = 10,000 square meters) in the urban area of Natal; it's the area you see when you drive along Via Costeira; actually, you can see the Parque from almost everywhere in southern Natal.
By visiting the park, one can learn much about the geological formation of dunes and the wild life of Brazilian forests
The fortress was built in 1,598, using wood, stones, sand and whale oil; it was the first bulding in Natal. The designer, Gaspar de Samperes, adopted the conventional design for a maritime fortress: a five corners stars.
In 12th December 1,633, the fortress was taken over by the Dutch, who stayed until January of 1,654, when the Portuguese, helped by the indians, regained the place.
The Center of tourism had functioned as a House of Detention until the decade of 60. It was inaugurated in 1976 and is located on the top of a hill with a privileged sight of some urban beaches in Natal and part of the city. Besides providing touristic information, it has many little stores installed in what was once the prison cells, and filled with the most varied craftsmanship (carnauba fiber, sisal, ceramics, embroiderings, typical products and foods...), an art gallery, an antiquary, a night club and a restaurant.
Genipabu has long been the favorite of the local Brazilians, and gained real fame when the soap opera 'Tieta' concluded its story in this beautiful beach. Only 30 km from Natal and the airport, this is a convenient, yet secluded, location to enjoy your vacation. Famous for its dunes, this is one of the most developed beach resort areas on the coast.
Buggy Drive at the dunes is a great fun for one day. Hire a buggydriver and load up to 3-4 persons into a buggy and have day that you will remember.
While driving with "motion" at sand-dunes you will be natures own made rollercoster and you will come to one of these places where you can jump into one of these aerial cableways from the top of the dune, all the way down to a sweet water lake - SPLASH.
There will be waiting a "boat" on which you climb or you can swim back to the shore.
From here there will be waiting a carriage on rails. WV Beatle driven engine will then tow you back to the top of the dune.
If this is too frightening for you, there is also similar high dunes from which you will have a sledride down to a lake.
Museum of natural science and anthropoly, maintained by the Federal University.
Diversified expositions: fossils found in the region; scheletons of several animals: whale, elephant, lion, etc; artwork from indians and afro-brazilians; pieces of historic relevance.
The Barreira do Inferno (Hell's Barrier) Launching Center was the place from where the first Brazilian rocket was launched. This region and the center itself got their names from the fiery colors reflected by the cliffs next to the beach at sunset when seen from the sea. Built in 1964, the center had an important role in the development of Brazilian space technology. Nowadays, one of its main activities is to track Ariane vehicles launched from the Space Center at Kourou in the French Guyana.
Apart from Praia da Pipa (south of Natal) and Genipabu (north from Natal), you can also go to Maracajau. It is located around 54 km from north from Natal. From there you take a boat to reach the natural swimming pools, 7 km far from the beach.
Incredible transparency of the water. Snorkel is already included in the boat trip.
If you are looking for souvenirs, this is a nice place. Not very big, but most of the handcrafts, typical from that region, can be found there. Prices are reasonable.
On Thursday nights, there is a folkloric show called Forr? com Turista (Forr? with Tourists).
Opened daily, from 8 am to 7 pm. Entrance free.
The Fortaleza (fort) here was built by the Dutch in 1598. it;s located just north of the Praia Do Meio on the way to Genipabu and for R$2 (less than 1$ US) you get a guided tour.
Like most tours in Brazil, you must speak Portuguese to understand what's being said.. but if you're here, you probably speak the language anyway. If you don't want a guided tour, you can tell them you just want to take some photos and look around and you will be free to wander the fort and enjoy the scenery unabated by the guide.
There are great photo ops. here from the top of the fort looking back towards Ponta Negra and Praia Do Meio.
You must park your car and walk a good distance to the fort itself. Where you park, there are some little open air flea market type shops where you can buy all kinds of shells and souvenirs very cheap. I picked up a few huge shells.. one of which I found to STINK of dead fish returning to the states. OK if it's going in the garden.. but be careful when buying these - smell first! For less than 5$ US you can buy 3 medium size shells or one huge Conch shell - not too mention all kinds of other local handmade crafts.
Where you park there are usually kids hanging out - they will offer watch your car for you while you walk around and tour the for. They want less than 1R$. It's a good idea to pay them to do so, not because it's needed, but because they may end up being the ones who break into your car while you're away if you don't!
North of the Fortaleza, you must place your car on a balsa (boat) for 6R$ to cross the inlet. The boat holds about 30 cars and comes every 20 minutes. While you wait there is a shop where you can get another beer (always need beer) and wait for the boat to arrive.
After crossing the Inlet you arrive in a small fising village (eat here for a real taste of brazil), then keep going north through Santa Rita and onto Genipabu.
Genipabu is THE place for dunes in Natal. They are HUGE! The area also offers great vistas of the ocean and more beaches to play and relax on.
Most people rent buggys or tours to come here, I drove there myself and therefore was free to to do and see whatever I wanted. If you park and walk the dunes it's quite tiring.. but worth it, for once at the top there are camels you can tour the dunes on - one person per side for 20R$ each (or 7+$ USD) or you can go Ski-Bunda (ski on your ass)! This was really cool - rent a prancha (board) for 5R$ and ride down the dunes on your butt - Sure you get sand in yer crack - but what's vacation for ?? :-) LOL.
At the bottom of the dunes, right on the ocean is a nice bar/restaurant where the music is good and the ppl. are very friendly.. stop in and have another beer (always necessary) - especially when they are 30 cents USD. :)
Then, stay here for the wonderful sunset over the basin from the top of the dunes. It was the most beautiful sunset I saw in Natal. Unfortunately for me, my camera battery died right as I was going to take the best picture of the trip - but I still have the image in my mind!