NATAL, BRAZIL - Known as the “city of the sun,” Natal doesn’t disappointment me — when I step off the plane, the sun kisses my face and welcomes me home.
It’s been three years since I last visited my hometown in northeastern Brazil and I suspect a lot will be different since the last time I was here. And it doesn’t take long for me to see the changes. Natal, being one of the cities where some World Cup soccer matches were held when Brazil hosted the global tournament in 2014, got a new and improved airport and is now better equipped to welcome more international flights.
The ride to my family’s apartment is calm and void of the normally hectic traffic. On the way we pass the Newton Navarro Bridge, which crosses the Potengi River and connects Natal’s north and south shores. The bridge offers a breathtaking view of the the city and from it I see how Natal has grown since my last visit. I open my window to feel the warm breeze and take it all in.
By the time I reach home, it’s already very late, so I get ready for bed because I know my first official day in Natal will be a busy one.
I don’t know if it’s the jet lag or the sheer excitement of being back home, but the next day I wake up at 5:30 a.m., look out my window and see the most beautiful sunrise. So I rush outside and stand by the swimming pool, where I soak up the tranquility for almost an hour.
My aunt summons me about an hour later for breakfast and there’s a banquet of my favourite Brazilian dishes waiting for me — tapioca, qualho cheese, reiqueijão, moça’s cake and heaps of tropical fruit. Delicious!
Left: Natal is a city of beautiful sunsets. Right: Taking in a soccer game in a near-empty Natal stadium.
I had forgotten how amazing a fresh banana really tastes — how sweet and different they are from the ones that we get in Canada.
After breakfast I reach out to some friends and start making my plans for the week. I tell them I want to visit some of the new restaurants in town and a few of my old favourites.
I had already set up a lunch date with my grandparents at one of my favourite restaurants, Mangai, which serves typical northeastern Brazilian food. Northeastern food is very rich in flavour, very heavy, and features a lot of meat and seafood. Being a pescatarian, I don’t eat meat, just seafood, and Mangai has plenty for me to choose from.
When the meal arrives, the table goes silent — everyone is mesmerized by the quality of the food. I leave Mangai feeling incredibly happy and satisfied.
The rest of the day is spent on a beach soaking up the sun and drinking all the coconut water and caipirinha I possibly can.
The next day I wake up and head straight for the swimming pool — the best way to start a day, I can assure you of that.
Later, I meet a cousin for lunch to the Aloha Beach Club on Natal’s famous Ponta Negra Beach, right next to the “Morro do Careca” — the “hill of the bald man,” so called because it looks like a balding head. According to my cousin, the club is one of the most popular places right now to hang out.
Aloha Beach Club is extremely cute, with a very relaxed and hip decor and I understood right away why it’s one of the most popular places in my hometown. We order food and some drinks — both are all delicious. The shrimp is cooked to perfection and the caipirinhas are amazing. However, it isn’t cheap to eat here and people usually just come for drinks.
Above: An old fort looks like a giant sand castle sitting on Natal's beach.
When it comes to restaurant food, Natal is not cheap. Because Brazil’s currency, the real, has been devalued so much during the country’s recent economic woes — it’s valued at about .40 cent versus the Loonie — locals find it expensive to eat out, but visitors get a bigger bang for their buck.
No matter, the club is well worth a visit and the breathtaking view I get of the beach is priceless.
After a whole afternoon at the beach soaking up the sun, I’m invited by my uncle to go watch a soccer game at Arena das Dunas — the stadium where Natal hosted a few World Cup games. It’s a very impressive addition to the city’s skyline.
Being Brazilian, most people tend to assume I am a big soccer fan when in reality I most definitely am not. The only time I watch soccer is when Brazil is playing at the World Cup — during that period I become an ardent supporter of the “beautiful game.”
The match featured rivals ABC vs Alecrim — two teams from the same state. The passionate ABC fans bring life to the mostly empty stadium with their chants and songs and I’m quickly reminded why Brazilians are regarded as the best soccer fans in the world.
The most anticipated day of my trip arrives on Feb. 24 — the day Natal’s carnival begins.
From my apartment window I hear people laughing, dancing and partying like there’s not a single worry on their mind. During carnival, downtown Natal is completely empty during the day when everyone moves to the beaches for the long holiday, which runs until March 1.
It’s one of the most anticipated times of the year and they plan well ahead..
A 7 p.m. on the first night of the carnival, the music gets louder on the street in front of my apartment and dancing breaks out. In all the time I lived in Brazil, I never attended one of these and the experience is amazing. Let’s just say, you don’t know what a party is until you’ve been to a carnival street party. The street quickly fills up with a sea of people, and I get to meet some of the neighbourhood kids I grew up with. Everyone is having a blast, dancing to Brazilian carnival music while drinking beer on the street — it’s allowed during carnival and beer here is incredibly cheap; around $1 Cdn. a bottle.
Left: Life is a beach in the Brazilian town of Natal. Right: Families converge on the beach every day.
After two days of street parties, I’m ready for something more relaxing. So I retreat to one of my favourite places in the world, Pipa Beach.
It’s hard to describe Pipa, an incredibly beautiful place that everyone seems to fall in love with at first glance. Pipa has a unique vibe to it — it’s carefree and home to many immigrants, who simply never returned home after visiting this beach. That’s the power of Pipa.
There’s so much to do and see here — so many little restaurants with the most delicious food; so many stores with great things to choose and buy; such an incredible variety of night life.
Pipa is a little piece of heaven on Earth, and I spend the most peaceful three days of my trip soaking up all it has to offer.
With just a few days of my trip remaining, I commit to doing the one thing I have to do before returning to Toronto — a dune buggy tour along Natal’s beautiful coastline. The tour takes me past nine beaches, three lakes and four massive sand dunes and the driver offers me an “adrenaline” option, which features wild manoeuvres at high speeds down the dunes.
The tour starts early in the morning and ends late in the afternoon and during it I’m treated to some of the most breathtaking ocean scenery imaginable. All this for about $48 per person.
On my last day in Natal I enjoy the company of family and friends over a nice lunch at Camarões restaurant — another of the city’s more famous rooms — before catching my flight back to Canada.
I leave with such a mix of feelings and emotions. I was so incredibly happy to be able to enjoy all that I had just experienced, but also a bit sad that I have to leave so soon. I knew the second I left my aunt’s home that I would miss the Brazilian way of living. Brazilians are an incredibly happy people and the way they see beauty and happiness everywhere, and enjoy even the most simple of things is how we should all appreciate life.
I cannot wait to go back and experience it all over again.
Until next time, Brazil.