Natal has boomed as a package-holiday destination for both Brazilians and foreigners in recent decades. The city is pleasant, but in many ways unremarkable. Its star attraction, however, is the beautiful beaches that stretch along Brazil’s northeast coast. In terms of culture, though, there isn’t much on offer. Should you find yourself in the city for a day, here are some ideas of how to enjoy your time.
As the main activities in Natal take place on the beach, your schedule is likely to vary according to the where the tide is and what the weather is doing. It is fair to assume that the sun is shining, as it does fairly consistently in this part of Brazil, so set out early on a buggy tour to Dunas de Genipabú. A huge eco park of mountainous sand dunes, it is playground for grown ups. The open-topped buggies that zoom up and down them have driven along the shore from Natal.
Most tours offer the chance to sandboard. Following the same premise as snowboarding, the brave strap on a board and wiggle down the dunes. It’s not as fast as on snow, but is a lot of fun nonetheless. The next activity to try out in nearby Jucumã is what the Brazilians call aerobunda—a zipline over the dunes that you ride in a harness around your waist and bottom. There’s also the chance to take camel (imported from Spain), donkey, and boat rides too.
Further to the north lies Parrachos de Maracajaú. It is a large reef known as the Caribbean of Brazil about a 10-minute boat ride off the coast. At low tide, crystalline pools between three to 10 feet (1–3m) deep form and offer stunning snorkeling and scuba diving. You can incorporate it into your buggy tour—drivers will aim to get you there when the tide is right—or go directly from Natal in a shuttle transfer which you can book through Parrachos Praia Club, which also has a good restaurant to lunch at.
Should the weather be a washout when you are there, pop into the small Popular Toy Museum, which has an endearing collection of children’s toys and games from days gone by. It is also worth going to the Forte dos Reis Magos, an almost star-shaped defensive fort that was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and marked the beginnings of the city.
Having had your fill of thrills and fresh air, go for a little retail therapy. The handsome former prison now houses the Centro de Turismo de Natal, which includes almost 50 artisan stalls and shops, as well as food stands, tourist information, and on Thursdays from 10 p.m., forró dancing nights. The Centro de Artesanato in Praia dos Artistas is open daily, and in the evenings on Thursdays to Sundays there is another smaller local souvenir market nearby.
The Ponta Negra neighborhood is where the action is once the night falls. It used to be a slightly seedy area that attracted ladies of the night and their customers, but these days it has cleaned itself up and is a fun and safe place to go out. Camarões Potiguar is an obligatory stop for visitors to Natal. It specializes in big juicy prawns cooked in all kinds of different ways and served with special sauces. The portions are huge and designed for three to share, and for those not partial to prawns there are veggie, meat, and other seafood dishes too. Be prepared to queue.
If you aren’t starving then go instead and choose between the 40-odd fillings on offer at Casa de Taipa. The tapiocaria serves a northeastern favorite, tapioca pancakes stuffed with more adventurous toppings than the usual ham and cheese—for example, chicken and pesto, or one with strawberries, cashew nuts, and ice cream for dessert, or even sushi made from tapioca.
Head to Old Five for a relaxing and romantic drink looking out to sea—the cocktails are pretty knockout. Afterwards wander toward the high part of the neighborhood known as the Alto de Ponta Negra. There you will find Downtown, where you can rock out to pop music, and possibly a tribute act before seeing where the night takes you.