Natal is a city built on sand. It blows across the city streets and piles up in drifts like snow. It lines the city's beaches, lies beneath the city's foundations, landscapes the city's parks, and piles up in towering dunes that form the city's picture-postcard views. Outside Natal, the sand dunes spread in mountainous dune ranges that stretch for miles.
Perhaps because sand is not the most fertile of foundations, Natal has been an oft-overlooked sandlot of a city for much of its history, noticed by the powers that be only when some other power tried to take it away.
The Portuguese founded a town on the banks of the Potengi River to drive out the French. To hold the territory, the Portuguese built Forte dos Reis Magos in 1599. The fort's foundation was celebrated with a Mass on December 25, 1599, and so the city was named Natal (the Portuguese word for Christmas). After that, the Portuguese pretty much ignored the place. By 1757 there were a whopping 120 buildings in the area, among them a church and a prison.
Natal first came to American notice in the early 1940s. The U.S. had just entered the war against the Axis powers and sleepy little Natal -- the closest land base to North Africa -- was suddenly a place of world significance. Franklin Roosevelt paid a visit, meeting with Brazilian President Getulio Vargas to work out the details of Brazil's war effort. There's a famous picture of the two presidents, riding through the streets of Natal in an open limousine, sand barely visible beneath the wheels.
Natal became the "Trampoline of Victory," an air and communications base providing cover for the Allied invasion of North Africa. According to local folklore, one lasting legacy of that period was a new Brazilian dance step. Wanting to make the American airmen welcome, the Brazilians invited them to local dances, and developed a simplified two-step rhythm the rather club-footed Yanks could handle. They titled the dances "For All." The dance spread all over the Northeast, while the name got shortened to forró.
Only recently, as Europeans and Americans began to discover the true value of sand and endless sunshine, has Natal has really begun to blossom.
Why visit? Natal offers endless beaches for surfing and tanning, and dunes, glorious dunes, hundreds of feet high and spilling down to within inches of the seashore. To the north of the city the dunes pile up so high locals have begun to make use of them in a wide variety of peculiar and original sports. You can ski or toboggan down them, rope-slide from the top of them, camel ride across them, and buggy ride over, up, down, and all around them.
North and south of Natal the beaches stretch for hundreds of miles, dotted now and again with fishing villages and only lightly touched by tourism. The preferred method of transport in these regions is by dune buggy. Offshore -- at places up the coast such as Maracajaú -- wide coral reefs lie in shallow water, great places to spend a day snorkeling.
And everywhere you go, north and south and in the city, there's sand.