Planning a Trip
By Plane -- TAM (toll-free tel. 0800/570-5700 or 084/4002-5700); Gol (tel. 0300/115-2121); and Varig (tel. 084/4003-7000) offer flights that arrive and depart daily from all major cities in Brazil.
All flights arrive at Aeroporto Augusto Severo, Rua Eduardo Gomes s/n (tel. 084/3643-1000), about 15km (9 1/4 miles) from downtown and just a few miles from Ponta Negra beach. Taxis from the airport are about R$25 to R$30 (US$13-US$15/£7-£8) to Ponta Negra and R$35 (US$18/£9.50) to Praia dos Artistas, close to downtown. City buses marked VIA COSTEIRA will also stop in Ponta Negra before continuing along the coastal highway to downtown.
By Bus -- Long-distance buses arrive at the Rodoviaria, Av. Cap. Mor Gouveia 1237, Cidade Esperança (tel. 084/3232-7310), about 5km (3 miles) from downtown and Ponta Negra beach.
Natal's airport has a tourist information center (tel. 084/3643-1811) in the arrivals hall, open daily from 9am to 5pm. The main tourist information center is in Natal's Centro de Turismo, Rua Aderbal de Figueiredo 980, Petrópolis (tel. 084/3211-6149).
A small downtown aside, Natal is a postwar creation; in many ways it resembles the modern, sprawling, car-centric cities of the southwestern United States. The original city was founded on a peninsula between the Potengi River and the Atlantic Ocean. Just off the tip of the peninsula, where ocean and river meet, the original Forte de Reis Magos still stands, a forgotten bit of the 17th century. Where the fort's causeway touches the mainland the 21st century begins -- a modern oceanside boulevard that under various names runs from here south through the length of the city and out into the dunes beyond. About 3km (1 3/4 miles) south of the fort the street is called Avenida Presidente Café Filho, and the surrounding neighborhood is Praia dos Artistas. From here the road climbs a bit, becoming Avenida Governo Silvio Pedroso, then Via Costeira, which runs for some 9km (5 1/2 miles) between the ocean and a vast nature preserve called Parque das Dunas. There are a number of five-star resort hotels nestled in between the parkway and the ocean. Where the park ends, the road swings away from the beach a bit and becomes Avenida Engenheiro Roberto Freire, the backbone of the city's best beach neighborhood, Ponta Negra. Avenida Roberto Freire itself is a wide, busy, and rather ugly artery, but the streets leading off it down to the ocean are quiet and pleasant, lined with hotels and pousadas. The beach itself has no traffic at all along this stretch, just a pedestrian walkway and seawall, punctuated by beachside kiosks or barracas. About two-thirds of the way along the lovely 3km (1 3/4-mile) beach, Avenida Roberto Freire drops downhill to the waterfront and becomes Avenida Erivan França, a busy beachside boulevard lined with pubs and restaurants and nightclubs that runs all the way to Morro do Careca (Bald Mountain), the 117m (390-ft.) sand dune that overlooks the beach.
Going the other direction from the Forte dos Reis Magos, along the banks of the Rio Potengi, you pass the abutments of a bridge (now in its seventh year of construction) that may some day lead across the river to Genipabu, as well as the terminal for the ferries that actually do cross the river. The road then climbs and enters Centro, also called the Cidade Alta, the commercial heart of Natal. Centro has a few old squares -- the Praça André de Albuquerque and Praça Sete de Setembro. The main street is Avenida Rio Branco.
North of Natal, the dunes and beaches begin as soon as you cross the river. This area is called the Litoral Norte (north coast). The first settlement in the Literal Norte is the quiet village of Genipabu, about 25km (16 miles) north of downtown Natal. Once a fishing village, Genipabu now caters to tourists who come to swim at the beach and buggy and climb through the huge surrounding dunes.
South of Ponta Negra there's a long stretch of beaches known as the Litoral Sul (south coast), with something for everyone. Búzios beach is excellent for snorkellers, while Barra de Tabatinga is a surfer's hot spot. Capping off the string of south coast beaches is Praia da Pipa, a gorgeous stretch of sand and a small destination in its own right.
By Bus -- The bus is a quick and efficient way to travel from Ponta Negra to Centro and vice versa. In Ponta Negra, buses run along Estrada Ponta Negra. For downtown, look for buses marked CENTRO or CIDADE ALTA. There are two routes. Buses with signs saying VIA COSTEIRA follow the coast as far as Praia dos Artistas and then cut across to Centro. Other CENTRO buses use the inland route along Avenida Prudente de Morais or Avenida Hermes da Fonseca. To return to Ponta Negra, any bus that says PONTA NEGRA or even VIA COSTEIRA will do. You enter buses through the front. Fare is R$1.80 (US75¢/£.40).
By Taxi -- You can hail a taxi anywhere. To reserve one, phone Disk Taxi Natal (tel. 084/3223-7388) or CoopTax (tel. 0800/84-2255). A taxi from Ponta Negra to downtown will cost about R$25 to R$30 (US$13-US$15/£7-£8).
By Car -- Natal is an easy city for driving; streets are wide, traffic is light, and parking not much of a problem. You can rent a car to drive up or down the coast, but you'll have more fun if you rent a buggy with a driver who can take you off-road.