Sunday, June 7, 2009

On Fernando de Noronha

When a passenger plane tragically crashed into the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Brazil and West Africa in June 2009, the tropical archipelago of Fernando de Noronha was mentioned in the news all over the world. This seems to have puzzled a lot of people, even seasoned travelers, as the existence of the spectacular Fernando is known by relatively few. Many people went on-line to learn more.
Morro do Pico, 321 metres tall, is the most prominent feature of the islandTens of thousands of you eager travelers and geography nuts out there ended up on my photojournal from the island, and many of you sent me e-mails with all sorts of questions regarding visiting this natural wonder. I figure I'll save myself some time by doing a blog entry on the topic, so that I can refer people to this entry from now on. Keep in mind I visited in 2006. Although Fernando is a timeless place, things may have changed somewhat. Here goes.

Fernando is just a beautiful place to visit. Most of it is a protected maritime national park, so there are lots of restrictions to heed. Playing by the rules doesn't diminish your experiences, in fact the regulations on the island ensure that you will have a wonderful time both on land and in the sea just off the beaches.

First, regarding getting there, this is one of few places in Brazil where you have to plan ahead when you want to visit. If you have your own sailboat or your own plane, you can just go. If not, you have to book a flight. There aren't that many planes to choose from, and the seats on them fill quickly.

It appears that there are now three daily flights you can get on from the mainland. Varig flies from São Paulo and Trip Linhas Aéreas flies from Recife and Natal. None of these are cheap flights, and I did a few price searches on random dates in 2009 now in June. It seems that from São Paulo you can expect to pay between 2000 and 3500 reals roundtrip, and from Natal it may cost between 800 and 1200 reals. So spending a day and a night on the bus from São Paulo to Natal may save you some money!

You don't have to book accommodation in advance. There are literally a hundred options on the island, and since there are fewer flight seats available than beds, you'll find a place to stay when you get there.
Fernando seen from north-west. The airport is visible, and the village of Vila dos Remedios is hiding behind the pointy peakNow, the first thing that happens when you arrive on Fernando is that you have to pay a conservation tax. They don't want people to stay too long (or explore too much, I guess), so a short visit is fairly cheap, while a long stay is just crazy expensive. Four days cost about 150 reals, staying a month carries a conservation tax of roughly 3000 reals! This can be prepaid on-line.

After having cleared the tax booth, you will be met by many people shoving brochures into your hands, eager to book you into accommodation and into activities. Now is a good time to look at your options, compare them and do a bit of haggling regarding accommodation. Save the activities booking for later, you'll probably get a good deal on that by booking through the owner of your accommodation.

Fernando is a small island, so you can stay pretty much anywhere and still be close to everything. However, if you want to be able to go out and eat and drink in the evenings, which you can do in the town centre, ask about walking distance from the accommodation offered to Vila dos Remedios, which is the centre. (It's pitch dark many places at night, so do bring a torch if you're planning on walking anywhere after sunset.)
At night, Fernando is mostly dark all overThere are all sorts of accommodation available, from really nice (and expensive) hotels that would be considered small anywhere else, to just a room or a cabin in the back of somebody's house. In my opinion, all you SHOULD do there is to sleep, so it doesn't matter much what facilities are available.

You'll probably be taken to your accommodation by the host you choose, but you can also get on the bus without accommodation and look around on your own. There's a bus leaving every 30 minutes or so, and it covers the whole island. It takes about ten minutes. #8D) The ticket costs just a few reals.
The church and town hall in the centre of Vila dos RemediosWhen you're settled, look through the brochures you received at the airport or get your fix of it from the reception/owner where you're staying. Most likely the best deal is to buy a 2 or 3 day packet of activities. Several companies offer these, and although they offer different prices, the tours are exactly the same. Even if you request tours with an English-speaking guide, don't expect there to actually be one. Don't worry. You'll be fine and see great things nevertheless!

A multi-day tour just means you'll be picked up to do activities and then be dropped off where you choose afterwards. The time between the activities you choose how to spend as you please. A three day tour typically contains the following:

* A boat trip along the north coast. You'll see dolphins and a beautiful view of the island. There's a real risk you may get seasick, so this is the one activity I don't recommend to everyone. You can have great, similar views just from walking the beaches and cliffs instead.
Dolphins playing just in front of a boat, like they often do* The option to "aquasub", either as a separate thing or as part of the previously mentioned boat trip. What this means is that you'll wear snorkelling gear and hang onto a wing-like board behind the boat. It's like an inverted water-skiing thing. The boat moves at a comfortable velocity, so by pointing the "wing" downwards and upwards, you'll descend or ascend in the water. If the water is clear, and it often is, you'll have a good chance of seeing big fish, sharks, dolphins, large turtles and more. But you'll not have option to stop and look closer at anything, and you may find it difficult to equalize the pressure in your ears while you hang onto the board, so you may not go very deep... I find normal snorkeling on most of the beaches on the island was much nicer than the aquasubbing.
Praia de Atalaia* A visit to Atalaia beach. It's a most pristine place on the island, a tidal pool on a beach, in which there is LOTS of great and colourful sealife to see. They only let about a hundred people go in per day, in groups of 25 people each and for 30 minutes only. You are NOT allowed in the water if you have put any sunscreen on. Wear a t-shirt instead to protect yourself against the intense sun.
Beautiful hiking trails* A walk along the sea around Morro do Frances, an area that is off-limits to anyone without an official guide. It's just a beautiful walk, and the guides can usually tell you a lot of interesting facts about what you see.

* A walk through the town centre, where you'll be told the story of the island. It can be fairly interesting, but unless you're able to communicate well with the guide, there's no point in doing it.

You can save quite a bit by buying a package instead of booking everything separately. I'm pretty sure they'll be happy to let you spread your activities across more than three days if that suits your plans better. It's just that most people seem to spend only three days (an extended weekend) on the island, so the packages are tailored to that.

There's also great fishing diving to be done from Fernando, of course. There are several companies offering all kinds of that, so just ask around when you get there.

If you want to explore on your own, you certainly can! Just check with the tourist office where you're not allowed to go, and stay away from there! You can leave your stuff on any beach, it will be there when you return. Anyone caught stealing anything on Fernando will be expelled from the island!

A few things you might want to do:

* Get up reeeeeally early in the morning and head for Baía dos Golfinhos. Around sunrise, hundreds of dolphins play and have their breakfast there before they head out into the ocean to hunt throughout the day.
Praia do Léao, great snorkeling between the islands there* Go to Praia do Léao and enjoy the beach. Just walk as far as you need to have the whole world to yourself. Midway along the beach you'll pass a small island near land. I highly recommend the snorkeling in the stretch between the islands! If you're a good swimmer, you may also want to snorkel around the small island, but be aware of strong currents! There's an excellent chance of seeing sharks there. There has NEVER been recorded any shark attack on Fernando.

* Walk to the north-eastern end of the island. There's a cute little chapel there, some ruins and lots of colourful crabs on and under the rocks on the rough beach.
Sancho Beach. Amazing.* Hike the north coast. The trail beneath Morro do Pico, the potent highest peak of the island, may have a sign that says the path is closed. Ignore that. If you're used to hiking, you'll be able to make your way through. There's a seemingly never-ending string of world-class beaches to be discovered as you make your way westwards from Vila dos Remedios. You'll be all alone on some of them.

* Enjoy a night out in the town centre. There's an excellent outdoor pizza place near the church, and there's a pleasant bar just next door, sometimes with live music. Just don't stay up too late, you DO want to make the most of your days on Fernando!

I think that'll do for now. Feel free to ask me questions in the comments, so that I can add more details or facts.

Another good source for updated and good official information regarding Fernando de Noronha is http://www.noronha.pe.gov.br (although it's mainly in Portuguese... An English version with less information may or may not be found here.)

If you spot any false information here, please notify me by commenting. I'll be happy to adjust my text. #8D)

Happy trails!
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