Is Tourism Welcome? – Tourism vs. Traditional Life of Bartering

“We would leave on Monday, be gone the entire week fishing in either the lakes or if there was not enough water we’d go out on the ocean and return on Saturday. We’d have one day at home and we were off again.”

With his six brothers and parents, Marinaldo lived on fishing. Day in, day out.

Marinaldo – The Barter System of a Fisherman

Marinaldo grew up in Santo Amaro, a fishing village that until some ten years earlier was largely closed off from the world. The only connection to the city, São Luís, was by boat, a 12-hour journey.

The fish they caught was eaten or swapped for farinha (manioc flour). It was their staple food, together with what nature provided such as coconuts and cashew nuts. Farinha was added to anything they ate: to fish, the shrimp and to their coffee.

Tourism is welcome in Lençois Maranhenses, having taken many people out of poverty.
Having a discussion with Marinaldo atop a dune.

“It was the best breakfast we could have,” Marinaldo reminisced. “You could work on that for hours. Or my mother made porridge from farinha and coconut milk, to which we would subsequently add more farinha before eating it. We called it eating ‘farinha with farinha‘.”

To get hold of other products, the fishing families made hats from carnauba leaves (a type of palm tree). Whenever they didn’t fish, they were making hats. Every once in a while a buyer would come from São Luís to swap the hats for a kilo of rice, half a kilo of sugar, a bit of coffee and a liter of kerosene.

“That’s how we lived,” Marinaldo tells me. “My mother would add coconut ‘dust’ (the finest coconut powder left after having grated it) to the coffee to increase the quantity. Of course, it tasted different than regular coffee, but at least we had enough for our large family of eight.”

I’m sitting around the table with Marinaldo, whom Coen and I befriended in the town of Santo Amaro and who suggested to join us for a day to an oasis in the dunes of Lençois Maranhenses National Park. As we arrived in the oases and had lunch with a local family we sat around the table and he shared stories with us about his life here in the dunes of northeast Brazil.

This was the second time in a couple of weeks that I come across a person my age (40s) who grew up with a barter system because money hardly existed during their youth and for as much as it was around, it didn’t really have a value.

Fisherman's hut in Lençois Maranhenses, Brazil (©Coen Wubbels)
A hut in a village in Lençois Maranhenses National Park

Valmir Borges – The Barter System of a Rubber Tapper

Marinaldo’s story is similar to Valmir Borges, whom we had met in the Amazon where he was our guide for a boat trip to the incredibly beautiful, flooded forest of the Anavilhanas.

He grew up as the son of a rubber tapper. His parents had fled from the state of Acre, where serfage was still common (and still exists today). They settled in the Amazonas, far away from everybody.

“We lived deep in the rainforest, where the sun hardly penetrated the foliage,” Valmir remembered. “When my mother did the laundry and it needed to dry, my father would cut some trees to create an open space, otherwise the laundry would never dry in the humid climate.”

They lived on fish and manioc, like Marinaldo. Also here a vendor would show up every once in a while by boat and swap the harvested latex for the family’s necessities like soap, beans, sugar, and coffee.

There are many similarities in their life stories, even though Valmir lost his mother at a young age and he was sent to the city to live with relatives while Marinaldo lived with his parents until he got married. Neither of them regrets those days, or talk about them with a tone of feeling sorry for themselves.

“This was the life we knew, so we managed,” they both commented on that.

Tourism is welcome in the Anavilhanas flooded forest, providing Valmir with a steady job.
Valmir helps me climb around one of Anavilhanas’ biggest trees

Is Tourism Welcome?

To my question of what they think of tourism as a new source of income for their region, they were very clear, with relief still visible on their faces as they spoke,

“Tourism has been a blessing. Life was so tough, so much on a level of survival. Tourism has brought an income to many villagers and the standard of living has increased enormously.”

These kinds of stories you don’t see from the outside. As travelers we arrive at a village or town and see how it’s developing: mud-brick houses are replaced by houses made of stone. Roads are paved or asphalted and the banners announcing a constellation of tours are hanging all over the place. Litter generally dominates the scenery.

Tourism does not necessarily beautify a place.

I am glad that on both occasions we got to stay longer, spent quite a bit of time with these two men and heard their stories. That, yes, tourism may destroy a lot of traditions, customs, and lifestyles but, as is clear from Marinaldo’s and Valmir’s stories, that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

They get a lot for it in return.

Caves of Madada in Anavilhanas National Park

Practical Information on Marinaldo & Lençois de Maranhenses

  • Marinaldo continued to be a fisherman until some fifteen years ago the first visitors came to Santo Amaro and he was asked to guide them. He saw the opportunities ahead of him and followed several courses to be trained as a guide. He takes visitors on day hikes or multiple-day hikes into the dunes of Lençois Maranhenses National Parks or organizes tours to visit the oasis of Quemada dos Britos, the nearby village of Betaña, horseback riding trips or and downriver tubing adventure.
  • Marinaldo also runs a basic guesthouse: Pousada Lulayna Dunas.
    • Email: bjosemarinaldo@hotmail.com
    • Address: Rua Figueiredo Campos no. 93, Santo Amaro
    • Phone: (98) 8879-9438

How to Explore the Dunes of Lençois Maranhenses

The entire region of Lençois Maranhenses is spectacular, not just the dunes but also the Perguiças River. Barreirinhas is a good place to find tours or a guide to show you the very best that the region has to offer. Check what tours are on offer and see if they fit your needs.

Click on the images below to learn more.

Practical Information on Valmir (Vermelinho)

  • Valmir Borges (locally known as Vermelinho) became a guide in Novo Airão, in the Amazonas (northwest of Manaus) – also known as a place where you can swim with dolphins.
  • He grew up in the region and knows everything about the region’s flora and fauna. He guides visitors on day trips or multiple day trips to, among other places, Anavilhanas National Park (that we visited) and Jaú National Park.
  • Website Valmir
    • Email: anavilhanasvermelinho@hotmail.com
    • Address: Rua Olegaria Saraiva no. 84, Novo Horizonte – Novo Airão
    • Phone: (92) 9238 – 9113

How to Explore the Amazon River & Rainforest

The best time to organize a boat trip is June-September. October and November are dry months and boats most likely can’t sail upriver. If you don’t have your own wheels to get to the magnificent places in the Amazon Rainforest such as this Anavilhanas-Archipel, best book a tour that leaves from Manaus.

Click on the links below to learn more.

Additional Reading about the Brazilian Amazon


Travel Guides for Brazil

(click on the images to look inside)


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Photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow our overland journey on Landcruisingadventure.com or on Instagram.

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