Heaven is a place on earth…and beneath the waves
“While religion, science and philosophy continue to battle
out what happens when we die, in Brazil there is little
discourse on the subject: heaven plays second fiddle to the 21-island Fernando de Noronha archipelago.”
– Lonely Planet
The archipelago of Fernando de Noronha protrudes from its eponymous marine national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers more than 40,000 hectares. Glinting waters cradle a bounty of wildlife such as sharks (not the man-eating kind), tuna, turtles (the hawksbill and green turtle breed here), pilot whales, and a massive resident population of dolphins (possibly the largest of its kind anywhere on Earth). Nowhere else in the entire Western Atlantic region is there such a concentration of tropical seabirds, while the forests hum to the croak of colourful, tropical frogs, along with birdsong, including that of endemic examples like the Noronha vireo, Noronha elaenia, and a subspecies of the eared dove.
Less than 3,000 souls inhabit Fernando de Noronha, the largest and only populated island among the sprinkling of lustrous monoliths that break the ocean’s azure surface from a submerged volcanic mountain range, the South Atlantic ridge, 350km from the Brazilian coast. The main island stretches for 10km, and averages just 1.5km wide, bordered by Brazil’s best golden beaches that give way to a craggy 300m peak, Morro do Pico, surrounded by rainforest and dotted with quaint, quiet hubs. The island’s also known as the Hawaii of Brazil, owing to the tubular swells that roll around much of its shores, attracting surfers from across the globe.
There are two seasons here: one dry (April-August), one wet (September-March), both hot. The nautical Eden is named after a Portuguese aristocrat who may or may not have even ever seen it, and there are conflicting stories about who discovered them—though they were almost certainly found by an early 16th century Portuguese expedition (Columbus had only sailed upon the New World 11 years prior).
Charles Darwin visited Fernando de Noronha three centuries later, and it has since attracted an array of naturalists and their ilk. Today, there is something for just about everyone, on every budget—but especially for those open to a little adventure (and preferably not prone to sea sickness). Such is the clarity of the waters around the isles that visibility stretches for up to 50m. Huge tidal pools at Praia da Atalaia afford the opportunity for snorkelers to glimpse octopuses, lobsters, and small sharks. Head with your snorkel mask to Sueste Bay to share the sea with the endangered green and hawksbill turtles—high tide here is best. The marine park is also lauded as not just one of the region’s premier scuba diving spots, but the world’s. For those with less confidence in the water, several boat tours leave from Porto de Santo Antonio at the island’s eastern tip, to explore the archipelago’s numerous nooks and crannies.
Several walking tracks lace the island. The two-hour Esmeralda Coast Trail has the most ocean views, taking in three beaches, dotted with birdlife including pelicans (you may see them diving for food), and finishing in front of Dois Irmãos — or ‘Two Brothers’ — a pair of enormous rocks sitting just offshore. The Costa Azul Trail, also two-hours, begins in the village of Remedios, the island’s capital, running past 18th century architecture, more beaches and the ruins of a fort under the shadow of that peak, Pico. Sancho Beach is a must, the epitome of an isolated tropical stretch, accessed via a steep climb through a narrow gap in its protective rock face (this was a favoured hangout of Jacques Cousteau).
For most visitors, the highlight of the trip comes courtesy of a clifftop view of a sheltered bay where, each morning hundreds of dolphins gather, some to chill, some to frolic, having spent the previous night feeding in the open ocean. It is the largest known gathering of resident dolphins anywhere in the world, and one of only a couple of places where the spinner dolphin (famed for their leaps and spins from the surf) breeds. Around some other parts of the archipelago guests may swim with these magnificent marine mammals, but not here. Officially, the cove is named Baia dos Porcos — the Bay of Pigs — but with time has come to be christened, rather more fittingly, as Baia do Golfinhos, or Dolphin Bay.