Andrew McCarthy: The Last Real Beach Town

Mj 618_348_the last real beach town
Photograph by Chris Sanders

I’m taking refuge in a three-sided hut made of palm fronds. It’s small, maybe six by 10 feet, built by fishermen as shelter from the sun and wind – only it isn’t providing much protection anymore: Two of its sides have been blown away, and the roof is sagging badly. I’m soaking wet, squinting at the ocean a few yards away. My feet are buried deep in the sand, and the sun is blistering overhead. The wind is ripping; there’s nothing around for miles. It’s where I’ve wanted to be for almost 12 years.

The dilapidated hut is a remote outpost of an already remote spot. Canoa Quebrada – Broken Canoe – is hidden on the northeast coast of Brazil, high on a series of ever-shifting sand dunes that give way to red cliffs, which in turn drop down to a white-sand beach that strings along uninterrupted for miles in both directions. The closest city of any note is Fortaleza – which will never be confused with Paris – 100 miles north.

Canoa existed as an undisturbed fishing settlement for centuries until the hippie crowd discovered it in the 1970s. The locals simply shrugged at the interlopers, and over time, word leaked out of an idyll by the sea with a friendly mix of people and a distinct microculture. When I arrived in the mid-’90s to film a movie best forgotten, the place’s lonely, inviting quality got under my skin.

Back then the fishermen still woke before dawn to cast their nets from the sides of jangadas, the roads were made of sand, and electricity had just recently been introduced – and then only sporadically. The night sky blazed with stars. It was a paradise – a raw one, to be sure, but a paradise nonetheless.

At least that’s how it has lived in my memory. But memory is a funny thing. I was single when I was here before, with the not-unpleasant feeling of being untethered in the world. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I took to the place so strongly. Like many supposed paradises, Canoa seems to attract people who have no ties – or at least people who’d like to think of themselves that way. But rather than let the place live on as a kind of festering fantasy, I wanted to see if Canoa’s particular kind of paradise still existed – or whether it, or I, had changed enough in the meantime to put it out of reach.

After a two-and-a-half-hour drive south from Fortaleza, a quick walk down the main drag – a stretch of a few blocks that the locals call Broadway – reveals that things around town have changed: Internet cafes, a tattoo parlor, and T-shirt shops are now sprinkled in alongside the Reggae Bar and Bar Caverna, both familiar touchstones. Then as Broadway fades out, the dunes take over. Five wind turbines now loom over the rise, their blades turning relentlessly. Though the town may have tripled in size (more than 3,000 people now call Canoa home, many of them drawn in by its growing reputation as a kiteboarding mecca), the land remains the dominant force. I loop around, out toward the cliffs. There’s a primitive quality to the terrain, a feeling of ancient rawness. It’s always reminded me a bit of ‘Planet of the Apes.’

A small, trim man, waist-deep in the surf, is working his way down the coast, casting and hauling a fishing net. Within minutes he’s landed a half-dozen fish, subduing them with a decisive bite behind their heads and a quick snap before stuffing them into the bulging pocket of his shorts.

An Urubu vulture circles overhead, probably disappointed. But there’s also a man dangling from a paraglider up in the cloudless sky. Pulling down on a cable with his right hand, he arcs into a sweeping turn and soars back down over the beach. As he gets closer, this tall man with the crazy smile is starting to look familiar, and when he lands I’m there to greet him.

Gerome “Jeronimo” Saunier came to Brazil from his native Switzerland 25 years ago, and he’s been flying the skies above Canoa’s beaches ever since. He remembers me before I can even open my mouth and soon has me in the harness right beside him. He laughs when I protest – he’s always laughing – and with a flick of his wrist the parachute catches wind and we shoot into the air, glide silently out over the sea, and then sweep back over the cliffs and high above the town before banking hard and catching a tailwind to tear back out over the water, where kiteboarders skim across the breaking waves. We swing inland, swooping low and then pulling up to hover high in the sky. For someone with a fear of heights and a near-paralyzing flying phobia, the sense of liberation I’m experiencing is a revelation.

On my way back to town, I pass a makeshift cemetery – once far from town, now merely on its outskirts – then pause to let traffic, such as it is, pass: a donkey pulling a cart, two dune buggies, three cats, and an off-road motorcycle. I’m headed to the back alleys beyond Broadway. There’s an anonymous quality as well as an unapologetic intimacy back there, and each evening I find myself wandering deeper into the unlit lanes, lingering longer. There’s little privacy; the huts and cinder-block houses are built close, with doors and shutters open to encourage any breeze. In lieu of couches, hammocks swing inside every home. Satellite dishes are attached to even the simplest structure, and TVs are always on, tuned to soccer matches or telenovelas. Children run free in the sand under cashew and chestnut trees, and old women sit on front porches and crochet on wooden racks next to houses blaring Brazilian techno-pop. Dogs wander, donkeys loiter, and cats hug the corners.

A teenage boy stands on his roof plucking guava; an old man with leathered skin mending a fishing net looks up and through me. Everywhere, laundry hangs low. And then I pass an impossibly beautiful young woman sitting on the stoop outside her home. Her black hair is long and straight, her skin and eyes dark. She’s nursing an infant in one arm and feeding a toddler with her free hand. She can’t be more than 18. She looks up as I pass and offers me the most inviting smile I’ve received since…well, since the last time I was in Canoa. She pats the stoop beside her, beckoning me, and my step hitches for just an instant at the invitation – but I merely return her smile and walk on.

But let’s just come out and say it: The women here are beautiful. There’s an offhanded understanding of the possibility of sex that permeates the town. Maybe it’s the heat and the fact that everyone wears so few clothes; maybe it’s because nature so clearly dominates the rhythms of life here. Maybe it’s just Brazil. But it’s palpable. Early each evening, once the sun has just retreated for the day, people flood Broadway for a daily parade up and down the attenuated strip. Groups form and disperse and form again. Old folks congregate. Young women sashay over the cobblestones holding hands; men lean on walls and ogle them openly.

It’s easy to pass a lot of time in Canoa without racking up too many accomplishments. Paragliding – or a dune buggy ride along the edge of the surf – can qualify as work. Days can drift by unnoticed, nights unaccounted for. One day I follow a man named Bruno – just Bruno – deep into the dunes on an ATV. It’s adolescent fun tearing over the sand, getting air racing over the top of cresting dunes, but it’s also the best way to experience the landscape.

As daylight dies Bruno leads me high atop a dune. A zip line – skibunda, they call it – is strung out over a 100-foot drop-off landing in a natural spring below. The first stars begin to appear in the sky; night falls quickly here near the equator. I hop into the harness, sail through the air, splash down into the cool water, and then tear back across the sand in the dark.

Near the edge of town, where there are no street lamps, I pass a tiny cinder-block hut. A red cloth hangs in the doorway; the window beside it has no glass or shutters. Inside, a young man wearing only shorts lies in a yellow hammock strung diagonally across the room. A bare bulb hangs from a wire. He’s looking at a photo of a naked woman in a magazine. There’s nothing else in the hut but him, the hammock, the light, and the magazine, but there’s something about the utter lack of complication, the solitary stillness, that I crave. It’s a familiar yearning. Maybe it’s just a reaction to all of the responsibility and love I’ve got waiting for me back at home. Maybe – but I’ve learned not to need to reconcile it all.

Early the next morning, down on the beach, the sun is just slipping into play. A few straggling fishermen are readying their jangadas. The boats are little more than wooden rafts with sails. I watch a lone man place a log under the front of his small craft. He lifts the stern, pushes, and the boat rolls forward over the log until the bow dumps into the sand. He does the same with a second log, then repeats the process until he’s reached the water. He pushes off, drops his tiller, splashes his sail with water, and meets the horizon line within minutes. Nearby, the barracas – beach huts that serve as restaurants – aren’t yet open; remains of last night’s beach bonfire still smolder.

By the time the sun has worked itself into its midday frenzy, the tide has pulled back, leaving the beach wide and glistening. I’ve made my way far down the beach, miles from town. Ahead I see a dot above the high-tide line. As I continue to walk, it grows into the remnants of that small fishing hut. It’s been utterly neglected in the casual Brazilian way, but it’s clearly still used – all sunburned palms and salvaged wood. I douse myself in the sea and take a seat on the log bench. I dig my toes in the butter-soft sand. I gaze out.

Is Canoa Quebrada more “discovered” than the last time I was here? Of course. But the place seems to be wearing its success like a loose garment; it still retains that lonely, friendly quality, and part of its appeal to me will always be the allure of the untethered drifting we all tell ourselves we can no longer afford. But there’s something more. Nothing against room service at the Four Seasons, but the truth is that the less pampered and insulated from the natural rhythms of my life I keep myself, the better off I am. Maybe it’s the remoteness of Canoa, or the knowledge that no one in the world knows how to find me, but I’m more at home in myself on these sandy lanes than I am in most of my daily life. You can come up against yourself as often as you dare out here with the wind and the sea and all the time you want. But sitting on this log, in this blown-out fishing hut, under the noonday sun, I promise myself I’ll return in another dozen years and take stock again. And next time, I may stay.

Getting There
The nearest airport to Canoa is in Fortaleza, the capital of the Brazilian state of Ceará. (Delta flies to Fortaleza’s Pinto Martins airport twice weekly from Atlanta.) Canoa is a 100-mile drive down the coast.

Staying There
For an affordable splurge: the Pousada California; on a budget: the Casa Da Pérla. For general information on the area:

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