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Fernando de Noronha: Brazil's little piece of paradise in the Atlantic
Américas / May-June 2005

By Larry Luxner

Mention the name Fernando de Noronha to most Brazilians, and a dreamy, almost jealous expression spreads across their faces. A tiny speck of paradise floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Noronha is out of reach — both geographically and financially — to all but a handful of the country's 185 million inhabitants.

However, 2,800 or so Brazilians are lucky enough to live year-round on this remote little island, home to one of the world's largest dolphin colonies, some of its most beautiful beaches, and BR-363, Brazil's shortest national highway.

Despite its relative isolation 200 nautical miles off Brazil's northeastern coast, the island boasts virtually no poverty. Nearly everyone has telephone service, most families own a car, crime is nearly nonexistent, and the Internet penetration rate is one of the highest in Brazil.

The few visitors who have been to Noronha are generally CEOs, celebrities, otherwise wealthy people or environmentalists hoping to make sure the best preserved natural habitat in Brazil stays that way.

"The authorities want this place to be an environmental refuge," says Patrick Miller, a Frenchman and one of only three foreigners authorized to live on Noronha. "You don't have anything in the Caribbean nearly as beautiful as this."

Miller, who's been here for the past 11 years, runs Atlantis Divers — a scuba-diving agency for tourists — and lives in a large wooden house at the end of a quiet street just off BR-363.

From his second-floor office window, Miller can gaze out at the runway of Noronha's tiny airport, where four daily flights arrive from the big coastal cities of Natal and Recife, bringing a total of 180 people a day.

Upon arrival, the local authorities hand out plastic litter bags and register every visitor into a computer data base. Thanks to a sophisticated software program known as NoronhaNet, these officials know at any given time exactly how many tourists are on the island, where they're from and where they're staying.

Sleeping or camping on the beach to save money is out of the question. so is littering; tourists caught throwing garbage anywhere on this pristine island risk a R$500 fine (about US$200).

Last year, according to the island's general administrator, Edrise Aires Fragoso, some 55,000 visitors came to Noronha, a very slight increase from the 54,000 who visited in 2004 and the 51,400 who came the year before. Just over half of them were Brazilians, mostly from the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro; nearly all the rest were Europeans. Only 1.8 percent of tourists to Noronha in 2004 were U.S. citizens — translating into fewer than a thousand Americans a year, or 2.7 a day.

If that sounds like a microscopic drop in the bucket, it is — compared to the millions of cruise-ship tourists who flood the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic every year.

"Because of our strict environmental protection laws, we put a limit on the quantity of tourists going to the island, and we're already at this limit," says Fragoso, who spends half his time on the island and the other half at his office in Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco, which administers Noronha. "We cannot promote more tourism because the island's infrastructure can't handle it."

The Fernando de Noronha archipelago consists of twenty-one islands and covers an area of ten square miles (26 square kilometers). Only the main island, which measures six and a half square miles (17 square kilometers), is inhabited, and quite sparsely at that.

One of the island's many claims to fame is its barely noticeable temperature variation. Since record-keeping began in 1911, it's never gotten colder than 17.7° C or hotter than 32.2° C — giving Fernando de Noronha the most constant temperature in the world, according to the latest Guinness Book of World Records.

At its easternmost tip, just past the main island's little fishing port and its only gas station, sits a ramshackle art gallery known simply as Airfrance. This, along with a few rusting navigational instruments, is the only remnant of what was once a radio base for Aeropostale Generale — precursor to Air France — in the early days before radar.

From this spot, a gravel road leads to a lonely promontory, which is the closest Brazil comes to Africa. Here, at latitude 3º 54' S. and 32º 25' W., one is actually closer to Dakar, Senegal, than to São Paulo.

But you'd never know it, because Noronha is Brazilian to the core.

Discovered by explorer Américo Vespucio in 1503, the island is named after Fernão de Loronha, a Portuguese Jew who converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition and financed Vespucio's expedition.

"Paradise is here," Vespucio is said to have uttered as he stepped ashore on August 10, 1503, soon after the wreck of the main expedition ship. In his diary account of the island he named São Lourenço, Vespucio talks about "infinite water and infinite trees; very gentle fowl which eat from the hands, and a very good harbor, which is very good for the whole crew."

In 1504, the island was donated to Fernão de Loronha, who ironically never set foot on the place that was eventually named after him. For the next two centuries, Noronha was pretty much forgotten, until 1737, when Portugal occupied the island and built a defensive system of ten forts — most of which are still visible today.

Briefly occupied by both the Dutch and the French, Noronha became a prison for common criminals. During that time, around 95% of the island's native forests were cut down, leaving only a small forest on the far western tip of the island.

"That was done mostly because wood was needed for construction, but also to prevent the prisoners from using tall trees to make boats and escape," said Miller.

In 1942, at the height of World War II, the island was designated a military federal territory and at one point housed several hundred U.S. troops. Between 1957 and 1965, it was used by the U.S.'s NASA as a satellite tracking station, and in 1988 was officially reintegrated into the state of Pernambuco, which continues to run the island from Recife as a distrito estadual — a unique status under the Brazilian constitution.

In 2001, Fernando de Noronha was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. the designation is aimed at protecting Noronha, which suffered environmental damage in 1988 when a quarry was built to supply local construction projects.

"An oasis of marine life in relatively barren, open ocean, the islands play a key role in the process of reproduction, dispersal and colonisation by marine organisms in the entire tropical south atlantic," said UNESCO in explaining its decision. "Baía dos Golfinhos is the only known place in the world with such a high population of resident dolphins and Atoll das Rocas demonstrates a spectacular seascape at low tide when the exposed reef surrounding shallow lagoons and tidal pools forms a natural aquarium."

UNESCO added that Fernando de Noronha is crucial to the conservation of endangered and threatened species of marine turtles, particularly the hawksbill turtle, and that the island "also contains the only remaining sample of the Insular Atlantic Forest and the only oceanic mangrove in the South Atlantic region."

A plaque honoring the island's discovery as well as Brazilian aviators Gago Continho and Sacaduva Cabral —the first pilots to fly between Brazil and Africa — can be found in front of the Vila dos Remédios town hall, known in Portuguese as the Palacio de Governo. It's located right on the main square, which is actually a semi-paved rough patchwork of cobblestones on the side of a hill sloping down to the sea.

Out front are two cannons facing the only bank on Fernando de Noronha — a branch of Banco Real (complete with ATM). From there, it's a short walk to the Bar do Cachorro (dog bar), where teenagers dance to loud, blasting forró music until 2 a.m., and exactly seventy-two steps down to pristine Praia do Cachorro (dog beach), an ideal windsurfing spot.

Another famous watering hole is Capitão Dos Mares, where every afternoon, virtually all tourists on the island gather to watch the spectacular sunset as Ravel's Bolero reverberates from huge speakers.

As beautiful as its beaches are — and there are at least a dozen of them, completely devoid of crowds — Noronha's most important landmark is Morro do Pico, a 1,060 feet (323-meter)-high geological formation that can be seen from literally anywhere on the island. Another icon of Noronha is Dois Irmãos cliff, two very similar islands formed by dark volcanic rocks, over which guano deposits have given them a rare beauty. A local legend says these volcanic rocks represent "the breasts of a gigantic woman, which were petrified as punishment for her sins."

Speaking of sins, yet another interesting site is Buraco da Raquel (literally, "Raquel's hole"), a grotto on a rocky islet near Air France. A 19th-century legend has it that this was the place where the beautiful yet lonely Raquel, daughter of the local prison administrator, brought her lovers for secret encounters.

Like all natural treasures here, Morro do Pico, Dois Irmãoes and the Buraco da Raquel are protected by IBAMA, a Brazilian environmental agency that administers 70 percent of Noronha's territory. The other 30 percent is run by the state of Pernambuco, meaning that even people who live here don't own their own property (although they can pass it onto their heirs). That's because the island belongs to the federal government, meaning the state of Pernambuco has only limited powers with respect to the island.

"At least 150 people are on a waiting list to acquire land in Fernando de Noronha," says Fragoso, conceding that there have been lots of "arranged marriages" between Brazilians and locals in order to get permission to live on the island.

Despite its natural beauty, living in Noronha can be expensive.

"The main problem is fresh water supply, Fragoso says. "Everything we need from the continent has to be shipped, which makes everything harder and more expensive. There's only one gas station, and they are allowed to charge up to 40 percent more than on the [Brazilian] mainland."

It's also prohibitively expensive for tourists. One reason is the island's draconian tax system, which discourages people from staying too long. Tourists departing Noronha must pay a tax of R$28.20 (US$11) for every day on the island. After twenty days, however, the total tax goes up to R$951.89 ($372), and after thirty days, tourists must pay a whopping R$2,328.85 ($910).

"It's an exponential increase, not a linear increase," said Miller. "This tax was put into place to prevent people from coming to the island and settling here, especially surfers. But I personally don't agree with it. If people stay two or three weeks on the island, they should pay proportionally less than people who stay three days, because longer-term visitors tend to act more responsibly towards the environment."

At last count, the island had 110 pousadas, or small family-run inns. Typical of these places is Pousada Alquimista, a rustic but attractive lodge down the street from Miller's house. Alquimista has only four rooms ranging in price from R$264.00 to R$356.00 ($103-$139); Internet access costs an extra R$21 ($8.20) an hour.

At the other end of the spectrum is Pousada Zé María, a pricey little hideaway where rooms run around $300 a night. At the lodge's restaurant, the menu offers "Salada Zé María" with eight kinds of vegetables and greens, as well as "Sinfonía Marítima," with eight kinds of seafood and accompanied by tomato sauce, coconut milk, rice, and toast.

"Dear Guest: You are probably wondering why all our prices end with an eight," says proprietor Zé María in a note to restaurant patrons. "The main reason is that I am a spiritual person, and I believe that this number expresses a deep exactness."

By far, the most expensive place to stay in Noronha is the swanky Pousada Maravilha, which opened in July 2003 and is booked for months in advance. A room here goes for R$1,472 (around $500) per night. Last year, according to general manager Felipe Alencar, the pousada — with five bungalows and three apartments — had an 82 percent occupancy rate. "We have more demand than supply," says Alencar.

Among the island's biggest attractions is windsurfing. Noronha's thirteen foot (four-meter) waves attract windsurfers from around the world competing in the Hang Loose Pro Contest, which has been held here every January and February for the last twenty years.

Another important sport is scuba diving. Although Noronha's 21 types of corals aren't as big as the huge corals found in the Caribbean, the archipelago offers spectacularly clear water and complete isolation.

Miller's company, along with two other rivals — Aguas Claras and Noronha Divers — organizes around 60,000 dives a year. A "bautismo" introductory course, including boats and equipment rentals, costs R$200 (about $78). For an extra R$150 (about $60), you can also have an underwater DVD made of your diving experience. Together, the three companies organize 60,000 dives a year.

In addition, tourists visiting Noronha can enjoy watching the 500 to 1,000 spinner dolphins that make the island their home. You can also go birdwatching, rent a dune buggy or just relax on the island's empty white-sand beaches, doing nothing except wondering how many miles they are from the coast of Africa.

Rumor has it that Varig, Brazil's national carrier, is set to begin direct weekly flights from New York's JFK to Recife, in conjunction with New York-based tour operator Blue Brazil. That will make Fernando de Noronha much more accessible to Americans, who now have to fly south to São Paulo or Rio, then north to Natal or Recife for a third connecting flight to the island.

Alencar, the hotelier, says that even without the U.S. market, tourism will continue to boom as long as the Brazilian economy is strong — even if only a tiny percentage of Brazilians can afford to vacation on Fernando de Noronha.

"Nobody who comes here to visit can live here. The population of Noronha is not going to increase anymore, but we will have more tourism. As each year goes by, more pousadas are being built, and there are more cars on the island. That's why things are getting a little more professional."

Yet too much of a good thing could spoil this piece of paradise, warns administrator Fragoso.

"In 2002, we had a problem with water. The system was about to collapse, so we had to slow down the number of tourists," he says, estimating the island's maximum capacity at four thousand people at any given time, including tourists.

"We cannot advertise too much because we're already close to our limit. Tourism promotion is not our priority right now. Our priority is to improve our infrastructure. Eventually, we'll be able to support more tourists. It all depends on the supply of fresh water."

It's enough to make those who really love Fernando de Noronha hope the authorities take their sweet time fixing the water problem.

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