Fernando de Noronha was a dream.
Of all the destinations on our July trip to Brazil, this magical island was our favorite. Fernando de Noronha (or just Noronha to the locals) is the largest of 21 volcanic islets situated 350 kilometers (218 miles) off the northeastern coast of Brazil. Thanks to its isolation, Noronha is home to a thriving and diverse ecosystem of fauna and flora, both land and sea. As such, the island is a highly protected nature preserve with tough conservation laws. And it’s a little slice of heaven.
First “discovered” back in 1503 by the Portuguese, Fernando de Noronha was a penal colony from the 18th century to the 1950s. During World War II, the U.S. military built an airport on the island that provided a transoceanic link to supply the Allies’ campaign in Africa. The airport was transferred to the Brazilian government after the war and still serves visitors to this day. Praia do Americano (American Beach) gets its name from the erstwhile U.S. presence on Noronha.
Thankfully, in 1988 the Brazilian government stepped in and designated more than 70% of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago as a maritime national park. The area became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. Both measures guarantee that the INCREDIBLE sugar-sand beaches, amazing volcanic rock formations, and huge variety of marine life are (hopefully) safeguarded in perpetuity.
Here are our highlights from our brief visit to Noronha. As usual, some of the photos are in galleries – just click on the first to click through larger versions of each.
Baía dos Porcos
There really are no words to describe Baía Dos Porcos (Bay of Pigs) – and these photos don’t do it justice. We reached this spectacular place as part of a small tour group, first traversing three other (spectacular) beaches: Bode, Quixaba, and Cacimba do Padre. At the western end of Cacimba do Padre, we climbed up a rock outcropping for a breathtaking view of the Dos Irmaos (Two Brothers), one of Noronho’s signature geologic formations. From there, we also had a panoramic view of Baía Dos Porcos. To get down to the little beach of Porcos, we had to scramble down more rocks – this time wearing helmets handed out by park service employees, since there had been rock falls in the area recently. (NOTE: Visitors are only allowed to access Baía Dos Porcos at low tide.) This is easily one one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited!
Most Brazilians know about Praia Sancho, even if they haven’t been to Fernando de Noronha. It’s often named Brazil’s best beach and routinely makes it onto lists of the world’s most beautiful. It was here that we had the most fantastic snorkeling experience of the entire trip, spotting rays, turtles, a seahorse, a friendly octopus, lots of healthy coral, and brilliant reef fish the size of dinner plates. Bonus: I had a bird dive bomb for a fish, right in front of my face. In a split second, I saw him (her?) dunk into the water, grab the fish, pop back out, and fly off. It’s been a while since we felt this close to raw nature.
Praia Sancho is teeming with aquatic and bird life because it’s extremely isolated. High bluffs ring the beach, and there are no access roads. Sancho is also off limits to boats, although they’re allowed to anchor a bit offshore to drop off snorkelers. We first had to stop at the visitor center at the top and present our national park passes. Then, our group traversed a wooden walkway for some distance before coming to a platform in which a bright yellow ladder lead down, down into a dark chasm between the rocks. I had a moment of panic, but then remembered our canyoneering experience on Dominica and figured I could handle this! We climbed down about 50 feet, only to encounter another ladder, just as tall, and a series of very steep steps before we finally set foot in Sancho’s soft sand.
Since we didn’t get any pictures of the ladder and the chasm, here’s a blog post from another traveler that describes the experience exactly. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Praia do Cachorro
Praia do Cachorro (Dog Beach) won our hearts on our first evening on Noronha. It’s the beach just down from the main town of Vila dos Remédios, and it was the perfect place to stick our feet in the sand, enjoy a caipirinha or two, and watch the sun go down.
Other Praias (Beaches) We Loved
At low tide, you can scramble over the rocks at the eastern end of Praia do Cachorro to reach Praia do Meio, a pretty and self-contained beach with an excellent (but pricy) restaurant, Bar do Meio, at its far end. Cut through the restaurant to the other side, and you’ll find yourself on another of Noronha’s signature beaches, Praia da Conceição.
Snorkeling and Diving
We’re still shaking our heads a little that we didn’t go diving on Noronha. It’s known as a diving paradise and a destination for divers from around the world. But the going rate for a two-tank dive would have cost us well over twice what we’re used to paying – about $500 US for both of us. It was just too pricy; just visiting the island was already a splurge. Had we taken the plunge (so to speak), we would probably have gone with Atlantis Divers (our tour guide back in Recife had recommend them).
But honestly, the snorkeling was so fantastic that we didn’t miss diving. The best spots were Baía dos Porcos and Praia Sancho, and we also saw blizzards of fish and lots of rays at Praia Cachorro.
The Price of Paradise
All of this beauty comes at a cost, and Fernando de Noronha was easily the most expensive destination of our five-week visit to Brazil. Upon arrival, every visitor is required to pay an environmental tax of 87 Brazilian reales (about $17 US) for every day spent on the island. In addition, a National Park pass is required for each person to access many of the beaches, including Sancho and Baía dos Porcos. Good for 10 days, the pass costs 358 reales (about $72 US). Passes can be purchased online here.
Expect to pay 20% more for a restaurant meal than in a comparable establishment in Recife or Natal on the mainland. One way to economize is to look for the “quilo” restaurants that charge by the kilo for what you select from the buffet. Even the higher-end restaurants offer entrees that can be shared by two people (this is commonplace throughout Brazil).
Fernando de Noronha has the full range of lodging options from hostels to very high-end resorts. Hostels really aren’t our thing, but as mid-range travelers we try to stay under $100 US per night for a hotel room. But there are few such options on Noronha. We ended up spending about $112 per night (including breakfast) at Casa do Imperador, a small inn within easy walking distance to the main town and several beautiful beaches. The room was small and crowded, but the hotel was clean and the staff very friendly and accommodating.
Getting There/Getting Around
Only about 500 visitors are allowed on Fernando de Noronha at a given moment, which means flights to the island are also somewhat limited. About 40 flights a week are available from the mainland cities of Recife, Natal, and Fortaleza. We flew Azul Airlines to Fernando de Noronha from Recife, where we had just spent four days exploring that city and neighboring Olinda. From Noronha, we took a VoePass flight to Natal, our jump-off to the beach resort area of Pipa. These two flights were our first experience with Brazil’s domestic airlines, and we were very pleased with Azul. The VoePass flight was fine, but their website is pretty useless. We ended up visiting the VoePass counter at the Recife airport to confirm our reservations.
There’s no Uber service on Noronha, but the taxis are plentiful and not too pricy (we paid about $6 from the airport to our hotel in Vila dos Remédios). You’ll also see loads of small dune buggy-type vehicles for rent, but we were told that these are expensive and uncomfortable. Noronha does have a public bus service connecting one end of the island to the other that costs about a dollar a ride. We were able to walk to several of the beaches from our hotel, and the beach tour we took on our first day provided transportation to Baía dos Porcos, Praia Sancho, and several other beautiful locations.
Our favorite dining experiences were Cacimba, on the road leading down to Praia Cachorro, and Mergulhão at Porto San Antonio, the perfect spot to celebrate John’s birthday. We also enjoyed Xica da Silva and Benedita. Overlooking Praia Cachorro, Bar do Cachorro is a perfect spot to watch the sunset and listen to live music.
A guided tour of the island is really a must if you have only a few days on Noronha, as we did. It was the perfect way to see all of the best beaches in the national park without having to waste our time figuring out where to go and how to get there (transportation was included). We thoroughly enjoyed the Ihla Tour with Costa Noronha and met a lovely family in the bargain.
We also took a boat tour (with about 50 other loud, inebriated guests) for John’s birthday. We settled for the big boat because the small catamaran tour we wanted had just booked up. The moral is that there are plenty of options for boat tours of all sizes; just don’t wait until the last minute! Still, we had beautiful views of the beaches from the sea, we had a nice snorkel, and we were surrounded by spinner dolphins and enjoyed a fantastic sunset. It was still enjoyable!
Beach chairs and umbrellas can be rented on Praia da Conceição for about $20 per day.
Book early! Noronha is popular – and since affordable lodging options are fairly limited, they book up very far in advance. We started several months before our arrival and still had a tough time finding a suitable inn. The same goes for booking your flights.
North America/Australia travelers take note: You have only four months left to visit Brazil without a visa. After a six-year hiatus, Brazil will resume its visa requirement for all visitors from the U.S., Canada, and Australia effective January 10, 2024. E-visas will be available online and will cost $160 per traveler (ugh), but they’ll be good for 10 years