NATAL is a medium-sized city of about 600,000 people, built on the banks of the Rio Potengi and founded sixty years later than planned, after the Potiguar Indians stifled the first Portuguese landing on the coast in 1538. They continued to hold the invaders off until 1598, when the Portuguese built the star-shaped fort at the mouth of the river – the city's most enduring landmark. From Genipabu just north of Natal you can drive north in a beach buggy for 250km of uninterrupted dunes as far as Areia Branca, practically on the border with Ceará.
Natal has become a popular destination for Brazilian holiday-makers, lured by sun and sand rather than the city itself, which is mostly modern and has a sloppily developed seafront: you will look in vain for the colonial elegance of João Pessoa or Olinda. But the glorious beaches do compensate, and amid the development and hotels there are some good nightspots and dancetarias.