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2,169km (1,348 miles) NE of Rio de Janeiro, 2,358km (1,465 miles) NE of São Paulo, 1,019km (633 miles) N of Salvador.

The capital of the state of Ceará is best known for its beaches: glorious long stretches of sand interrupted by impressive red cliffs, palm trees, dunes, and lagoons that offer a true tropical playground.

The most beautiful and isolated beach is the small settlement of Jericoacoara, a tiny coastal community with streets of sand, set by itself on the edge of its own tiny desert of Sahara-like dunes.

The first Portuguese settlers arrived in the area in 1603. The colony grew slowly, beset by attacks by Tabajara Indians, and later by the Dutch, who in 1637 drove out the Portuguese, only to be slaughtered in turn by the Tabajara. When the Portuguese regained control of the area in 1654, they gave the substantial five-pointed Dutch fort a new name: Fortaleza Nossa Senhora de Assunção.

Fortaleza remained a backwater until the 1820s, when Brazilian ports opened to foreign ships and the city began to grow into an important seaport, shipping cotton, cattle, and leather from the interior to England. In response to the resulting growth, city governors in 1875 commissioned a plan to transform Fortaleza into a tropical Paris, a city of broad boulevards overlaying a functional grid. Some of this early city planning can still be seen, but much was overwhelmed in the 1950s and 1960s as migrants from the state's dry and drought-stricken interior flocked into the city, practically doubling Fortaleza's population.

Now about two million strong, the city's major industries are cashews and tourism. The Dutch, Portuguese, and other foreigners land en masse on the beaches armed with cameras and bathing suits and a fierce will to enjoy the sun and ocean. What sets Fortaleza's beaches apart from Brazil's other 8,000km (4,960 miles) of coastline is the combination of colorful cliffs and huge sand dunes, best seen in nearby communities such as Morro Branco, Canoa Quebrada, and Jericoacoara.

For first-time visitors with limited amounts of time, the best plan of attack is to spend no more than a day in the city itself, then head out to explore the nearby beach communities, particularly the isolated Sahara-like dunes of Jericoacoara.