The best way to access the terrain north and south of Natal is by buggy, but if you'd prefer to travel by more comfortable 4*4, contact Cariri Ecotours (tel. 084/3206-4949; www.caririecotours.com.br). The company offers single and multiday 4*4 trips south to Praia da Pipa and north to Maracajaú. The 1-day "eco-trip" to Praia de Pipa includes a guided walk through the Atlantic rainforest and dolphin spotting at Enseada do Madeiro.
Buggy Expeditions -- Untouched dunes, beaches, and lagoons stretch away north and south of Natal for hundreds of kilometers. The best and only way to see them in all their glory is to rent a dune buggy with a driver, and head out to explore. Prices are slightly negotiable but average around R$150 (US$75/£40) for a full day for up to four people. If you're in a group of fewer than four, you can pay R$38 (US$19/£10) per person and the tour operator will make up a full group, but you may want to consider paying the full rental; if you have the buggy to yourself, it stops and goes at your command.
The classic north-coast day trip crosses the Potengi River by ferry and proceeds up to Genipabu, where you have the chance to ride camels or slide down the dunes on a sand board. From there you float your buggy across another small stream on a tiny raft and carry on up the beach to Jucumã, where you can try your bum at aerobunda.
From there, it's another 35km (22 miles) of wide flat sand until you get to Maracajaú, a magic spot where at low tide you can snorkel in the natural pools in the offshore coral reef. (Buggy tours normally time the tour so that you arrive at low tide.)
At one or two points on the trip back, you'll have to float your buggy over estuaries on little wooden rafts. At the end of the day, the driver will take you to Genipabu to see the sun set over the dunes. (The tour used to end with a wild ride through the extreme Dune Park, but the park has been closed for the past couple of years, first due to a legal dispute between the buggy drivers and a supposed Dune Park owner, then later after the government expropriated the park, due to an ongoing environmental assessment. There are plans to reopen the park to licensed buggy drivers, but as yet nothing has been finalized.)
The classic south-coast trip heads south along 55km (34 miles) of coast and sand to Praia da Pipa. Along the way, buggies pass along numerous gorgeous beaches, among them Búzios, Barra de Tabatinga, Barreta, and Tibau do Sul. It's possible with a full day tour (about R$150/US$75/£40 per buggy) to stop in at several and still enjoy time at Pipa itself. Better still, head south and spend a few days in the Pipa, a pretty former fishing village of small pousadas and cobblestone streets.
There are lots of buggy drivers in Natal. An excellent longtime bugreiro who speaks English is Kadmo Donato of Buggy & Cia (tel. 084/9982-3162 or 084/9416-2222; www.buggyecia.com.br). There is also Buggy Tour (tel. 084/3086-2258) and in Genipabu, Villa do Sol (tel. 084/3225-2132).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.