Ilha Grande – which translates to Big Island – lies just off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, and being only about 150 kilometres (93.2 miles) away from Rio’s city centre, it is a popular weekend escape. To reach the island, you need to go to Conceição de Jacareí to take a 30-minute boat trip to Vila do Abraão, the main hub of the island. Here’s why you should take time out to visit Ilha Grande.
The island, considered one of the most beautiful islands in Brazil, features crystal clear waters and white beaches. It also has rolling hills with wild vegetation and forests. You will be sharing your space with exotic birds and howling monkeys. If that doesn’t sound tropical enough, it is also a car-free zone, so getting around is entirely dependent on walking along on makeshift streets or forest trails.
There are 13 hikes all in all on the island. The Dois Rios – the Two Rivers trek – is one of the most popular. There is also the hike from Pouso, which takes about 20 minutes and takes you to Lopes Mendes, one of Rio’s most beautiful beaches. For a challenging hike, take the rainforest trail up to the summit of Papagaio Peak. Standing at 980 metres (3,215.2 feet), it is the second highest peak on the island and takes between two to three hours to reach the top.
It may be called ‘big island’, yet it is still possible to walk all the way around it – it may take you about four days though. It’s best to start at Abraão, the main point of the island, and start walking in an anti-clockwise direction. You will trek through forest trails, visit secluded beaches, and see vibrant sunrises if you wake up early enough. It’s best to plan your accommodation in advance, as at the far end of the island from Abraão, finding a place to stay is not as easy as in the more touristy destinations.
Parnaioca Beach is as secluded as it gets on Ilha Grande. Arguably one of the most beautiful beaches, visitors can only reach it by a three-hour hike through the Dois Rios trail next to Abraão or by boat. These challenges to get there means it rarely becomes crowded, offering a wonderful day of lazing on a tropical beach in a serene setting.
Lopes Mendes is reachable by a boat trip to Pousa, followed by a 20-minute trek through the forest (it’s mostly flat, so it’s relatively easy), making it more accessible than Parnaioca Beach. It is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil – Vogue magazine once voted it one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world – and is a great place for sunbathing or surfing. The shallow waters stretch back for a long way out. Just be careful swimming as the currents can be strong.
Near to the Dois Rios stands the remains of Candido Mendes, one of Brazil’s maximum-security prisons for some of the country’s most dangerous criminals. There was even a notable escape from there – Jose Carlos dos Reis Eneino, known as Escadinha, managed to escape when one of his contacts pulled him out of the prison by helicopter. It was permanently shut down in 1994, and although it isn’t reformed or preserved, people may visit it.
The marine-rich waters make ideal conditions for snorkelling. Head to any of the beaches surrounding the island, hire a snorkel and dive straight into the sea. As well as bright-coloured tropical fish, you may spot the odd sea turtle gliding by.
For those who want to explore deeper below the surface, diving is an option at Ilha Grande. The best place to go diving is at Sitio Forte where divers can drop to around 12 metres (39.4 feet) and have a good possibility of spotting sea turtles. The conditions of the water there are excellent – warm, calm seas with great visibility.
One of the great things about Ilha Grande is that lots of other smaller islands surround it, making for great day trips. One of the most popular routes is the boat that goes to the Green Lagoon whilst stopping off at little, uninhabited islands for sunbathing and snorkelling breaks. Often, the boat trips include drinks and meals; therefore, you can enjoy an afternoon with fresh seafood and refreshing caipirinhas.
Although Ilha Grande doesn’t have a strong nightlife scene – there aren’t any clubs on the island – it does have lively bars where locals come together to sip on cold beers and listen to live music. The most popular music is Brazilian forró, a traditional genre from the northeast of the country. Watch the locals swing and sway in couples to the quick-paced beats of forró and feel free to jump in and try it yourself!
Give your arms a workout by kayaking from Abraão to Abraãozinho, which is about 30 to 40 minutes of kayaking. The scenery is so beautiful and the atmosphere so serene that you won’t even notice the time passing by. Take a well-deserved break at Point de Verao, a local restaurant known for its fresh calamari and isca de peixe, soft white fresh fish covered in a light batter and a squeeze of lime.
There are over 30 restaurants to choose from on the island, leaving visitors spoilt for choice when it comes to eating options. Being an island surrounded by a marine-rich ocean makes it hardly surprising that it is known for its great seafood. Some of the best restaurants for fresh seafood are Dom Mario, Bar e Restaurante Lua e Mar, and O Pescador.
Ilha Grande is just 150 kilometres (93.2 miles) away from Rio de Janeiro, making a day trip possible, although it’s better to spend a least one night there to enjoy it more fully. To get there is easy and can be done without booking a guided tour. Take the Costa Verde bus from the main bus terminal, the Rodoviaria in Rio, to either Mangaratiba, Conceição de Jacareí, or Angra dos Reis to take the boat trip over to the island. Conceição de Jacareí has the most boats departing to Ilha Grande and is the easiest one from which to depart.
Just four kilometres (2.5 miles) from Abraão is the stunning waterfall known as Cachoeira de Feiticeira. It creates a natural pool in front that you can bathe in, or you can take a shower under the cascading waters. To get there, you need to take the well-signposted trail that starts at the far end of the beach at Abraão.
Camping randomly outside of designated spots is illegal and can result in a hefty fine. Luckily, there are several official campsites across the islands that have facilities such as showers, toilets, and a kitchen. Some of the best spots are Camping from Lucio, Cantinho da Ilha Grande, and Well Natural Inn and Camping.