A Local's Guide to Ilhabela: South-East Brazil's Most Popular Weekend Escape

Feeling saudades of this
Feeling 'saudades' of this | © Marcescos/Wikimedia Commons
Euan Marshall

Ilhabela is one of the most sought-after getaway destinations for Brazilians in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with its beautiful beaches, waterfalls and unspoiled Atlantic rainforest. This archipelago, situated on the western side of the gorgeous Litoral Norte coastline, is beautiful even in name (ilha bela is Portuguese for ‘beautiful island’) so here’s all you need to know to have an unforgettable visit.

How to get there

Any trip to Ilhabela (unless you decide to splurge on a helicopter) will involve taking the ferry over from the nearby beach town of São Sebastião. Ferries leave every 30 minutes and the trip is short and free of charge for passengers on foot. Cars and motorcycles can also be taken across at a cost ranging from $9.20 to $27.70 Brazilian reals ($3 to $8.50 USD) each way. São Sebastião is situated in between the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and can be accessed by car or bus from either of the two cities.

Ilhabela’s beautiful beaches and crystal clear water

For buses from São Paulo, Litorânea runs several services throughout the week leaving from the Tietê bus station with fares that cost around $65 Brazilian reals ($20 USD) each way and can be purchased online or at the bus station itself. The trip takes between three and a half and five and a half hours, depending on the route and time of day. Bus options from Rio de Janeiro are scarcer, with bus company Util running only two services a day (one overnight, one early morning) which each cost around $120 Brazilian reals ($37 USD) each way and last seven hours.

When to go

The climate in Litoral Norte is hot and humid all year round, with much higher rainfall in the summer months and January, February and March having the hottest temperatures and the highest precipitation. October to December is a good time to visit Ilhabela, as there is less rain and the beaches aren’t particularly crowded.

Ilhabela’s beaches are surrounded by native forests

The dreaded borrachudos

The local saying goes that when God created Ilhabela, he realised he’d made a true paradise on earth, so he had to do something to balance things out a bit. That’s when he had the bright idea of infesting the island with borrachudos, the small black fly that wreaks havoc on beachgoers during the summer months. In actual fact, the flies are nothing to be worried about. They are not known for carrying diseases though the bites themselves can be painful and very itchy. Tourists are likely to come back from the island with a few bites on their feet and legs unless they are very vigilant about applying repellant. Waterfalls and more secluded beaches are generally the worst spots for borrachudos, so if you really want to avoid them, stick to the more popular beaches.

Where to stay

There are a number of decent Airbnb options around the main town of Ilhabela, as well as plenty of pousadas (a Brazilian-style bed and breakfast) at affordable prices. Make sure to book in advance if you’re planning on visiting during the New Year’s Eve festivities, January or Carnival, as places fill up fast. If you’re looking to explore the more secluded side of Ilhabela, you’ll want to take along your camping gear. There are campsites near all of the main beaches but make sure you pitch your tent within a licensed camping area as camping on the beach is against the law in Ilhabela.

Praia do Jabaquara, Ilhabela

What to see

Praia do Julião

Located six kilometres (almost 4 miles) to the south of the ferry crossing, Praia do Julião is one of the most beautiful and secluded beaches on the mainland-facing side of Ilhabela. Tucked in between the popular Feiticeira and Praia Grande beaches, Praia do Julião is so small and well-hidden that you might pass right by it if you aren’t paying attention. The beach itself has gorgeous, fine white sand and plenty of rock pools, making it a good spot for snorkelling. Despite its size, it does have some infrastructure for tourists, such as a good seafood restaurant, kiosks selling drinks and a minimart.

Ilha das Cabras

Ilha das Cabras is one of the many tiny islands forming the archipelago of Ilhabela and is one of the best spots to see marine life around the island. Located just to the south of the ferry crossing, the tiny isle sits in front of the Pedras Miudas beach and is home to the Submarino Ecological Sanctuary, where divers and snorkelers can swim with turtles, starfish, seahorses and all kinds of beautiful fish.

Praia do Jabaquara

On the northern side of the island, Praia do Jabaquara is the most beautiful and out-of-the-way beach you can reach via paved roads. The beach itself is well preserved, with gorgeous sands and a marvellous surrounding landscape full of lush Atlantic rainforest. The water is almost crystal clear and on the right side of the beach is a stream that flows from the island into the sea and forms a freshwater pool.

Sunset at Ilhabela

Saco do Eustáquio

While the mainland side of Ilhabela is certainly great for exploring, there is a whole other side to the island that is much less visited and even more paradisiacal. Saco do Eustáquio is located on the most eastern tip of the island and can only realistically be accessed by boat. Your trip begins early in the morning at Praia do Perequê, a little north of the ferry crossing and where most of the boats and tourism agencies are located. After securing your boat and making the trip around the island, you’ll get off at one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil, surrounded by lush green vegetation and gorgeous calm waters. There is not much in the way of infrastructure—only a couple of kiosks selling food and drinks—so make this a day trip and head back to Perequê as the sun goes down.

Bonete

Visiting Bonete is unforgettable from start to finish, and providing you don’t mind a bit of exploring, this is likely the must-see beach in Ilhabela. Like Saco do Eustáquio, it is accessible by boats leaving from Perequê, but another possible route is taking a 4-hour trail through the jungle leaving from the Ponta da Septuba on the southernmost point of the island. The trail takes you past gorgeous waterfalls and just before arriving, you get a superb view of the beach which The Guardian voted as being among Brazil’s top 10 beaches. Be wary of the sun, and if it gets to be too much, there is a line of large trees providing some excellent natural shade.

Baía de Castelhanos

If you happen to have (or have rented) a four-wheel drive, don’t pass up the chance to visit Baía de Castelhanos, another gem on the island. The drive will take you through the beautiful Ilhabela State Park and you’ll get to see its countless waterfalls and beautiful Atlantic forest.

landscape with balloons floating in the air

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