Ilha Grande has some serious widescreen wow factor: white-powder sands, clear waters, forest trails and a distinct lack of cars and roads. In short, it is a slice of Brazilian paradise.
Rio’s favorite sub-tropical getaway, getting to Ilha Grande means a five-hour bus journey from Copacabana to the town of Angra dos Reis. From here there’s a public ferry, which will get you to the island in about an hour and 20 minutes, unless you’d rather speed things up with a water taxi.
There’s one main reason to take the plunge off Ilha Grande – turtles. The island is subtropical, so while there’s no coral, you’ll have plenty of fish, mostly sergeant-majors, grunts and blackear wrasse. Turtles have been protected in Brazil for decades and you can expect to encounter them on every dive. It’s easy to book: try Elite Dive Center, or just show up at dive centers in Abraão village – the best will get you out to the island’s marine canyons and myriad shipwrecks.
With tables right on the waterfront in Abraão village, overlooking the town beach, Praia do Canto, Lua e Mar attracts an end-of-the-day crowd. Join them to watch the sun sink over the mountains, caipirinha in hand. Portions are huge and the seafood is excellent – especially the northeastern specialties, which include bobó de camarão (prawn hotpot), spicy fish moqueca (Bahian coconut and dendê palm oil stews) and the catch of the day.
Not that keen on diving? There’s good snorkeling too, right off the beaches, around the rocky capes, over the wrecks offshore and in the calm lagoons. The best spot is the Lagoa Azul, a shallow bay of turquoise water framed by forested islets on the island’s Freguesia de Santana península. The water teems with grunts and sergeant Majors, and there’s usually a visiting green turtle. Getting there’s a cinch: simply catch a launch from Abraão village jetty.
Ilha Grande’s lush mountain interior drips with streams and waterfalls – of the latter, the most impressive are Feiticeira. These drop over a lip of rocks into a deep clear-water pool set in a bowl of tropical forest. Ilha Grande has no roads or motor vehicles, so it’s a hike to get here, through the thick jungle. The shortest trail leaves from Feiticeira Beach, accessible by boat from Abraão – but come with a guide as it’s easy to get lost.
Ilha Grande’s best views? They’re from the Pico do Papagaio, a steep rock shaped like a parrot’s head, jutting from the island’s highest ridge. It’s a tough, sweaty jungle climb, taking around eight hours to get there and back. The path is not clear and the route passes through the heart of the wildlife-filled State Park – so you’ll see capuchin monkeys and toucans along the way. Guides are mandatory and easily booked through hotels in town.
Abraão village is brochure pretty, its sandy streets lined with whitewash and blue painted cottages climbing into fecund forested hills and its white-sand beach nuzzled by gentle waves, By day, when the world is on a boat or a beach, it’s sleepy. But it comes alive at night when people flock to the waterfront bar-restaurants to slurp caipirinhas and cold beer prior to dancing – samba, pagode and forró – in the cobbled town square, or in the Aquário night club. Don’t be late. Do stay late.
Round-the-island trips in converted wooden fishing boats or launches leave from the jetty right in front of Abraão village – try Grayline Tours. They’re easy affairs – with plenty of time to sunbathe, drink ice-cold beer and bask before the immaculate beach and rainforest views. The best routes go past the coves at Saco do Céu and Guazuma or near the dramatic mountainous capes around Lopes Mendes beach and rugged Jorge Grego island. Here, the snorkeling is positively exhilarating.
Ilha Grande holds a dark secret – it was home to the Candido Mendes, a high-security prison for some of Brazil’s most dangerous criminals. Stories include the escape of one of the country’s most notorious drug lords, known as Escadinha, who broke out after he was rescued by helicopter. For decades it kept the inmates away from the mainland until it closed in 1994 and the criminals were released or re-imprisoned elsewhere. You’ll get a glimpse following the trail from the Vila de Dois Rios.
Getting to this atmospheric little village involves some time commitment – it’s 16km (10mi) there and back from Abraão, the main hub of Ilha Grande. But the trek is relatively easy and flat, taking you along forest trails and a flawless wild beach where tourism has left not a footprint. Home to a few simple restaurants, Vila de Dois Rios is also not far from Candido Mendes prison. The ambiance is deliciously spooky, created by the abandoned houses and ghost stories concerning prison inmates, told by locals.
Sarah Brown contributed additional reporting to this article.
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