Ilha Grande – Brazil’s Treasure Island Paradise
Ilha Grande is perhaps the most stunning of Brazil’s coastal islands, whose rugged topography and varied history has left it largely in its pristine natural state. The island is the largest of the 365 tropical islands in the Bay of Angra dos Reis, hence the name, measuring 30km across, and 14km between the tips. Most of the the interior is mountainous, covered with Atlantic Rainforest, and inaccessible to most visitors. There are just over 100 beaches, many of which are amongst the most beautiful and, with the protection of the mountains, they are also some of the most unspoiled beaches in Brazil.
Ilha Grande was originally populated by the Tamoios indigenous people, with the first Europeans arriving in the 16th Century. With the discovery of gold in the mountains of Minas Gerais, Paraty and Angra dos Reis were built as ports to ship the gold to Europe. Ilha Grande became the perfect place for pirates to lay in wait for the shipments, and also to hide their booty afterwards. There are rumours of treasure still buried around the island today. After the pirate’s left their lair, the island became a tropical disease quarantine bay, a leper colony, and finally a penal colony for some of Brazil’s most hardened criminals, later with political prisoners also being held in the isolated island penitentiary overlooking the stunning Dois Rios Beach.
All of which meant that, despite being within a few hours of both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Ilha Grande remained a remote and inaccessible island. This pristine paradise only opened to regular tourism after the prison was demolished in 1994, and the limited space behind the beaches means that any development in the small villages is impossible. The lack of roads on the island means no vehicles, no noise, and leads to a completely relaxed air. People arrive on Ilha Grande, unwind into the island rhythm, spend some time swinging in a hammock, and often don’t even realise exactly why they are feeling more relaxed than ever before.
As well as relaxing, Ilha Grande has a whole host of activities around the coast and in the mountains. The best way to see the island in a day is to take a speedboat trip around the island, seeing most of the beaches, the bays and coves, and also the mountains. The marine life around the coast includes dolphins, sea-turtles, and huge starfish, although they are sadly disappearing from some beaches. In the interior, howler monkeys, parrots, parakeets and woodpeckers help to keep the jungle from becoming too quiet. You can come across armadillos and pacas on the trails, while meetings with porcupines and snakes are perhaps less welcome but something to remember!
These trails through the jungle are one of the best ways to see Ilha Grande, some requiring a guide, others not. Trekking across the island to find yourself almost alone on a paradise tropical beach such as Lopes Mendes or Dois Rios is a highly recommended day, while the hikes to the top of Parrot’s Peak gives a panoramic view to match any in Brazil on a clear day. There are many other trails, mountain-bikes, secluded bays with calm waters on the continental side for kayaking and snorkelling with the turtles, plus many scuba diving sites around the island - wrecks being an Ilha Grande speciality, not such a surprise on such a rugged coastline. Lopes Mendes on the Atlantic side also boasts some of the best surf in Brazil.
The evenings are relaxed and usually reasonably quiet on the rustic island, with seafood dinners on the sand under the stars being a wonderful way to round off every day on Ilha Grande, whether you have climbed the peaks, surfed the waves, dived the wrecks or done nothing but swing in a hammock and read a book. The beauty of Ilha Grande lies not just in the wonderful, unspoiled nature, but also because every day can be your dream holiday. Ilha Grande is definitely one of Brazil’s special places.
Suitable Destination For: Those who like the Great Outdoors, great beaches, wonderful nature and swinging in a hammock.
Best Time to Visit: Ilha Grande lies inside the Tropic Of Capricorn, so has a generally even climate. Any time of year can be good to visit, although occasional heavy rains, especially in the summer months of January and February, can leave the island without power and communication, and make even short journeys difficult.
Essential Sights & Activities: The main town of Vila do Abraão (Abraham’s Town); Beaches such Praia Lopes Mendes, Dois Rios and Aventureiro; The Round Island Boat Tours; Snorkelling and Kayaking around the bays and headlands, possibly with sea-turtles for company; Atlantic Rainforest Trails and Wildlife; Views from Mountain Peaks such as Pico do Papagaio/Parrot's Peak