Before becoming one of Brazilians’ preferred back-to-Eden retreats from civilization, Ilha Grande went through phases as a pirate hangout and a leper colony. Until recently, it also housed two penitentiaries reserved for some of Brazil’s most hardened and violent criminals (some of whom, from time to time, escaped, thus scaring the daylights out of the island’s community of fisherfolk). Although the second prison was demolished in 1994, opening the door to tourism, the not-yet-overgrown ruins of the original jail still cast a slightly haunting spell.
Ferries and launches from Angra and the town of Mangaratiba all dock at the main village of Vila do Abraão, a picturesque and palmy beachfront settlement clustered around a gleaming white colonial church and backed by mountains. Although there’s not much of anything to do here, and the clutter of boats in its small inlet make it unappealing for bathing, Vila Abraão provides the main base for exploration—on foot or by boat—of the island’s natural attractions.
Ilha Grande Beaches
You could literally spend weeks exploring all the beaches of Ilha Grande. However, if you’re stranded on the island for only a few days, you should focus your worshipful attentions on the crème de la crème. On the east side of the island, to the north of Vila Abraão, Saco do Céu is one of the island’s most blissful spots. The reference to céu (sky or heaven) becomes apparent at night when the moon and stars are literally reflected in the bay’s placid waters. The vision is so captivating that nocturnal boat excursions bring tourists to confirm the spectacle for themselves.
Meanwhile, south of Vila Abraão lies another pair of idyllic beaches. An hour’s walk brings you to Praia Grande das Palmas, a tiny fishing village where rustic bars lie in the shade of a forest of swaying palms. Another 20 minutes away the palms give way to mangrove at Praia dos Mangues. Despite the loveliness of both, most earnest beach pilgrims are loath to linger when they know that a mere 20-minute walk will bring them to the island’s most famously breathtaking beaches, located on the island’s southern coast: Lopes Mendes and Cachadaço.
Lopes Mendes is considered by many to be the most stunning of the island’s many beaches and one of the most beautiful in Brazil. The contrast between the fine and blindingly white, firmly packed sand (walking along its 3-kilometer/2-mile expanse is a delight) and the shimmering bands of emerald and turquoise sea are truly bewitching. If you want to savor it by yourself, head toward the left, where you can relax in the shade of an almond tree; to the right is surfer central, where surfistas can rent boards and even take lessons. The immaculate state of Lopes Mendes is guaranteed by its limited access. Boats aren’t allowed to dock in its inlet; instead visitors who don’t want to indulge in a 90-minute hike from Vila Abraão must catch one of three daily boats that shuttle between town and Praia dos Mangues and then follow the trail that leads to Lopes Mendes. Cachadaço is also a jewel of a beach—in spite of the fact that it only measures around 15 meters (50 feet). However, the fact that it’s hemmed in by boulders and forest (and invisible from the open sea) gives it a wonderful secluded aspect. It’s no wonder that it was a favorite pirate refuge. If you’re fond of diving, you’ll appreciate climbing up the boulders and plunging into the emerald swimming pool below.
A separate trail leads from Vila Abraão to Praia dos Dois Rios (a two-hour walk), also on the south coast, whose name refers to the two rivers that bracket each end of the beach. Almost lost in the rain forest are the vestiges of the Cândido Mendes prison that was destroyed in 1994. This beach is quite enchanting, as is Praia da Parnaioca, much farther along, where the Rio Parnaioca creates a freshwater lagoon that offers a delicious alternative to saltwater bathing. On the western end of the south coast, Praia do Aventureiro has an unspoiled allure courtesy of its location within a nature reserve (although it can be reached on foot and by boat). During periods when the waves swell, it becomes a surfers’ paradise.
Boat Excursions and Diving
The best way to discover Ilha Grande’s beaches, coves, and grottoes is by boat; many sites are otherwise inaccessible due to the dense and tangled jungle surrounding them. Sudoeste SW Turismo (tel. 24/3361-5516) offers full- and half-day trips on schooners as well as on motorized launches for up to 20 people that can circle the island. Trips usually include visits to 7–8 beaches with stops for snorkeling, diving, basking in the sun, and lunch. The six-hour trips are on a fishing schooner (R$70 pp) or on a private launch for small groups of up to 10 (R$150 pp). You can also target individual beaches by hiring a boat at the Associação dos Barqueiros de Ilha Grande (tel. 24/3361-5046). Depending on the destination and the number of people traveling, prices range R$25–50 pp.
Those who want to concentrate specifically on Ilha Grande’s spectacular underwater treasures can take advantage of the diving and snorkeling opportunities. Elite Dive Center (tel. 24/3361-5501) offers lessons, equipment rental, and excursions to the most scenic aquatic spots around the island. A beginner’s course (R$150) includes a six-hour excursion with a 45-minute dive, and a more intensive four-day course (R$800) includes five dives.
Rain Forest Hikes
Rain forest enthusiasts can tap into their inner Tarzan and Jane by tackling the numerous hiking trails that weave through the spectacularly lush Atlantic forest that carpets the island. The rain forest is home to a variety of wildlife that includes monkeys, parrots, hummingbirds, and (unfortunately) many mosquitoes (for your sanity, repellent is a must). Most trails are well signed, but it’s best to take a few precautions, such as informing your pousada of your route and equipping yourself with water, snacks, and sunscreen. Also carry a flashlight, since night can fall quickly. For serious treks into the interior, such as the five-hour hike across the island to Praia da Parnaioca or the three-hour climb up to the summit of Bico do Papagaio (Parrot’s Beak), it’s wise to hire a guide (R$50). Sudoeste SW Turismo (tel. 24/3361-5516) organizes day trips (R$160 pp) as well as overnight camping and hiking excursions to these and other destinations for individuals and small groups, led by knowledgeable bilingual guides.
Accommodations in Ihla Grande
Most accommodations in Ilha Grande are located in or around Vila Abraão, although some more exclusive pousadas are hidden away in secluded natural settings. Aside from camping sites (which abound), pousadas tend to be fairly simple, although not always that cheap. Less expensive than many beach pousadas and more tranquil due to its luxuriant hillside setting, Pousada Naturália (Rua da Praia 149, tel. 24/3361-5198, R$130–170 d) is an enticing option. Double suites as well as triples and quadruples are handsomely finished with lots of polished natural wood and wide terraces where you can settle into a hammock and gaze out to sea. Also welcoming is the cozy Pousada Mara e Claude (Rua da Praia 333, tel. 24/3361-5922, firstname.lastname@example.org, R$160–200 d), which faces right onto the beach. The friendly proprietors, Mara and Claude (a former sausage-maker from the south of France), have decorated the modest guest rooms with homey touches that will make you feel like a house guest.
The trump card at Pousada Aratinga (Rua das Flores 232, tel. 24/3361-9559, email@example.com, R$160–200 d) is hands-on hostess and Scottish transplant, Rennie, who is responsible for everything from the guest rooms’ homey touches to the cakes that accompany afternoon tea. Chalets have more charm than the simple and smallish apartments. A small pool and hammocks increase the relaxation factor, as does distance from the Vila’s maddening crowd. Set into a forest-clad hillside overlooking the sea, the nine sprawling and elegantly simple apartments at the Sagú Mini Resort (Praia da Bica, tel. 24/3361-5660, R$320–360) offer maximum comfort and Edenic isolation—despite being only a 10-minute walk from the Vila (and close to the remote beaches of Júlia and Crena). Staff is terribly attentive and can organize all sorts of outings. A big plus is the Japanese hot tub, ensconced in the forest and offering bewitching views.
Food in Ihla Grande
Unsurprisingly, fresh fish and seafood constitute the main culinary fare on Ilha Grande. Vila Abraão has lots of simple, rustic bar-restaurants to choose from. Lua e Mar (Rua da Praia 297, tel. 24/3361-5113, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Thurs.–Tues., R$20–30), with its tables and chairs spread out beneath a giant tree overlooking the beach, is reputed for serving up the island’s most succulent fish and seafood moquecas. Located in the beachfront pousada of the same name, O Pescador (Rua da Praia, tel. 24/3361-5113, 5–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat., R$20–30) offers tasty and inventive dishes such as shrimp with leeks and gratiné pineapple, accompanied by a small but well-chosen wine menu.
Angra’s main tourist office (Av. Ayrton Senna 580, tel. 24/3369-7704, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily) is in Centro with additional branches at the Rodoviária and the port (both 7 a.m.–7 p.m. daily), where boats and schooners leave from. Ilha Grande’s tourist office (tel. 24/3361-5508, hours vary) is located close to where the ferries dock. For information about Angra, Ilha Grande, and the surrounding area, Angra Dos Reis is a useful bilingual site. In Portuguese, www.ilhagrande.com and www.ilhagrande.org have lots of info. There are no vehicles on Ilha Grande, nor any bank machines—make sure you come equipped with cash (although some tonier places accept credit cards).
Angra is 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Rio. Viação Costa Verde (tel. 21/2233-3809) offers hourly bus service between Rio and Angra (2.5–3 hours, R$36). If you’re driving from Rio, simply follow BR-101, the Rio–Santos highway, but beware of traffic on weekends and holidays.
Those going to Ilha Grande can take an 80-minute ferry ride from either Angra or Mangaratiba, a town closer to Rio, from which Viação Costa Verde operates four buses daily (2 hours, R$22). Barcas S.A. (tel. 0800/704-4113) offers daily ferry service. Boats depart from Angra (3:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 1:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun.) and from Mangaratiba (8 a.m. daily plus 10 p.m. Fri.). Return boats from Vila Abraão leave daily for Angra at 10 a.m. and for Mangaratiba at 5:30 p.m. From both towns, the fare is R$6.50 (Mon.–Fri.) and R$14 (Sat.–Sun.). Another alternative is to take a high-speed catamaran. Three departures leave simultaneously from Angra and Vila do Abraão at 8 a.m., 11 a.m., and 4 p.m. daily. Tickets cost R$20–25 and are available at the Rodoviária and the Santa Luzia quays. For info contact Ilha Grande Turismo (tel. 24/3465-6462).
The second largest island in Angra’s bay, Ilha Gipóia is also the most visited. Not only is it a quick 30-minute boat ride from Angra’s pier, its waters are ideal for snorkeling and diving, and its beaches are spectacular. The most popular, Praia do Dentista, is famous for its floating bars, where, stranded on the waves, you can feast on fresh grilled fish, lobster, and even sushi, all of which are delivered by boat. There is even a sorveteria that sells ice cream out of a canoe. Those in search of more privacy can take a boat to the deserted beaches of Juruba.
If you want to stay on the island, check into the Pousada Canto do Hibisco (Praia do Vitorino, tel. 24/3365-2335, R$360–420 d full board), which offers six attractive and secluded beach bungalows surrounded by tropical forest.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.