Brazil’s largest off-coast island is only a 15-minute ferryboat ride from São Sebastião. Once you’re there, it’s utter relaxation all the way (provided you’re armed with mosquito repellent—85 percent of the volcanic island is covered in damp virgin Atlantic forest and, as a result, extremely annoying bloodsuckers called borrachudos are usually out in full force).
With dozens of beaches, over 300 waterfalls, and constant breezes (which make the surrounding waters a sailor’s and windsurfer’s dream), the island is a magnet for every kind of nature enthusiast, ranging from hikers and deep-sea divers to indolent hammock-swinging Robinson Crusoe types. It also draws a fair amount of fancy folk from São Paulo—many of whom have luxurious villas tucked away on beaches, along with private piers and helicopter pads. This explains the high number of eco-chic hotels and gourmet restaurants as well as the somewhat high prices. Things get especially astronomical on holiday weekends and in January, and it gets crowded, with traffic jams on the island’s main coastal road. If you’re in search of peace and tranquility, avoid these times like the plague.
The island’s main settlement is the pretty little town of Vila Ilhabela. It is located on the sheltered west coast of the island, a 20-minute drive north from the ferry dock at Perequê. Aside from a small (fairly touristy) commercial center, the town has some attractive vestiges of its colonial past, including the charming white-washed Igreja Matriz. Several kilometers before the entrance to town, on the way to the ferry, is an impressive 18th-century mansion belonging to the Fazenda Engenho d’Agua, one of the most important of Ilhabela’s many former sugar plantations. This history of cane cultivation explains the preponderance of fine cachaças on the island.
Additional Area Information
The reason that Ilhabela’s nature is so unspoiled (and its eastern coast so inaccessible) is that the majority of the island is preserved within the limits of a 270-square-kilometer (104-square-mile) natural park known as Parque Estadual de Ilhabela (tel. 12/3896-2660, 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily). Whether you decide to explore the island’s treasures by sea or land (there are plenty of hiking trails and several dirt roads), in most cases you’ll need to do so with an organized excursion. Archipelagus (Av. Pedro Paulo de Morães 713, Pequéa, tel. 12/3893-1478) offers boat, Jeep, and trekking tours around the island for R$60–80. Among the most popular trips are a bumpy Jeep ride across the park to beautiful Praia de Castelhanos, trekking to Cachoeira da Laje, a spectacular waterfall near Praia do Bonete, and climbing up the Pico do Baepi, a difficult three-hour ascent that pays off with incredible views of the mountainous mainland.
Should you want to do some exploring on your own, an easy solo outing is the 3-kilometer (2-mile) hike inland from Praia de Feiticeira to Cachoeira da Toca (8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, R$15), a waterfall with various cascades and pools as well as ropes and a zip-line course (R$10–15). Within the Parque Estadual, the Cachoeiras da Água Branca (9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily, free) are the only falls (there are five) you can visit on your own. Access is close to the park’s entrance.
Renting a bike is also an interesting option. An easy ride is the 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) bicycle path that runs from the Vila to Perequê. More ambitious souls can rent a more robust two-wheeler and venture the 22 kilometers (13.5 miles) to Praia de Castelhanos. Juninho Bike (Av. Princesa Isabel 217, Perequê, tel. 12/3896-2847) rents simple bikes (R$7 per hour) for short jaunts and 27-speed models (R$50 per day).
Ilhabela boasts a fantastic array of water sports. Due to the winds that blow off the northern tip, the island is considered one of the best places for sailing along the Brazilian coast. In July, it hosts Latin America’s most prestigious sailing regatta, the Semana Internacional da Vela. If you want to take sailing lessons, or rent a sailboat or kayak, contact BL3 (Av. Pedro de Paula Moraes 1166, tel. 12/3896-5885). Aside from renting sailboats (R$120–140 for 5 hours), you can rent kayaks (R$30 for 2 hours) and other small vessels. Private sailing, windsurfing, and kite surfing lessons are also offered at hourly rates ranging R$150–190.
With its crystalline waters, particularly off the east coast, Ilhabela boasts excellent diving and snorkeling opportunities. Beginners can get their feet wet at the Reserva Marinha da Ilha das Cabras, an island off of Perequê, where you can view coral, anemones, and a parade of colorful fish. Another underwater adventure is exploring the handful of sunken ships. Colonial Diver (Av. Brasil 1751, Pedra Miúdas, tel. 12/3894-9459) offers diving lessons and excursions and rents equipment. A two-hour dive for beginners costs R$220.
At the ferry landing at Perequê there is a Posto de Turismo (Rua Bartolomeo de Gusmão 14, tel. 12/3895-7220, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun.), where you can pick up detailed maps of the island. Check out the beaches yourself at photoladen websites such as www.ilhabela.com.br and www.ilhabela.sp.com.br. In Vila Ilhabela, Standby (Rua da Padroeira 63, tel. 12/3896-6843) is the island’s only cybercafé—luckily it’s open 24 hours.
Balsas (ferries) (tel. 0800/773-3711, pedestrians free, cars R$13 weekdays, R$19 weekends) make the 20-minute crossing from São Sebastião to Ilhabela every half hour 6 a.m.–midnight, and hourly midnight–6 a.m. There’s no fee back to the mainland aside from a R$5 environmental tax. If you plan to rent a car on the mainland (which will give you great mobility on the island), be aware that traffic lineups are insane on weekends and in summer. From Perequê, municipal buses (R$2.20) leave regularly for Vila Ilhabela and for Praia do Curral.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.