Picture Perfect Ilha Grande

16 Jan

The relaxing island hideaway of Ilha Grande is located 100 miles south of Rio de Janeiro. With beautiful white sandy beaches, clear blue water, unspoilt Atlantic rainforest and relaxed vibe, it’s the type of holiday destination people dream of. The eleven mile crossing from Angra dos Reis to Ilha Grande takes just over an hour, but the difference is huge. Leave behind the high rise developments and busy beaches and arrive on the sandy shores of a laid back, undeveloped paradise. It’s all about relaxing in the sun, swimming in clear waters, swinging in hammocks, hiking forested trails and dining by candle light on fresh seafood with the sound of samba floating through the air.

The island’s history reads like something straight from a movie – first a haven for smugglers and pirates, then a leper colony and finally a state prison – but its chequered past deterred developers for decades and meant the island’s verdant rainforest (now protected parkland) and swathes of white sandy beaches remained virtually untouched.

The mainland ferry delivers passengers to Vila do Abraão, Ilha Grande’s only town (population 3,000) which sits below the jungle encrusted 982 metre Pico do Papagaio, a striking parrot-shaped peak. Arriving here felt like stepping back in time – there are no cars, no banks (bring cash with you) and intermittent internet access and phone signals.

The town was a sleepy fishing village until the mid-1990’s when tourism started to boom and nowadays there are a good number of pousadas, restaurants and bars to choose from. Development has been low-key and sensitive to the natural environment, so the town remains incredibly beautiful.

A low key local life also prevails in Abraão with congregations gathering at the tiny orange church, children making the journey to school and hole in the wall restaurants serving delicious local delicacies such as clay pots of coconut infused seafood stew called moqueca.

Tourism in Abraão is focused around the beach and the docks. Kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders take advantage of the calm waters, whilst hammocks strung between palms offer prime viewing of animated beach football matches. Wooden boats bob in the bay offering taxi services to far flung beaches and full day tours around the island, stopping at numerous beaches and lagoons.

There are numerous eateries and bars right on the beachfront and at the laid-back Lua e Mar we wiggled our toes deep into the sand as we drank Caipirinha cocktails under a shady tree. The backpacker classic Bob Marley CD drifted across the beach and sealed the deal for us to order “dos mas!”

Back from the beach, the sandy streets offer a low-key night out. Vendors push around trolley carts laden with cakes and tropical fruits. Live music flows from every bar and pay-per-weight buffet restaurants do a good trade.

If you have the energy to drag yourself away from the beach, the island offers some great trekking opportunities. There are around 100km of trails across the island and you can spend from a few hours to a few days exploring. Guides can be hired but walks are well signposted and trail maps available from town so treks can be made independently. Whichever route you choose you’ll discover pristine Mata Atlântica (Atlantic rainforest) thick with moss and hanging vines, abundant animal and bird life and secluded sandy coves.

Much of the trekking is up and down steep inclines and in high and humid temperatures so take lots of water and wear sturdy shoes (we did manage in flip flops but it was a little challenging in places). There are several small settlements dotting the coastal routes where you can buy cold drinks and snacks but the inland routes will require your own supplies.

Some of the best walks can be accessed from Abraão, with panoramic peaks, secluded swimming holes and ruined buildings on its doorstep.

Our favourite trek was the 6km trail to Praia Lopes Mendes on the other side of the island. It’s a challenging 3 hour walk climbing high on the ridgeline but spectacular views make it all worthwhile. Over the hills to Praia de Palmas, the trek meanders from beach to beach – each one seemingly more beautiful than the last, until you pop out at Praia Lopes Mendes – a vast crescent of deserted white sand, backed by dense greenery – palm and almond trees. Facing the Atlantic, the beach regularly gets great churning surf but when we arrived the water looked like glass.

Praia Lopes Mendes is regularly named as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and it’s not hard to see why. The 3km of sand is fine and sugary and so tightly packed it squeeks when you scuff your heel. There are no signs of development and absolutely no restaurants, which is a rarity for a Brazilian beach. We claimed a small square of this stunning location and relaxed enjoying the sun and dipping in the clear water when we got too hot. There were a couple of traders with cool-boxes and so of course we indulged in ice cold beers.

If hiking just isn’t your thing, there are regular boat trips to Praia Lopes Mendes from Abraão for roughly 30 reais per person (you can walk one way and take the boat another). The boats drop off and pick up from Praia do Pouso, a 15 minute walk from Praia Lopes Mendes, as it has a small jetty and calmer waters for landing.

Another fantastic walk from Abraão (in the opposite direction to Praia Lopes Mendes) is to Praia Dois Rios, another gorgeous beach where two separate rivers flow into the Atlantic.

The walk is a must for forest lovers. The dirt track is burnt orange and root-riven with thick green bamboo shooting up on either side. Fan-shaped ferns sprout high in the canopy and ancient trees are decorated with fluffy moss and climbing plants. The forest is alive with squawks, cries, whistles and chatters. Capuchin monkeys play in the trees and the colourful wings of tiny birds flash through the foliage. The walk to Praia Dois Rios takes roughly the same amount of time as Praia Lopes Mendes (3 hours to cover 6km).

Dois Rios was the site of Ilha Grande’s prison, Colônia Penal Cândido Mendes, which held political prisoners until 1994. All that remains are half-buried stone foundations, but a small reconstruction of the old prison buildings housing the Museu do Cárcere (the prison museum) has some interesting exhibitions, photos and handicraft displays.

Praia Dois Rios is a horseshoe shaped bay surrounded by curvaceous jungle covered mountains. The one kilometre beach is blindingly white with large, smooth grey boulders at one end. It’s completely stunning. If you’re in the mood for exploring you can hike upstream along the banks of the two rivers which converge here or swim out to a small offshore island. The vibe is very mellow with plenty of prime spots for sunbathing whilst watching surfers taking on the steady flow of Atlantic waves. We relaxed and enjoyed swimming in the sparkling sea. A local guy walked the beach selling delicious homemade sandwiches, acai bowls and fresh coconut water – we’d found paradise!

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