Right into the 1990s, Ilha Grande was still a penal colony for dangerous criminals. These days tourists have nothing to fear on the island – unless they are afraid of the finest white sand, turquoise seas and breathtaking landscapes
Paradise is only a short boat ride away. Ferries and speedboats from the mainland tie up in the small harbor town of Vila do Abraao. In the bay, sheltered by two tiny islands, fishing boats, tourist schooners and smaller yachts lie at anchor. Behind the red-roofed houses, mountains rise up like the tiers in an amphitheater. Vila do Abraao is the largest town on Ilha Grande. It has the most guesthouses, and there are always plenty of parties on the weekend. But that’s not why people visit the island. They come to see its natural beauty, the pristine vegetation, the white powder-sugar beaches and the turquoise waters of the ocean. With a coastline extending over 155 kilometers and a total of 116 beaches, large and small, Ilha Grande is one of the most beautiful islands off the coast of Brazil. Dozens of bays cut deep into the hinterland, and just beyond the beaches, mountain peaks reach for the sky; at 1035 meters, Pico da Pedra D’Agua is the tallest. The slopes are covered by the tropical Mata Atlantica rainforest, one of the most species-rich ecosystems on the planet. Narrow trails invite visitors to discover this “Atlantic rainforest” for themselves.
The island is a protected area, so no cars disturb this peaceful realm, where people get about on foot, ride mountain bikes or take a water taxi. First inhabited by Indians, the island later became a hide-out for pirates, who would lie in wait there for Portuguese ships laden with gold. Around 1886, a hospital was built at Praia Preta, “black beach,” in which immigrants arriving on the island were often placed under quarantine. Later, between 1903 and 1994, a penal colony located on the island made it less attractive for tourists, so that most gave the island a wide berth. These days, visitors can take a look around the jail ruins, which are right beside a beautiful beach.
Vila do Abraao is the best place to start if you want to explore the island and the rental mountain bikes available there are a good way to get to the neighboring beaches. Just a few kilometers down the road you come to Enseada das Estrelas (Star Bay); some of the villas near the shore there belong to Brazilian film stars. A hiking trail will take you the eight kilometers to Lopes Mendes, a long, white beach that’s a particular favorite with surfers. But be prepared for some exertion because the trail is a continuous string of ups and downs. Also strenuous but worth the effort is the three-hour climb to the top of Pico Papagaio, so called because it is shaped like the beak of a parrot, which at 985 meters is the second-highest mountain on the island.
For those who prefer to avoid physical exertion while on holiday, there are water taxis to take you from beach to beach. Or why not take a cruise on a schooner? This is a wonderful way of exploring the island’s remote bays. Every morning, the old sailing boats casts off to take tourists on a tour around the island; the captain navigates close to the shore, past the protected bay of Saco Ceu and the charming little beach at Freguesia de Santana. The schooner anchors at Lagoa Azul, the Blue Lagoon, where the crystal-clear water teems with thousands of brightly colored fish and languid giant turtles. Visitors can dive in and snorkel between the starfish and coral, or enjoy a sunbathe on the beach. Another spot well worth visiting is the Green Lagoon – Lagoa Verde – which is not far from the wide beach at Aracatiba. As well as being the perfect excursion for nature enthusiasts, the boat trips are a fun experience: beer and caipirinha are served, there is dancing and plenty of opportunities to meet fellow travelers.