Just a few hours away from Rio de Janeiro off the southern coast of Brazil is one of the country’s most beautiful hidden gems – Ilha Grande or literally, the Big Island.
Despite its proximity to the chaotic and frenetic Rio de Janeiro, Ilha Grande is a paradisaical haven of lush rainforest, pristine beaches and lazy afternoons. Weighing in at around 200km2, the island certainly lives up to its name if travelling by foot; and due to a ban on motor vehicles on the island, that is really the only way to explore its beauty and biodiversity.
The island is packed full of scenic hikes and luxuriously tranquil beaches, ranging from gentle strolls to more intense uphill battles. Most treks take anywhere between an hour and the best part of a day to visit, and some of the attractions on offer include the Candido Mendes penal institute, a disused prison that housed up to 1,000 prisoners between 1932 and 1994, and several impressive waterfalls and natural lagoons, including the stunning Cachoeira da Feiticeira (Witches Waterfall).
However, most of the people who come to Ilha Grande are lured by its impeccable beaches. Praia de Lopes Mendes, a three-hour leisurely hike from the main port, is a beautifully elongated beach with unblemished white sand that crunches underfoot like packed snow and a gentle sloping decline into the ocean. Elsewhere, Praia de Feticiceira offers great opportunities to go snorkelling and see colourful exotic sea life just beneath the waves.
As well as snorkelling, scuba-diving and surfing, Ilha Grande is also a popular destination for mountain-biking and wildlife. The rainforest here is home to a variety of species, including howler monkeys, sloths, geckos and myriad bird species. At certain times of the year Magellanic penguins and southern right whales can also be spotted off the island’s coast.
Back at Vila do Abraão, the island’s main port and village, there are enough amenities to keep consumers happy. The majority of bars, restaurants, hotels, hostels, souvenir shops and tour companies are based here; yet for all that, the village retains a naturally laid-back vibe which will tempt many travellers to stay longer than they had anticipated. As well as a ban on motor cars, there are also no ATMs; and although many of the restaurants and hotels do accept card, not all of them do, so it is a good idea to withdraw as much paper currency as you expect to spend during your stay. The village is also awash with stray dogs, who, although homeless, are looked after by the local community which ensures they are in good shape, well fed and happy.
Those seeking nightlife on the island should look no further than the twin pairing of adjacent hostels, Che Lagarto and Aquario. These alternate themed barbecue and disco nights and a beachside campfire sing-a-long is never far away. On weekends, the beachfront of Vila do Abraão is dominated by live musicians; and anyone who experiences a local live performance of Sergio Mendes 1966 classic ‘Mas Que Nada’ on the beach, caipirinha in hand, will not forget it any time soon.
How to get there
Getting to the island is fairly simple. Boats and ferry leave from the connecting towns of Angra dos Reis or Mangaratiba; and although their schedule can be a little limited, especially during off season, there are usually several fishing boats which will take you across for a discounted fee and a more authentic experience.