A slice of paradise in the Atlantic
Ilha Grande (Big Island) is a 75 square mile slice of heaven with 102 tropical beaches, waterfalls, rainforest and mountain trails. Oh, and did we mention 102 tropical beaches? Just checking. The island, which is inhabited by less than five thousand people is one of the most naturally beautiful and tranquil places we've ever been. Although we could have stayed forever, we spent three wonderful days here.
A 2.5 hour drive and a 40 minute boat ride from Rio de Janeiro was made painless by Easy Transfer Brazil. Picked up from our pousada in Rio and dropped right on the sandy shore of the island for 145 BRL (package price which incl transfers from the island to Paraty).
Although a picture perfect paradise postcard now, this little island has quite a big history. Formerly a hiding place for pirates, a hub for slave trafficking, a leper colony and a prison which closed in 1994, Ilha Grande has some serious historical significance. Evidence of it's past are dotted around various parts of the island with ruins of both the prison and the hospital now tourist attractions.
Vila do Abraao is the main village where we stayed in the Welcome Surf hostel. Even though this village was the main tourist hub, we loved that it wasn't massively over run with bars and restaurants harassing you to come inside. A little row of half a dozen bars down one side street, a few shops, street vendors and a couple dozen pousadas and hostels pretty much sums it up. The rest is nature. Nature and beaches.
Day 1 -
To begin with we only planned to spend two days here so we got off to an early start today. There are 16 hiking trails to choose from, totalling over 150km. We chose the 14km round-trip trail to Dois Rios (2 rivers). Take a left from the beach in Abraao and the starting point is clearly signposted. Anyone of a reasonable fitness level should have little difficulty with this trail. It is uphill for long periods and overall sweaty work but manageable.
Along the way you will see some wonderful views of the beaches and villages below as you make your up through the forest. We heard a lot of different birds and animals including the howler monkey which makes such an alarming growling noise that we quickly armed ourselves with bamboo sticks thinking it was a mountain lion or a wild boar. An hour and 20 mins into the trek we came across the famous Soldiers pool. Tucked behind some bushes on the right hand side of the path is a clearing with a natural pool where the soldiers hiking to the prison used to stop and freshen up.
Now then, the trail should take around 2 hours to complete. SHOULD!
However, about three quarters of the way through we saw a small group emerge from a very narrow unmarked trail in the hedges. After a brief exchange of wild hand gestures, we determined, with our almost non-existent Portuguese, that the group had indicated that this mysterious trail leads to a waterfall. Just what the doctor ordered bearing in mind it's now late morning and over 30 degrees. So we figure we'd go find this waterfall and have a little swim to cool down.
So off we go. Only the trail doesn't lead to a waterfall. Instead, following a 40 minute climb through rocks and bushes we come out about 2.5 km back up the trail we've already covered. It's fair to say we were less than impressed but we carried on to Dois Rios. The 2 hour trek ended up taking us closer to 3.5 hours but our reward was worth it.
As the trail ends we entered an abandoned village where you'll find what remains of the prison along with some beautiful old houses. Walking through the village and past the 2 rivers which run off to the side we were met by a gorgeous golden beach which we had pretty much all to ourselves. With our clothes thoroughly drenched in sweat we went to the one and only vendor on the beach for a couple of well-earned, ice-cold cokes and a big bottle of water before heading straight into the water. After a thoroughly deserved rest on the beach, we explored the village a little and took in our amazing surroundings. An uneventful walk back and a few caiprinhias had us out like a light for the night.
Day 2 -
It's fair to say that after the previous day's excursion we weren't feeling particularly adventurous today, but we were still owed a waterfall. So we got ready and after discovering that our hostel had a breakfast included and taking full advantage of that, we set off for round 2 of find a waterfall.
Truth be told, the waterfalls here are far from elusive; yesterday's was merely an fictitious figment of our dehydrated imagination.
Opting for the T1/T2 loop trail which was a lot shorter than the T14 from yesterday. Although every bit as steep and climb-intensive in some parts, this trail is a lot better suited to all fitness levels. After a 45 minute walk/climb through the forest and some natural pools, we found the Feiticeira waterfall! A cute little lagoon at the bottom nestled in between a few big boulders and towering trees. Mission complete. We spent the rest of the afternoon vegged out on the Praia de Palmas beach near Vila do Abraao. This weekend happened to be a public holiday, so in the evening we made our way down to the beach again where they had live music, singing and dancing.
With our time on the island drawing to a close we weren't quite ready to say goodbye so we booked an extra night at our hostel and spent the entirety of our third day topping up our tans. It's a though life.
Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to do everything we wanted to. The T10 and 11 trails take you to Lopes Mendes beach which is said to be the best beach on the island. Most people we spoke to said they preferred Dois Rios though saying it was much less crowded and cleaner. We think it will take something seriously special to beat Dois Rios. There are lots of great spots for snorkelling and diving. For the serious climbers out there, the T13 takes you to the highest point on the island; Pico do Papagaio (Parrot peak).
Words and pictures alone just don't do justice to the sheer beauty of Ilha Grande. Modern enough to provide the amenities a tourist could need yet preserved enough to make you feel that you are somewhere special. Privately owned vehicles are not allowed. All we saw was a police car and a few service trucks ferrying goods to the shops and hostels. Still largely undeveloped, we hope this island doesn't get overrun by tourism and remains as quaint and charming as it is today.
Next stop, Paraty.