In this Guest post, Neil Robertson explores the remote island of Ilha Grande in Brazil, discovering breath-taking beaches, rainforest trails, the deserted ruins of a prison and takes a hike up to the island’s highest peak.
I think that every traveller has their own definition of paradise in mind. If you have ever been to Ilha Grande in Brazil, you might just agree with me when I say that I think I’ve found mine.
I visited the island after a hectic week in Rio de Janeiro, which was an incredible experience in itself but left me desperately yearning an escape from the clamour and din of such an immense metropolis. A three hour trip down the coast and I found exactly what I was looking for.
Abraao, a quaint coastal village
A bus and a boat later and we arrived at Ilha Grande’s village of Abraao, the main hub (as in a handful of dirt tracks) of what is a surprisingly remote island. Although very much on the rapidly developing Brazilian tourist trail, a short walk of a few minutes in any direction will bring you into solitude and, outside of Abraao, I felt very much alone with nature on the island. Only around 5000 inhabitants and 20 small villages are spread over a huge area. The island is a protected national park and there are barriers to development, including the absence of any roads and cars (officially at least).
The image of island tranquillity develops with the beaches, some of the very best I have ever seen. There are well over 100 white sand beaches on the island and almost all are fantastically quiet. Lopes Mendes is the most famous and is absolutely stunning, but through a combination of boat trips from Abraao and some rainforest hiking, you can find breath-taking beaches all to yourself. Depending on the time of year, you may even be joined by passing Southern Right Whales, I’m sure you would not mind their intrusion. Even at night, I remember drifting off to sleep and hearing the waves lapping outside, as much of the available accommodation is right by the shore.
Take a guided trek to Pico de Papagio
The most memorable day of my stay on the island was spent hiking through the rainforest to the highest peak, Pico do Papagaio, a trek that took most of the day and required the assistance of Joao, a fantastic local guide. There are no paths, just jungle floor and you can no doubt imagine my face when Joao helpfully assures me that snakes are rarely seen, and very rarely are they killers.
Thanks for that Joao, that will do the phobia the world of good! Joao also passes on his scornful amusement when telling us how tourists regularly get lost on hikes (sometimes, terrifyingly, for several days on end), failing to gauge just how vast this green haven is. Imagine being lost in the rainforest, with only the circling snakes and blood-chilling cry of the howler monkeys to keep you company as the sun goes down…..
A notorious history
One of my favourite things about travel is learning about the history of the places I visit. ‘Colourful’ would be the word to describe Ilha Grande’s past I think. Piracy, slave trafficking, smuggling, you name it, it has all passed through here over the centuries. The story I found most enthralling is the history of the notorious Ilha Grande prison. Originally built as a penal colony for the country’s political prisoners in the 1930s, it soon became home to the very worst of Brazil’s offenders. A Brazilian Alcatraz if you like. In a story fit for any Hollywood movie, one of the residents, a legendary drug baron referred to as Escadinha (“The Stepladder”) actually escaped by daring helicopter rescue on New Year’s Eve 1985. While wondering if anyone has the movie rights, you can still visit the prison ruins (it was finally closed in 1994 and yes, they literally blew it up to avoid any ambiguity) to this day on a walking day trip from Abraao.
Fresh seafood and produce are delectable
Such exertions and learning about the island’s enthralling past works up an appetite and, with fishing so essential to the local economy, the fresh produce is a joy to behold. Most memorable is a melt-in-the-mouth salmon cooked in a passion fruit sauce, with a delectable fresh caipirinha on hand. Needless to say, as hard as I’ve tried in the kitchen since, I have not been able to replicate the experience.
Maybe it’s my being British that makes me feel so comfortable and familiar on an island, I don’t know, but there is something very special about being somewhat isolated from the rest of the world. Ilha Grande was an incredible experience. As a lover of hillwalking, nature (except snakes), remote but beautiful beaches, some thrilling historical tales and simply delicious seafood, this, for me, is paradise.
My thanks for this Guest article to Neil Robertson, an avid traveller who in recent years has lived and worked in Italy, China and Belgium. Loving nothing more than to experience different cultures and ways of life, Neil is always planning the next trip. Football, 80s rock and good food are never far from his mind wherever in the world he finds himself. Neil is now primarily based back in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland and is a founder of Locomotion Travel.
More tales from remote locations:
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April 14, 2013 by Guest Author
Filed under Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cycling, Eating and drinking, Fishing, Guest post, Leisure, Misc, Nature, Sightseeing, South America, Spa & Pampering, Walking, World
When it comes to appreciating the great outdoors, there are a multitude of destinations around the world which fit the bill, however, nowhere does it in quite as much style as Argentina. There’s a huge amount to see in this vast country, from waterfalls to wildlife, city streets to gaucho ranches, wine estates to stunning beaches. Here’s a low-down on the very best places for adventure in Argentina.
For some adventurous souls, Argentina’s southern state of Patagonia is the jumping off point for cruises to Antarctica. But there’s a lot more to this beautiful wilderness. Try heading down to the Los Glaciares National Park – filled with lakes, mountains and quaint local townships – for great treks and ice-walking. Crampon your way up the awe-inspiring Perito Moreno glacier and watch as huge blocks of ice falls away into the ocean as the glacier slowly advances into the water.
The Valdes Peninsula
It’s all about the wildlife in the Valdes Peninsula. Go offshore for some staggering whale-watching and feel the thrill as a humpback whale swims beneath your boat. A tour will also introduce you to some of the other residents of the area: orcas, dolphins, penguins, elephant seals and sea lions.
The kind of adventure on offer in Argentina is more of a gastronomic kind. Indulge in tours of the various wineries and dine at the indulgent in-house cafes and restaurants. Back in town, you can wander through the colonial plazas and leafy streets for a relaxing few days of fun.
The Iguazu Falls
Iguazu Falls is a sight to behold. From the Argentinian side of the falls you can thread your way above, below and through the waters and surrounding jungle on brilliantly designed wooden walkways. Because of this, it is sometimes said that ‘from the Brazilian side you see the falls, and from the Argentinian side you live them’. For a real taste of adventure, take a motorboat up to the very edge of the falling water – be deafened and drenched by the longest stretch of cascading water in the world!
If you’re a huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ kinda gal or guy, you might want to try your hand at dove shooting. Cordoba – Argentina’s second largest city – is one of the best places in the world for this sport. Stay on a ranch for the ultimate experiences and trek, cycle or horse-ride up into the surrounding hills for magnificent views and a lungful of fresh air.
The Lake District
From the city of Bariloche travelers can explore the snow-capped Andes and lakes of this stunning part of the country. There’s plenty of hiking, fishing, golf and horse riding on offer in the area, as well as some glorious spas and luxury hotels. Particularly adventurous types might want to attempt the lake crossing from Bariloche across into Chile – but only if you don’t mind leaving Argentina behind!
This article was brought to you by the luxury travel experts at Exsus, specialists in arranging luxury, bespoke holidays in South and Central America as well as other adventurous destinations around the world.
Photo credits: Perito Moreno by Matito, Peninsula Valdes by Berlotti, Peatonal by betta design, Iguazu Falls by Malingering, Dos Lunas Estancia by longhorndave, and San Carlos de Bariloche by Miradas.com.br.
More tales from South America
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In Podcast 11 in my travel podcast series, I talk to Craig and Linda from Indie Travel Podcast about their 4 months travelling with friends in South America, visiting Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay. They pick out the highlights of their trip, and give some advice on travelling by bus, how to avoid scams and pickpockets and how they enjoyed staying with locals on this trip.
- Craig and Linda flew into Santiago because of the cheap flights from Auckland in New Zealand. The city is surrounded by mountains and can be bathed in smog although Craig & Linda enjoyed their time there with museums and great street food.
- Patagonia in southern Chile has amazing scenery although Craig & Linda didn’t visit, as it is one of the most expensive regions to visit in South America and they didn’t have enough time.
- The island of Chiloé is a great place to relax and slow down, with a Pacific Island feel with food being cooked in underground ovens, and a place you can spot seals and dolphins.
- In northern Chile, the area around San Pedro de Atacama is beautiful although the town itself is a tourist trap. You can use San Pedro de Atacama as a base for trips into the surrounding area but as an alternative you can approach from the north from Uyunay in Bolivia. This region is known for its natural beauty with mountains and salt flats.
- Craig and Linda enjoyed an astronomy tour with a Frenchman who has set up telescopes in his house to view the very clear night skies in this area that has very little light pollution.
- Linda and a friend spent a weekend in Valparaiso in Chile with plenty of street art, funiculars and brightly coloured houses where the local government had commissioned open air murals around the town. They also visited Viña del Mar, the coastal resort of the region.
- Unfortunately, Chile is one of the most expensive countries in South America for food and accommodation, along with Uruguay and Argentina.
- Craig and Linda travelled by overnight bus from Santiago to Antofagasta and up to Lima and spent 7 weeks in Peru, 3 of which were in Cusco where they attended a local language school to learn Spanish.
- Cusco is not representative of Peru as a whole as it is very touristy, being the main jumping off point for trips to Machu Picchu. We discuss the pros and cons of visiting Machu Pichu which is a major site but also expensive and crowded by comparison to other sites that receive far less visitors.
- From Cusco they enjoyed a trek through the Sacred Valley, visiting local villages that were well off the tourist trail.
- Craig and Linda didn’t visit Machu Picchu preferring to spend time at some other lesser known pre-Incan sites near Trujillo such as Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna.
- They especially enjoyed their time in the northern cities of Trujillo, Chachapoyas and Chiclayo and wish that they’d spent more time there than in Cusco.
- From Peru Craig and Linda travelled to the shores of Lake Titicaca, stayed at Cococabana and did some walking on Isla de Sol, a large island in the lake.
- They visited the Uros floating islands made from reeds that were constructed as a refuge for the local people but have now become a major draw for tourists and brought more prosperity for the locals.
- They had mixed feelings about La Paz which Linda loved as they stayed with locals and she enjoyed the street-food. Craig found the city dirty and felt unsafe as they were targeted with 3 pick-pocket attempts while they were there.
- From Uyuni in Bolivia Craig and Linda visited the salt flats for a 3 day 4 wheel drive tour staying in a salt hotel and ending at San Pedro de Atacama. They loved the amazing play with perspective, coral islands covered with cactus and the heat haze with the mountains in the distance.
Argentina and Uruguay
- Craig and Linda visited the Iguazu falls from both the Argentinian side which they found more developed but also more crowded and from the Brazilian side which had less visitors. The car to take them to the falls was arranged through their hostel and was only a little more expensive and more convenient than taking public transport.
- From Puerto Iguazu they took the bus to Montevideo in Uruguay where they stayed with a friend who took them to his grandmother’s Lake House. This was close to the popular beach and surfing resort of Punte del Este which was reputed to have the best surfing on Uruguay’s east coast.
- They also enjoyed Montevideo which was a relaxing place with plenty of culture and galleries, a contrast to the buzzing atmosphere of Buenos Aries. They also spent some time in in the town of Colonia in Uruguay.
- In Argentina Craig and Linda did some wine tasting in the Mendoza and la Plata regions but found it difficult to take part in the wine tasting unless you were part of a tour as the wineries would only open their cheapest wines to try.
Tips for travelling by bus in South America
- As they were travelling on a budget, Craig & Linda used long distance buses to get around, normally travelling overnight, despite the fact that Linda finds it difficult to sleep on buses.
- The standard of the buses were best in Chile and Argentina and in Peru there was also a wide range of standards with some very high quality buses.
- At best these buses can be similar in style to air travel with comfortable, reclining seats, airline style meals and drinks and even sometimes on board wifi.
- Depending on the bus, you can book semi-cama seats that recline 45-60 degrees, Cama with 160 degree reclining, and even full cama that lie flat.
- Craig and Linda suggest that you research your options and book with an bus operator that has a good reputation, even if it costs a little more.
- Always keep your valuables with you on the bus and keep hold of any day-packs , especially when sleeping.
- You may like a seat at the front of the bus that has more leg-room and you should also check the position of the toilet before selecting a seat to avoid unwelcome smells.
Couchurfingand meeting locals
- On this trip Craig and Linda enjoyed staying with locals through Couchsurfing.org – even though their options were more limited as they were travelling in a group.
- They combined this with staying in hostels which also gave them a break from speaking Spanish and an opportunity to catch up on the work for their Indie Travel Podcast site, as they also earn a living through the website.
If you enjoyed this travel podcast please check out my other podcasts in my Travel Podcast Archive
Other Indie Travel Podcasts on South America
Photo Credits: All photos by Craig and Linda and can be seen on their Mars-Hill Flickr site