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.
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