The pristine Ilha Grande
Ilha Grande is an island located off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state, easily reachable from the city by car or bus plus a boat ride. It is one of the most pristine remnants of Brazil’s rainforest and one of the richest ecosystems in the world, holding some of the largest populations of endangered species such as red-ruffed fruitcrow, the maned sloth, the brown howler monkey or the broad-snouted caiman.
The island remains largely undeveloped, as for almost a century it has been closed to free movement because it housed a leper colony at first and then a top-security prison, where the most dangerous criminals of Brazil were incarcerated. The prison was closed and torn down in 1994.
Ilha Grande, which is 193 km2 (75 sq mi) in area, consists of several small villages. The largest village is Abraão and it has around 1900 inhabitants. Ilha Grande is now a very popular tourist destination due to its scenic beauty, pristine tropical beaches, luxuriant vegetation and rugged landscape. The tourism is however practiced on a small scale, the roads are unpaved and motorized vehicles are banned. The island abunds in hiking trails through the rainforest, that connect unspoilt beaches, neighbouring villages and hamlets.
One of the most popular tourist activity is to trek to the Lopes Mendes beach – a 2 hour hike from Abraão through the rainforest. The hike is very rewarding all the way through. Not only the beautiful nature and wildlife, but also because it is split in 3 parts, each part ending on a beautiful quiet beach. The last reward, Lopes Mendes beach, can only be reached by foot, as boats are forbidden in the surrounding waters. In fact, the seas around the island are also protected and feature a unique merge of tropical, subtropical, and temperate-zone marine life, and may be the only waters in the world where it is possible to see corals and tropical fish along with magellanic penguins and souther right whales.
The many travel agencies offer tours around the island to explore the waters, the hidden beaches or the beach villages. Snorkeling equipement can be rented in Abraão for very small fees, together with fish food to make sure that you will be surrounded by hundreds of colorful fish while under water.
Eating out is a very lovely experience, as most of the restaurants are alongside the shore. You can enjoy a delicious local seafood dish, while watching the boats coming or leaving Abraão during luch time, or a beautiful candle lit dinner, feet in sand, listening to the music of the waves.
There are several ways to get to Ilha Grande from Rio de Janeiro. Either way, the trip includes a bus/car ride and a boat ride.
Our favorite is by bus, from the bus terminal Novo Rio. The bus leaves every hour and the trip takes between 2 and 3 hours, depending on where you plan on taking the boat to Ilha Grande. The buses are very clean and comfortable and there is a stop along the way for refreshments, a cigarette break, etc. The route to take is Angra dos Reis.
There are 2 places where you can take the boat to the island. Both on the same bus route.
- Get off the bus in Conceição de Jacarei. There are people waiting in the bus stop to take you to a speed boat to Abraao. The trip is about 25 minutes.
- Get off the bus at Angra dos Reis. Take a boat for about 1 to 1,5 hours to Abraao.
The other option is by car, but you will have to drive to Angra dos Reis in order to leave the car in a private paid parking. Your boat trip will start here and will last around 1 – 1,5 hours.
Top tips for Ilha Grande
- There are no cars on Ilha Grande, which makes this place a paradise on earth. No noise, no air polution.
- Book well in advance, as the tourism is practiced only on a small scale and you might find yourself in the sitation of a fully booked island.
- Take a tour around the island – but choose wisely. There are many operators that offer a full day excursion, for a quite high price, but with not so useful or enjoyable stops during the day. Choose a 4 hours tour, which includes a snorkeling activity and you should be set.
- Bring casual summer clothes. The roads are unpaved, you will do best in your flip flops.
- Don’t forget the insect repelant and sunscreen. Sun is hot and mosquitos will ruin your dinner time.
- Go to Lopes Mendes. Although the hike might seem a bit heavy at the beginning, you will have wonderful surprises along the way.