Sand, sun and a stupid tale that almost had us never experiencing any of it…
About 150km south from Rio – on your way down to Uruguay and Argentina, should you be headed in that direction – sits the droplet of land known as Ilha Grande. Fringed by the Atlantic Ocean, white beaches and palm trees, it’s all but exactly the same as the rest of Brazil. However, it’s like Brazil a few decades ago – with no roads, no private cars, and only the beginning of a semblance of tourism.
Vila do Abraão, the main town, is where most of the hotels and tourism operators are centred. However, the best advice I can give for this place is to forgo all the tours and take a few days to just unwind and explore the hikes and beaches. Walking trails criss-cross the island, and it’s actually possible to walk around the entire perimetre of the island if you’ve got four or five days.
Lopes Mendes beach
This is my only must-do on the island, because it’s literally the only thing we really did. It’s also frequently on “best beaches in the world” lists (it was one of Vogue’s top 10 world beaches, no less), so what other recommendation could you possibly need. The sand is fine, white and squeaks loudly underfoot (the best kind) and even at the height of the day, you’d hardly call the drifters who arrive for a sunbathing spot a crowd. It’s a godsend if you’re sick of elbowing people out of the way for a spot for your towel on Copacabana.
You can take a boat, but that’s rather boring and the hike is stunning, so I’d much rather give you those tips. From Vila do Abraão, the trail starts at the end of the main beach, and leads through a thicket, up and over the island. Plan for about 3 hours of hiking – the trail is about 7 kilometres long and includes a bit of up and down.
Parnaioca is supposedly gorgeous, but we never made it that far as it’s a three-hour hike or a boat ride away and we clear ran out of time doing absolutely nothing. Praxa Dois Rios is a good second option, and is easily accessed from a short trail from Vila do Abraão.
From Rio, you need to take a bus to Mangaratiba (cost us about $30 NZD), and do your best to link up with the ferry timings. There are also two other ports that serve Ilha Grande (Concecao de Jacarai is closest to the island and with the most connections, and Angra dos Reis is closest to Sao Paulo), but Mangaratiba is the one closest to Rio.
You can choose between a slow boat and a fast boat (the slower the boat, inevitably the cheaper the ticket) and they usually leave at least once a day from Mangaratiba at 8am. Fast boats leave more frequently and are about double the price.
So how did we get there? Let’s just say we were almost forced to sleep on an in-keeper’s floor…
How not to get there
For varying reasons of our own stupidity, Christ the Redeemer had left us scrambling to make it to the bus stop with enough time to catch the bus to Mangaratiba and onto the ferry to get over to Ilha Grande.
As luck would have it, instead of zipping down the 2km stretch of Rio de Janeiro highway in much less time needed than the hour we gave ourselves – we ended up on a 2-hour tiki tour extravaganza in which we took in the sights of Rio (again) via two entire bus routes, almost start to finish.
Running into the station and being told by an exasperated bus man (exasperated because we didn’t speak a word of Portuguese, he didn’t care we missed the bus. He actually threw his hands up in disgust at one point at the audacity of us being late) that we were shit out of luck if we wanted to catch the afternoon ferry, we decided to venture down to Mangaratiba anyway, and try catch the ferry to the island early the next morning.
Sure, we made it down to Mangaratiba fine. However, by the time we got down there at 6pm it was deserted. And by way of asking the locals, there was but one guesthouse in the whole damn town. And as we were walking down the street, we happened upon that sole guesthouses’s owner walking down the street. Delightedly, we asked him for a room, and though he spoke not a single word of English, he garbled some Portuguese at us and took us back to his lodgings anyway.
With coffee and bread and cake thrust under our noses, and after a few failed attempts at trying to tell us something about the rooms, an English speaker came along to save the day. Well, not quite.
It was full.
However, with nowhere else to go – the owner agreed to let us sleep on the couch. And it wasn’t long before a woman who was staying upstairs came along and let us use her shower. And once we’d had a shower, she emphatically insisted we sleep on her bed while she slept on the floor beside it. We were halfway through arranging her a nest on the lino when a breathless staff member tapped at the door.
One of the guests hadn’t turned up, and we were the new recipients of a beautiful double room – for the heavily discounted price of about $12 each. But to be honest, by that time I think he was just sick of us and dying to get us out of his living room, and his guest’s living quarters.
Nonetheless, in a country which is notorious for unpleasant crime and violence, and where we’ve instinctively clutched our backpacks as soon as anyone has so much as coughed near us – the kindness we’ve been shown was a welcome surprise.
We were feeling exceptionally grand about disproving the stereotype – and then we remembered the American girl at our previous hostel reporting the fact she and her gang had just been mugged at knifepoint.
But right up until about then we felt good.