Ilha Grande or “Big Island” lies approximately 11 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil, South America. An island with a rich history and relatively new tourism industry, it is already a popular holiday destination for Brazilian and foreign travellers alike.
The Lonely Planet guide describes Ilha Grande as “a fabulous island retreat…..pristine condition“. In some respects this is true, but in others this statement can be misleading. Ilha Grande appears on many backpacker tourist routes and attracts cruise ship day trippers. As a result the island has adapted to deal with this influx of travellers.
The question is whether Ilha Grande should be considered an island paradise or just another tourist trap?
The island was only opened to tourism in the mid 1990’s. Prior to that it has served as a pirate hideaway, a leper colony and a high security prison which latterly held political prisoners.
Being an island, the only way to get there is by boat from one of three locations on the mainland (Mangaratiba, Concecao de Jacarai and Angra dos Reis). More than likely you will arrive in Vilo do Abraão, the only town on the island. You will be greeted by a picturesque scene of tranquil, crystal clear water, and a palm lined beach front overlooked by the 982m high Bico do Papagio (parrot hill). Initial views would suggest the beginnings of a paradise isle.
However, as you disembark onto the sand you will be greeted by numerous backpack-carrying tourists in search of their accommodation, persistent waiters waving menus to entice you into their restaurants and ownerless dogs out for a stroll. The ‘retreat’ might not be quite what you were expecting after all.
There are no proper roads on the island and other than the service vehicles (rubbish, police and fire truck) there are no cars. There are also no ATM’s so make sure you take enough cash to cover your stay. Both of these things lend the island a unique unspoilt aspect.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking that it is untouched by commercialism. Booking.com indicates that there are well over 100 hostels and guesthouses crammed into Abraão, not including the private pousadas. The streets also house many tour companies offering trips and activities and like any settlement in Brazil, there is a Havaiana store!
According to the Wikipedia description of Ilha Grande it is full of “scenic beauty, unspoilt tropical beaches, luxuriant vegetation..”. This is absolutely true. Ilha Grande boasts 100 beaches including Lopez Mendes which has appeared in many of the world’s best beach lists. The beaches can either be reached by boat trip or by trekking through some of the island’s hot, sticky rainforest using orange mud trails thick with tree roots. By the time you reach the beach you’ll be in need of a dip in the cool ocean, but the views will be worth it.
In addition to the beaches there are sights to be seen; from an old aqueduct that supplied the prison, which is slowly bring reclaimed by the jungle, to the ruins of the old prison itself in Dois Rios. Budding photographers will not be disappointed.
This all sounds delightful and like it ticks all the paradise boxes. But remember, you won’t be alone. The trails are all mapped out and are rarely empty; if you are going by boat you will be spoilt for choice with multiple tour companies all offering day and half day tours, individual boat taxis, and private boat owners keen to earn some extra money. As previously mentioned, Ilha Grande attracts both Brazilians in search of a beach break, backpackers and swathes of day trippers fresh of one of the cruises anchored off shore. With so many people all congregating at once, Vilo do Abraão can get very busy and a little claustrophobic – you’ll be sharing the beaches with crowds.
In all honesty it’s difficult to provide an accurate conclusion; as with all things it is a matter of opinion in terms of what makes or breaks a paradise getaway. However, it cannot be denied that Ilha Grande offers the opportunity to visit sandy beaches, seek out exotic wildlife and stand under natural waterfalls in the middle of a humid jungle. But it is a vastly growing tourist hot spot and with that comes the multitudes of eateries, tour agencies and accommodations, as well as the crowds.
So in truth Ilha Grande is both an island paradise (although far from a secret one) and a tourist trap. If you’re willing to accept a dash of commercialism with your nature and beaches, then you will love Ilha Grande. If you are looking for a quiet, untouched secret getaway then perhaps this is not the place for you.
Have you been to Ilha Grande? How was it for you? Get in touch we would love to hear about your experiences.