Ilha Grande - A Tropical Island Paradise
Ilha Grande is a 90-minute boat ride from the mainland of Rio de Janeiro state and, as a result of dedicated protection efforts, it is teeming with wildlife. Parrots pass overhead, yacare caiman dart across the path of hikers and howler monkeys can be heard making their distinctive calls from both the telephone lines in the main town of Vila Abraão and in the thick canopies at the heart of this South American paradise.
The island serves as a retreat for tourists from far and wide seeking respite from the country's chaotic city life, and the incessant posing on the beaches. (Although the pop star Rihanna did exactly that during a shoot for Vogue Brazil on the island last month). The real stars here will always be Ilha Grande's beaches, and the natural beauty that local people are working hard to preserve. No cars are allowed on the island and, in December, the Christmas decorations - recycled plastic bottles and CDs - act as pretty reminders of the unsightly damage that can be inflicted upon the environment.
It is not uncommon to see snakes as thick as a grown man's forearm disappear into the forest on Ilha Grande. In a country as overwhelming as Brazil, the sight of a potential threat heading in the opposite direction is a great relief. Of course, as is the case with wild animals and their natural habitat all around the world, the overriding concern should be for their survival. Protecting Brazil's animal and plant life is of great importance to people here who have been appalled by the levels of deforestation, that have risen again in recent years. Although much of Ilha Grande is inaccessible to all but research scientists, sustainable tourism is welcome on the island, where development has occurred with restraint, for the time being at least.
There is accommodation for every budget, ranging from pousadas (guesthouses) by the beach, hillside hostels and camping too. For almost a century, a bed here could cost nothing, if you place no value on your freedom. A prison holding infamous drug barons, and political prisoners during the dictatorship, was closed 20 years ago but the ruins can still be found today.
The island is best seen by a combination of hiking and boat excursions. Befriending locals is crucial to receiving the best advice - and maybe even preferential prices - on tours. For those not seeking anything too strenuous, short hikes to beaches leave behind the bustling throng in Vila Abraão. These walks are regularly undertaken by some stumbling forth in their Havaianas. If a real challenge is desired, the Pico do Papagaio is a pursuit which requires several hours and much hydration but offers rich reward in the form of spectacular views.
For most, a trek over to Lopes Mendes beach will be achievable and, most certainly, memorable. Its sugar-white sand and crystal-clear waters have secured this idyllic stretch recognition on several national and international top beach lists. It's a top spot for surfing in places but there's also a quieter, more sheltered part of the beach that is ideal for bathing and floating aimlessly in sight of the palms.Visitors who explore Ilha Grande leave feeling serious about nature, if nothing else.
By Daniel Baird