Who says a trip to Rio has to be all about Copacabana and Ipanema? Even the most die-hard hedonists are bound to crave refuge from the city’s constant partying, so why not trade the urban jungle for a real one? The nature reserve of Ilha Grande (“Big Island”) lies an easy half-day’s journey from downtown Rio de Janeiro (and just across the water from Angra dos Reis) and offers fantastic upcountry hikes, gorgeous beaches, and practically zero commercialism. If you’re looking to score Brazilian ecotourism insider points, look no further than Ilha Grande. (The wildliferich Cagarras Islands are closer to the city but have much less land where you can disembark and explore, and no dining or accommodations.)
Like many South American islands with aggressive native flora, Ilha Grande once housed a notorious prison. In fact, no public visitors were allowed here until after the prison closed, in 1994. What touristic development there is has been low-impact, rustic, and focused on appreciating and protecting the natural environment. All the hotels and restaurants—which are strictly small, independent operations—are in the main town of Abrãao, from which the island’s many hiking trails and eco-excursions depart. Camping is also possible here, but only at specified sites along the northeast coast (Ensenada las Palmas, Abrãao, and Ensenada des Estrelhas), and at Aracatiba on the northwest coast.
For active travelers, Ilha Grande has a well-signposted system of trilhas (trails) out of Abrãao. Most of the hikes require at least a half-day commitment, and it’s always wise to hire a guide to accompany you to make sure you don’t get lost in the jungle, and to educate you on whether the plants and animals you encounter along the way are friend or foe. Ilha Grande’s 193 sq. km (75 sq. miles) comprise one of the most important remaining swaths of Brazilian Atlantic rainforest. It’s a teeming ecosystem, with squawking parrots and screaming monkeys in the trees overhead, and iguanas, snakes, and capybaras scurrying and slithering along the jungle floor on either side of the trail.
The classic bragging-rights trek on Ilha Grande is the climb to the top of Pico do Papagayo. This 990m (3,248-ft.) monolith (second in height to 1,031m/3,383-ft.-tall Pico da Pedra d’Agua) is the island icon, and depending on your vantage point, can resemble any number of creatures, from its namesake papagayo (parrot) to a dog, rat, or elephant. The ascent is a challenging and exciting trail past sheer rock faces and into rainforest. Take the T2 trilha from Abrãao to Cachoeira da Feiticeira (“Waterfall of the Sorceress”) for an enchanting hike past a ruined aqueduct and the barred archways of the old quarantine hospital, all evocatively overgrown with heavy vines.
And if all that jungle vegetation gets too intense, just head for one of Ilha Grande’s beaches, like Lopes Mendes (with great surfing), Green Lagoon and Blue Lagoon (with calm natural swimming pools where dolphins play), Dois Rios (with a virgin stretch of white sand against a forested mountain slope), or the “urban beach” of Abrãao Cove. Perhaps the most memorable way to take in the full scale of Ilha Grande’s chiseled perimeter, however, is on a full-day escuna sailing tour around the island. These festive Brazilian schooners are a great way to meet fellow vacationers, so you may even experience a bit of Rio-style fun while onboard.