Ilha Grande – Jungle in the Bay

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.