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The coastline south of Rio de Janeiro is not called the Costa Verde (Green Coast) for nothing. Lush, jungle-clad mountains descend precipitously to the sea, with sparkling beaches, hidden coves and picturesque harbours hugging the shoreline. Even more impressive are the scores of islands scattered offshore, and the most dramatic of all is the appropriately named Ilha Grande (Big Island), a mountainous island roughly three times the size of Manhattan.

Home to some of Brazil's most enchanting scenery, Ilha Grande has more than 100 white sand beaches and its hilly interior is densely covered with a pristine swath of Mata Atlântica, the biologically-rich Atlantic rainforest that has largely disappeared from other parts of the Brazilian coast. Waterfalls, craggy peaks and topaz lagoons are all part of the scenery, while abundant wildlife flourishes. Howler monkeys, marmosets and red-browed Amazon parrots are among the more commonly-spotted species.

Yet despite its obvious allure, Ilha Grande has remained largely off limits for most of this century. In the 1930s, the fascist-leaning government of Getúlio Vargas built a penal colony on the island to house political prisoners. In later years, hardened criminals were thrown into the mix, and by the 1960s the Cândido Mendes penitentiary had become one of Brazil's most notorious criminal breeding grounds (indeed the formidable drug gang Comando Vermelho was born here in 1979). Escapes were not uncommon, including a brazen helicopter getaway in 1985 by José Carlos dos Reis Encina, who was known as “Escadinha” (Stepladder) for his innovative flight.

With operating costs rising, the prison was permanently closed in 1994, and the island's tourism potential at last arrived. Less then a decade ago, accommodation on the island was limited to a handful of simple pousadas (guesthouses). However, the island’s growing popularity with both Brazilian and foreign travellers and its relatively convenient access to Rio (a 2.5-hour bus ride, followed by an 80-minute ferry journey) soon attracted ever-larger crowds, and tourism has exploded over the last five years. Today there are more than 100 lodging options on the island, most of which are located in the main settlement of Vila do Abraão.

A 2009 decree signed by Rio state governor Sergio Cabral relaxed the 23-year-old environmental protections that limited development on Ilha Grande and 93 other islands in the state. Local organisations like CODIG (Committee for the Protection of Ilha Grande) are lobbying to repeal the decree, but for now, preservation and sustainability have become the buzzwords of the day on the island. Much of its land remains protected by the federal and state laws, which prohibit picking plants, feeding animals, open fires and bush camping. Some areas -- like the Reserva Biológica Estadual da Praia do Sul, a 3,600-hectare protected biological reserve that protects five different ecosystems -- rainforest, dunes, mangroves, lagoons and rocky coastline -- are entirely off limits to all but research scientists.

Vila Abraão, however, continues to grow, with the opening of more guesthouses, restaurants and bars. During summer weekends and on holidays (particularly over New Year's Eve in January and Carnaval in February or early March) a mix of Brazilian and Argentine sunseekers -- and a handful of international visitors -- pack the sandy streets, overwhelming the calm that pervades the island for the rest of the year. Some of the 6,000 residents even complain that things were better in the prison days when people were forced to come and everyone wanted to leave.

For the moment, however, the island remains free of high-impact resorts, and the majority of the guesthouses are taking a small-scale approach with a focus on ecotourism. Retreats like The Island Experience allow visitors to experience Ilha Grande's splendour through a program of sea-kayaking and hiking, along with yoga and capoeira (Brazilian martial art) workshops from its ocean-front perch. Pousada Naturalia, seamlessly built in the rocky hillside overlooking Vila do Abraão beach, has handsomely designed all-wood rooms, seafront balconies and solar-heated showers. A little further east, Asalem has gorgeous views over the rainforest and bay, with kayaks and canoes available for exploring the shoreline, and is run by acclaimed photographer André Cypriano, who produced an eye-opening book of photos documenting life inside Cândido Mendes before its closure. A new crop of eco-minded guesthouses, like the Australian-run Pousada Aratinga, are even promoting waste reduction, recycling and composting.

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