Before I even left home to begin my South America journey in Brazil, I knew the island of Ilha Grande was on the top of my list of places to visit. A Google image search revealed photos of crystalline clear waters and perfectly placed palm trees. Having already picked out my not so Brazilian bikini and a guilty pleasure beach book, I drooled over these pictures counting down the days till my departure.
The island was everything my guidebook had gushed about. Well preserved, but with a bustling backpacker community that eased my solo-traveler nerves. Dust dirt roads cover the car-free island, so the noise pollution of frivolous honking and revving of engines stays on the mainland.
The ferry dropped me in the largest village on the island, Vila de Abraão. A plethora of hostels are scattered throughout this town. The island itself is comprised of a thick interior of lush rainforest surrounded by white sand beaches. Although it has become a popular Southern Brazil tourist spot, it has been protected against overdevelopment and the environment protected.
The beaches on the island are boasted as some of the best in the world, the most popular being Lopes Mendez. This beach can be reached by a 20 minute boat ride or a 3 hour hike. Determined to kick my feet up and relax to the fullest, I chose the former. After the boat, the beach is another 15 minute hike through the jungle- the perfect way to work up a sweat before hitting the water. After emerging from the misty vegetation I found myself stepping into a National Geographic spread. The beach is expansive, so even on a holiday or crowded weekend you can easily find a spot to yourself. The island has obviously worked hard to fight off overdevelopment. No high rise hotels or overpriced beachside restaurants here. Sporadic shacks dot the beach, selling snacks and beverages.
Although I would have been content to spend my entire week on this beach alone, I was eager to check out the rest of Ilha Grande. A group of us decided to make our way down to Praia Dios Rios on the other side of the island. A wide dirt road winds up to the mountain and down the other side to the beach. Our hostel owner gave us a directions for a short cut. “Cut across through a trail in the jungle and you’ll be there in no time” he said. Well the trail was little more than a narrow path of dirt that only becomes narrower and steeper until you find yourself on practically all fours, jumping over fallen trees and dodging highways of ants. My relaxing afternoon on the beach was turning into a grueling expedition through the jungle.
After about 45 minutes of slipping and sliding in my flip flops and ducking under dangling spiders we emerged through a hole in the vegetation and onto the much larger, much more manageable trail. Turns out our shortcut wasn’t very short. Another half hour later, I dragged my cranky ass over the last hill and onto the beach, vowing to renew my gym membership as soon as I got home. The beach was miles of empty sand. I ran up to the oceans, thrilled at the prospect of rewarding myself with a cool swim, just to stop short of water in heartbreak. The ocean was filled with gobs of green algae. Every sweaty, suffocated pore on my body cried out with disappointment. I stuck a hesitant toe into the water only to pull out a sticky, slimy chunk. Retreating to the sand, I spent the next couple hours losing myself in my book and my tan.
Algae aside, the beach is worth the hike. If you have a few meters to yourself at Lopes Mendez, get ready to enjoy your own kilometer at Praia Dios Rios. After an afternoon where the most energy I exerted was turning the page, we began to get a little hungry. We found a small blue house with a sign out front that promised food. An older Brazilian woman with a toddler hoisted onto her hip came out to take our orders. We all ordered the one item on the menu- fish. And cold beer, stat. Minutes later, 4 full plates of fried fish with overflowing sides of rice and salad filled our small plastic table. After washing down our meal with our last drops of beer we began the 2 hour hike back to Vila de Abraão. We decided to take the designated path this time, keeping a steady pace as the sun was setting and the howler monkeys began roaring in the jungle on either side of us.
The rest of my time on the island I spent at Lopes Mendez (opting for the boat ride each time, as our trek through the jungle had scarred me for the rest of the trip) and in town shamelessly gobbling up the international cuisine at the backpacker hotspots. Nights were reserved for throwing back Bohemias and cheap caparinhas at whichever bar was the go-to spot that night.
After a week of serenity in the sand, my last day was a whirlwind of rushed packing and a sprint to the dock to catch my ride back to the mainland. Sitting atop the leisurely catamaran, watching the sun set over the water I felt instant regret for leaving the island. If it weren’t for my scheduled flight to Lima I might never have left. But it was probably for the best, otherwise I could still be on Ilha Grande, sipping a caparinhas on Lopes Mendes, watching all the poor fools sail away from paradise.