Treasure island

‘So, what’s the catch?” asked a friend when I told her about Ilha Grande, a beautiful island just off Brazil’s Costa Verde (Green Coast). She had a point. Blessed with jungly hills, 106 sandy beaches, blue lagoons and bays teeming with tropical fish, it’s the sort of place you assume must be prohibitively expensive or impossible to get to.

But you’d be wrong. If you really want to, you can pay about R17 400 a week to be put on a diet and given a punishing exercise regime at The Island Experience or Sitio do Lobo, the two exclusive spas. But for those who want a proper holiday, there are dozens of small pousadas, where a room with a sea view costs as little as R120 a person a night.

Less than four hours from Rio (two hours by road to Angra dos Reis and an hour and a half on the ferry), it’s no surprise that Ilha Grande has become a popular weekend destination for Cariocas (Rio locals) looking to escape the madness of the city.

There’s a mad scramble when the ferry disembarks as porters rush on to the jetty to load luggage on to clanking metal trolleys and kids shove flyers for pousadas and campsites into your hand, but once the crowd disperses, you realise that Abraao, the “capital”, is just a village with a cluster of bars and restaurants around the main square and a handful of shops selling sarongs, beaded jewellery and flip-flops. There’s no bank, no nightclubs and, apart from a police car and ambulance, no vehicles. You get around by boat, bike or on foot.

It’s impossible not to relax on Ilha Grande. In the 10 minutes it took to get from the ferry to the hammock on the balcony at Pousada Manaca, my beachside home for the next three days, I’d slipped into the rhythm of island life.

After breakfasting on tropical fruit and homemade cakes, you can saunter down to the jetty where a little fleet of tourist boats waits to whisk you off to one of several idyllic spots — such as Lopez Mendes, said to be the most beautiful beach in Brazil.

Or you can walk — there are more than a dozen signposted trails, ranging from the short stroll to the old prison ruins and aqueduct just outside Abraao to the three-hour slog up the 980m Bico do Papagaio. The sky can change from dazzling blue to black in a matter of hours (it’s not called the Green Coast for nothing) but whatever the weather the views are stunning.

Walking in the sticky heat is hard work but worth it — not only for the views across the forest but to learn a little of the history of the island.

All that remains of the prison outside Abraao are the dank underground cells where political prisoners were held during the late 1930s. When it was closed in the 1950s its occupants were transferred to the high-security prison on the other side of the island.

And this is the secret to Ilha Grande’s pristine condition. Candido Mendes, or Devil’s Cauldron, as the locals called it, housed some of the most dangerous criminals in Brazil — it was here that Commando Vermelho, one of the most powerful Mafias in the country was founded. Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to holiday on the “Alcatraz of Brazil”, so the island remained undeveloped.

It wasn’t until 1994, when Candido Mendes was finally closed, that the trickle of tourists began. The ugly ruins of the administration block lie just a few metres from Dos Rios beach, yet another beautiful empty expanse, a reminder of how much harder life behind bars must have been knowing what lay just beyond the prison walls.

For centuries Ilha Grande was full of people who longed to escape. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were slaves brought to work on the coffee plantations or held here before being shipped to the mainland and sold in the mining towns north of Rio.

In the late 19th century when disease was rife on ships carrying immigrants from Europe, anyone showing signs of illness was dumped on the island and forced to spend 40 days in quarantine at the hospital. Those who recovered took the next ship to the mainland. The others lived out their last days in the first-, second- or third-class wards — depending on how wealthy they were.

I walked to Lopez Mendez beach, on the Atlantic side of the island, with Geiza, who entertained me with tales of pirate ghosts and listened for howler monkeys and the cheerful call of the red-headed tangara bird. En route, we cooled off in fresh-water pools and stopped at a juice bar for crab and shrimp pasteis (fried pastries). After about two hours of walking through the forest the dirt path gave way to sand and we caught a glimpse of surf through the mangroves.

Lopez Mendes is the sort of beach that would have developers fighting for building rights, yet there’s nothing there — no bars, no restaurants, no beach vendors and no watersports — just a glorious stretch of squeaky fine white sand with graceful surfers and body boarders interspersed by a few rather smug-looking tourists who can’t quite believe their luck at finding such an unspoilt piece of paradise.

And, thanks to Ilha Grande’s state park status, it’s likely to stay this way. Tourism is still in its infancy here and development is being strictly monitored. The director of the park recently turned down an application to build a mega-resort on Dos Rios beach.

The fate of the rest of Brazil’s Costa Verde is less certain. Only 5% of the original Atlantic forest remains and though parts of it are now protected, large swathes of this ecosystem are vulnerable to commercial pressures. But for the moment it remains one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the world.

Head south from Rio on the Rio-Santos highway and you could easily take a week working your way down the 280km-long Green Coast, spending the nights at gorgeous hotels, such as Pousada Picinguaba, on a hillside above a tiny fishing village with views across a picture-perfect bay.

If you want nightlife, you have to go to Parati, about a 45-minute drive from Picinguaba. Parati was once the most important port in Brazil, the last staging post on the gold route — from here it was transferred by ship to Europe. But after the route was diverted to Rio it became a bit of a backwater. While other towns grew and modernised, its cobbled streets and colonial architecture remained intact. Now its pretty, low white buildings house ice-cream parlours, restaurants and bars, such as Café Paraty, where you might spot Mick Jagger or Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen, who come here to chill out after partying in Rio.

But if your ambition is to swim and surf on one of the most unspoilt beaches in the world, and your time is limited, then head straight for the Ilha. — Â

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