Boat trips, blue lagoons, beautiful beaches… and bed bugs? The Editor discovers a quirky travellers’ paradise in Brazil in this, his latest adventure on the road. Come join the ride…
“Do you think they have bed bugs here?” demands a comose Australian from his reclining position on a bottom bunk, the minute I walk into my dorm. “I f**king hate bed bugs. I had to move twice in Rio… look, man, I’ve got bites all over me.”
I hit it off with Danny right away. A day trader taking an extended break from the grind, for one thing he was one of the few people I met travelling in Brazil about the same age as me (most were gap year students who had just finished their A-levels!), secondly you’ve got to love someone who doesn’t even feel the need to introduce himself before launching into a tirade on pillow-dwelling parasites. That night, my first on the idyllic shores of Ilha Grande, me and Danny went for dinner with the two teenage Danish girls that were our other roomies, enjoying a typically tasty, cheap and filling Brazilian supper of meat, rice and chips. It was during this occasion more than any other on my trip that I noticed how hard it is to make conversation with 18-year-olds about anything, especially reticent Scandinavian ones… but luckily Danny managed to fill any awkward silences with approximately twenty three more diatribes on his bitey beetley nemeses.
Not quite the dinner party of fine minds and sparkling repartee exotic dreams are made of, but I was grateful to be travelling and relaxing on a beautiful tropical island, after so many intense weeks of overdoing it in Rio and Recife.
Things To Do On Ilha Grande
Ilha Grande is simply Portuguese for “Big Island” and this hefty 193-km-squared chunk of land is found 1.5 hours ferry ride adrift of the Brazilian coast, and around 100km west of Rio de Janeiro. Up until quite recently it was the site of a political prison (and before that a leper’s colony) which might explain why such a beautiful island has only really developed as a tourist destination in recent years. Even then development hasn’t meant five star resorts for Brazil’s spoilt upper classes (for that head to Buzios), but rather the appearance of a raft of relatively simple pousadas (guest houses) and a few youth hostels… 90% of which are congregated around the main village Vila do Abraao. Since the island is a designated protected area it is likely to stay this way.
As cars are pretty much banned on the isle, and it’s too big to walk around handily, taking a boat trip is without doubt the number one thing to do on Ilha Grande. Needless to say there are many companies, offering many different trips, some – usually the ones that take you all the way around the island – as expensive as 180 reias (about 35-40 GBP). Danny and I however managed to find a shorter but fun-looking ride that took us to Love Beach (Praia do Amor), The Blue Lagoon (Lagoa Azul) and one more beach for lunch. The deal sealer though, of course, were the free caipirinhas all day.
Praia do Amor was, truth be told, just a shabby little patch of sand, but it was a good excuse to jump off the boat and take a swim, and one of us did discover a gorgeous giant red starfish. Once that preliminary was over it was time to get back on board, swig down a couple more caipis, make for the Lagoa Azul. The teenage version of me was highly disappointed by the lack of Brooke Shields frolicking naked in the waters, but nonetheless The Blue Lagoon was well worth the stopover. A bit of snorkelling revealed schools of striped tropical fish, a funny looking eel-like creature, and a hot Estonian lady from a neighbouring boat. All proved quite hard to catch.
Finally we stopped for lunch, and whilst I can’t remember exactly what I ate I’m 99% sure it was meat/fish, rice, beans and chips. And then it was back on the boat for a sunset cruise back to Vila do Abraao. If you don’t know that I spent this time lying at the back of the boat having a siesta, you don’t know me very well by now.
All in all it was a great day, and I’d definitely recommend, not only doing a boat trip when on Ilha Grande, but also doing it on your first day, as the cool people we met (including several nice Swiss and Germans, a lovely couple from Argentina and two very cool couples from Rio… although admittedly took me a while to realise they were coupled MM and FF) became our friends for the rest of our time on the island, and it was fun to party with them or run into them during the day, which of course wouldn’t have happened if I’d taken the trip on my last day.
Praia Lopes Mendes
The other must do activity on IG is to take a hike from Vila do Abraao to Lopes Mendes beach. It’s a fair old slog, much of it up and downhill, that took me and two girls from the hostel around three hours, including short breaks at some of the beaches on the way and plenty of photo / water stops (ie. it could be done in two if you were really in a hurry). But it was definitely worth it.
Emerging from the jungle onto Lopes Mendes and it finally became apparent why we didn’t just stop at any of the perfectly nice beaches we’d already passed. This was something else. For one thing it’s absolutely massive. Maybe 100m to the right of where you enter from is a cluster of rocks marking one end, whilst to the left powder fine white sand stretches for what must be several kilometres around the headland. The result is an impressive and very shallow bay, where you can walk at least 50 metres out into the water and still only be up to your knees in water. Not being much of a scientist I can’t tell if it is this shallowness that gives the water a translucent green gemstone quality, the likes of which I can’t remember seeing ever before anyone else. After a bit of bathe, it was time to get my daily nap in, under the shade of the yellow-fruit-bearing trees that flank the back of the beach. Groups of travellers and romantic couples were likewise gathering in the shade for this communal siesta. Vultures circled overhead and at one stage my dose was interrupted by a bird cry and I blinked open my eyes to see a hawk darting just metres above me into the woods. The only downer on the day was later realising that I’d left my iconic sky blue and white “construction worker” Havaiana flip flops somewhere on the sands…
There’s not so many more things to do on the island, a small waterfall also within hiking distance from Vila do Abraao being one other popular site, whilst you can also visit some of the remnants of the old prison, but if I hadn’t got violently sick on my third day here (a combination of a hostel party at Aquario, those all day caipirinhas on the boat trip, and never fully recovering from carnival and Rio) then I would have happily returned to Lopes Mendes for another day, and I’d definitely advise spending three or four nights here in total and just chilling for a bit in one of the most beautiful spots, that I found at least, in the country.
And just for the record: there were no bed bugs on Ilha Grande. Danny had the time of his life.
How To Get From Rio de Janeiro to Ilha Grande
I didn’t really fancy the journey from Ipanema to Rio bus station, then bus to god knows where then ferry to IG and referring to my Lonely Planet guide I found a company called Easy Transfer Brazil who offered a rather enticing door-to-door transfer from Rio to Ilha Grande for not very much money. As I was particularly displeased with the service, I’m gonna spend some time now slating them. Things got off to a bad start, when they were half an hour late on pick up after giving me a full hour time frame for their arrival… so that meant I sat around twiddling my thumbs for an hour and half! More annoyingly they managed to sell me the following leg of my journey – IG to Paraty – for an extra 50 reias whilst I was tired and hungover in the van. The only proviso was that I had to book it 24 hours in advance. It so happened that exactly when I would have booked coincided with the 12 hour period I spent vomiting in the hostel dorm and that I was only able to, struggling out of bed to get online, give them 22 hours advance notice. Predictably enough in hindsight, this was their excuse to tell me “hard luck” and keep my money. I asked them to send it back to me via Paypal as they hadn’t provided me any service but I was told no one else had complained and they wouldn’t be doing so. What’s worse is that there were two girls from my hostel who had the same experience as me, who said they HAD booked 24 hours in advance… making me think they are overselling the tickets vs. the capacity they can offer on any given day and pocketing the cash without doing anything. On that particular day they made 150 reias just from people in my hostel, so given that there’s plenty of other hostels and pousadas on the island, then perhaps that’s 1000+ reias a day taking travellers’ money and doing nothing in return. Nice business model guys! (They also stinked up the place on this Tripadvisor post).
So are there any alternatives to these cowboys? Well it’s true that you can get to the island by public transport, but it looks like a hassle (which is of course the Catch 22 of how I ended up with ETB in the first place), whilst the Green Toad Company does offer transfers from Rio to Ilha Grande but seems to be 50% more expensive. The same Tripadvisor post above does make them out to be a far more reliable option however, so maybe worth the investment.
For the frugal traveller I guess this makes ETB the Ryanair of transfer companies… so cheap and convenient that you end up using them despite their laugh-in-your-face customer service. Anyway if you do end up with that lot for getting to the island, then do yourself a favour and at the very least don’t book the onward journey with them. It was actually very easy to get from Ilha Grande to Paraty by public transport… we just took a public boat to Angra dos Reis and the bus stop from there to Paraty is right by the ferry terminal. Just ask. As I remember it seems like the bus starts off in the wrong direction (back towards Rio) but it soon turns around. It was also 10 or 20 reias cheaper this way than booking with ETB and just as fast.
I would also definitely recommend avoiding Easy Transfer if you going from Rio straight to Paraty as for that you can simply take the regular bus, or use another more reputable company as more people offer this service.
Just to be sure that I’m linking to everyone but ETB… you could also investigate these rather expensive but posh looking folk at Green Transfer Brazil and this Portuguese only portal. If anyone does find a good affordable alternative option on getting to IG from Rio do write to me and let me know and I will gladly add them to this page!
Ok mini rant over. It’s only 50 reias but even if you can’t guarantee the transfer you are selling then you should at least be willing to give back a refund, perhaps minus an admin. fee for the 5 mins work you’d have to do. Hint to ETB: it wouldn’t hurt you from a PR perspective either.
More Tips & Info
First important tip: there are no ATMs/bank machines so bring plenty of cash and a credit card. Secondly, accommodation-wise I stayed in Overnativa Hostel which was cheap, nice and well located (Vila do Abraao is small so you don’t really need to worry about location much). The one caveat I would have is avoid their laundry service as the poor Danish girls in my dorm lost half their underwear etc. when they used it. There’s a professional service in town. They also have local only staff, so be prepared to practice your Portuguese. Finally don’t plan on getting any work done on the island as WiFi everywhere blows. That’s it for now folks!
If you haven’t been keeping up with my adventures on the road, then click on this link to revisit them all, from checking out the Sambadrome and other awesome things to do in Rio de Janeiro, to exploring Recife with its beautiful old town …and less beautiful skyscrapers! Next up I make my way to the colonial cutie that is Paraty, so stay on this frequency for more fun and frolics.