My Kind of Paradise On Ilha Grande

I guess I have a thing for seedy islands.

A pirates lair, a leper colony, and a penitentiary for political prisoners — much like Koh Tao in Thailand and Isla de Coiba in Panama, Ilha Grande in Brazil has quite the illicit past. And much like those islands before it, this one also managed to steal my heart in just a few short days.

Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande Brazil

Though the last island prison dissolved in the mid-90’s, gorgeous Ilha Grande’s sordid reputation kept developers at bay, much to the delight of travelers now lucky enough to stumble upon it. And it’s pretty convenient to stumble onto — several boat and van services offer door-to-door connections between Paraty and Rio, making Ilha Grande a natural stop on a hop along Brazil’s emerald coastline.

The first stop for visitors to the island is Vila Do Abraão, a once sleepy fishing village now bursting with pousadas, canga shops, acai stands and other tourist trappings that manage to maintain the tiny town’s ramshackle charm. Adding to the adorability factor is the lack of motorized vehicles. A garbage truck, a fire truck and a police vehicle make up the list of exceptions, and everyone else gets around on foot or by bicycle.

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

After our rainy five days in Paraty, we could not have been any more thrilled to be greeted by the sun in Ilha Grande. Yet we quickly learned that one thing we were seriously unprepared for pretty much all through Brazil, with the exception of our first lucky week? The weather.

We spent three glorious nights on Ilha Grande, and during the day the weather was beautiful and the temperatures in the high sixties to low eighties. But with strong island winds and temperatures dropping into the fifties at night, we were seriously unprepared for anything Brazil was throwing at us past sunset — which was around 5:30pm at that time of year.

Thank goodness I had bought a pair of jeans specifically for this trip! We fell into a pattern of enthusiastically planning a night out every day, then gradually putting on every layer we had in our bags as the temperature dropped until we were huddled in our beds wrapped in our comforters cursing ourselves for having acclimated so seamlessly to the tropical climates of our adopted homes. The last thing I expected to be on this Brazilian holiday was cold — though on the upside, I’ve lived happily through a Thai heat wave with no air conditioning, so there’s that!

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

We’d waffled on where to stay in Ilha Grande, entertaining lush pousadas, budget hostels and even a charming houseboat on Airbnb. In the end, we settled on the Che Legarto Paraty, a sister property to the hostel we’d tried in Paraty.

We’d been won over by the waterfront location, though I can’t say I’m itching to return. Our dorms were painfully pricey at $25 per night per person (private rooms are no longer offered), the included breakfast was pitiful, the location was a bit out of town and there wasn’t much in the way of hostel camaraderie during our stay. We were tickled by the local luggage service, however, which consisted of a bicep-flexer tossing our bags into a custom push cart and leading the way to our hostel for $4 each.

Che Legarto Ilha Grande

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

How to fill one’s days on such a charming island? Options are a-plenty. We’d originally enthusiastically planned to go diving though were warned off by the local dive shop due to the storm that had plagued us in Paraty and churned the visibility up to nothing.

Other tours for snorkeling, island hopping, and waterfall rappelling were appealing, however in the end we decided to give our budget a rest and entertain ourselves on the cheap. We spent the majority of our time on Ilha Grande tackling three of the island’s sixteen signposted hiking trails — leading to just a few of its hundred and two beaches! This was such a special experience that I have a whole post coming up dedicated to our hiking adventures. Stay tuned!

Ilha Grande Brazil

Hiking on Ilha Grande

And, needless to say, with a professional shutterbug as my co-pilot (she took both the beautiful photos above!), photography walks were a fun part of almost every day. I love how creatively challenged I can be by my travels with Heather, and comparing the different ways we see the world through our lenses.

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Also kind of needless to say when it comes to the two of us, eating and drinking were also a main form of entertainment.

While Ilha Grande doesn’t have close to the dining scene that Paraty boasted, we did find a few favorites. Fornilha Pizzaria was the perfect comfort food for our first chilly night, Kebab Lounge was a healthy dinner option, and Cafe do Mar was our pick for chic beachside eats in the sun — don’t forget to look for their special evening BBQ a few night a week, too! We both gave a thumbs up to the vegetarian-friendly self-serve buffet at Biergarten, and the flavored mojitos and fresh empenadas at Coruja were definitely the hippest thing happening in town. And let’s just say we made a thorough sampling of the local acai bowl offerings, and we weren’t let down once.

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

On our final morning, we decided to go wild and for over a few riels for fun. While rentals for bikes, surfboards and kayaks were tempting, we saved our mild splurge for a mutual favorite: stand up paddle boarding.

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

For 40BR each (about $11), we had an hour to play in the bay. We were heading onward to Rio de Janiero that afternoon, and while it was a city I’d looked forward to visiting for much of my life, I couldn’t help but feel wistful about leaving. The three nights we’d originally budgeted due to rumors of horrific wifi (a serious concern for two online business owners) suddenly seemed far too short. We’d actually tried to extend our trip by another day, but found our transfer was non-refundable and couldn’t be budged.

We were both overwhelmed with happiness as we paddled around and looked back on the beautiful island we were saying goodbye to all too soon. How rare to find such a gem of nature, so unsullied by overdevelopment. Ilha Grande is truly a special place.

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande left a big impression on my heart. Here’s hoping I’ll be back someday!