A September 2002 trip
to Ilha Grande by actonsteve
Quote: Only forty miles from Rio is another world. An island straight from Robert Louis Stevenson with endless beaches, swaying palms and adventurous diving. Ilha Grande is a newly discovered jewel.
Ilha Grande is only accessible by ferry from the coastal town of Angros Dos Reis. Two ferries a day connect it with the little town of Agraao on Ilha Grande. The town itself is charming with soaring green pitons as a backdrop and it is stretched along a golden palm-fringed beach (see photo). The island is a place to kick back--to forget about the outside world and not just suntanning, but hiking and SCUBA diving are very popular. There are over 100 beaches on the island, most, like the gorgeous Lopes Mendes, require a boat to reach.
And what about the eerie repuation? Visitors have only been allowed since 1994, as before that it was a penal island. The word is that political prisoners were held on Ilha Grande, and mysterious ruins dot the jungle from this period. Even further back it was Brazil's quarantine station, a leper colony, and before that a pirate nest used by the infamous Jorge Grego. The only hidden treasures today are wide beaches, excellent diving, hummingbirds and monkeys, and the chance to kick back and enjoy the feeling of all stress drop away.
You will probably stay in the beautiful town of Agraao. The charm of colorful houses, palm trees, a simple church, and pretty pousadas can be overwhelming. Like I said, tourists have only been allowed on since 1994, so you are still an attraction to the isolated islanders. Get to Ilha Grande now, as five years down the line all this will have changed.
Pousadas abound on the island. If you arrive without booked accommodation, you can take advantage of the touts/hawkers who meet the ferry who will take you to a free room. Also around the harbor are numerous boat trips costing about 50 reals for the day. Each beach can be hiked from Agraao through jungle trails, but it is far less strenuous and exhausting to be deposited and collected by boat.
There are a number of mercados and restaurants on the island. The focus during the evening is the main praca and the church is lit up with fairy lights. The bar/restaurante 'Verdinho da Ilha' seems to be where everyone ends up. The food and beer here are superb as is the 'forro' music which may get you out of your seat and start dancing.
Hotel | "Ilha Grande hostel - swinging in the jungle"
Life seems to slow down at Ilha Grande's only hostel. They say the island is 100% stress free and here you can kick back and watch hummingbirds buzz around the flowers and fruit ripen slowly on the trees.
For a small price you can buy a little time in this paradise. The hostel is one of the best deals in Agraao, and if you don't fancy one of the plentiful pousadas on the island, then this is a good option. It consists of a main building containing three dorms and six cabanas scattered around the garden. It is the last building before the jungle-covered mountain backing onto Agraao and some of the rainforest seeps into the hostel (see photo). The buildings blend with the slope of the mountain including a huge great boulder poking through the veranda of the main structure. The veranda itself is made of teakwood, hung with hammocks, and lined with bookcases and writing tables. From here, the garden flows down a slope and incorporates natural elements--huge banana trees, lianas, shrubs, and brightly-colored flowers.
The hostel is owned by an islander called Jorge. This silver-haired saint looks after all the guests' needs and is joined by a boisterous cocker spaniel. If he knows you are coming, then he will meet the ferry and lead you personally to the hostel. The accommodation is top notch, including a segregated dorms with clean bathrooms and singular cabanas dotted around the gardens. The cabanas are of a reasonable size and contain their own bathrooms. The dorms cost 15 reals per night, and the cabanas 30--breakfast included. This spread is exceptional. You can sit outside on a huge table and devour rolls, ham, and cheese washed down with fresh guava juice. And I will never get used to the Brazilian habit of having cake for breakfast.
The hostel is situated at the back of Agraao and is a little tricky to find. From the ferry pier, head west and walk past the main praca. Head inland for ten minutes until you reach a white church, turn right, head uphill, bend left into the jungle, and cross a small bridge. The cracked track will continue until you take the left, turning to the hostel. It's a long walk with heavy luggage. It is also a good idea to memorize the route when you go back into town. After a couple of Brahma beers at the 'Verdinho da Ilha,' and a little bit of dancing to 'Bossa Nova' finding your way back in the dark can be an adventure to say the very least.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on January 16, 2003
Sunterra Greensprings Plantation
3500 LUDWELL PARKWAY
Williamsburg, Virginia 23185
Attraction | "South Amerian Experience bus - Budget tour of Brazil"
Well, this professional and impressive tour company takes all the pressure away as it runs a hop-on-and-hop-off bus around Rio de Janeiro and Bahia states for a very reasonable price. You can go trekking in the rainforest, lay out in the beach, visit coffee plantations, go rafting along rivers, and visit Imperial palaces . . . all for under £66 (US$100).
I can't recommend them enough. One of the best things about this tour is meeting up with other travelers. It becomes an adventure as you travel along the Costa Verde (Green Coast) with like-minded people, getting off when you want to.
They recommend a minimum of eight days to do the entire circuit and, if you like the look of a place, you can stay there until the next bus arrives two days later. Accommodation isn't included, but is usually on the affordable side and bus organizers will phone ahead before you arrive to secure a room for you. The tours are aimed at those on a limited budget but with plenty of time. The passengers seem to be from around the world.
It is based on the famous Oz Experience that whizzes around Australia, and its sister, the Kiwi Experience, which does the same for New Zealand (although this one is not boozy like the other two). This tour is in its infancy and is due to expand. It currently just does two tours: a) Route Copacabana, which moves around Rio de Janeiro state, and b) Route Capoeira, which does the same for the more northern Bahia state and based upon exotic Salvador de Bahia.
It starts each Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday from its offices on Rua Raimondo Correa. From Rio, it heads west to Angros dos Reis, where people catch the ferry to Ilha Grande, then onto the Portuguese colonial town of Paraty, up into the mountains with the Serra Orgaos National Park, and then down to the coast at Buzios before heading back to Rio. They can help with arrangements if you wish to head up to Bahia to continue the rest of the tour. I was so impressed by these people that I am keeping an eye on them. If they expand to Argentina or Peru, I'll be on the next plane out to Lima or Buenos Aires.
If you want to do Brazil but are worried about making the arrangements yourself, then this is a good way of doing it. It won't break the bank and the people are friendly and love showing off their country to foreigners.
And who can blame them: Brazil is my favourite country in the world....
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 16, 2003
South Amerian Experience
Rua Raimundo Correa 36A
Copacabana, Rio De Janeiro 22040-040
Two miles of uninhabited beach backed by verdant tropical jungle, with sand as soft as silk and the color of pure milk, whilst surf rolls in off the Atlantic. A curtain of palm trees is a wild backdrop while at either end of its curved bay are towering mountains and jumbles of explorable rocks.
Praia Lopes Mendes has that wow factor and the best thing is that we nearly had it all to ourselves.
Ilha Grande is rather a big island that faces the Atlantic from the coast of Brazil. While the lovely town of Agraao faces onto a millpond like bay, Praia Lopes Mendes faces the hard and tough Atlantic, meaning that its surf is too strong for boats to land. Ilha Grande is a NP and there are no roads across the island to the beach; dirt tracks climb up and down the mountains but take a long time. The best way to reach it is to hire a boat from Agraao. There is a ferry which departs from the piers at 10am and delivers you back at 4:30pm, but any schooner captain will take you there for about 20 reals and wait to collect you at 4pm.
This was the method we used to reach Praia Lopes Mendes. Six of us missed the official ferry around the to beach (due to stinking hangovers) so we resolved to hire a boat ourselves. There were plenty of offers at the harbor but we chose to go with a fishing boat for about 20 reals each. The fishing boat was tiny--only 10 feet from prow to stern--and passengers had to sit either on the prow or at the back of the boat. To get on board we had to take off our shoes and socks, haul our daypacks onto the deck, then clamber awkwardly on board ourselves. I elected to sit on the prow with Irish Derek, English Gemma, and Oliver. All of us enjoyed good views of Agraao as we headed out of the harbor with its bobbing boats and golden beach. But as we headed further out we had to traverse a promontory and head to the seaward side of the island, where the sea is squeezed out of a channel and the swells of the ocean collide. Huge waves and swells hit the small boat and we were shaken from side to side. Spray washed over the four of us on the prow and we laughed and giggled as if it was some kind of fairground ride.
Praia Lopes Mendes is on a bay so rough that we had to beach on a bay on the other side of the island and walk across its neck. After a while, we were getting rather worried on our two-hour journey to this bay as the boat looked too small for the seas it was trying to negotiate. At the same time, you could have a close look at the island. Visitors have only been allowed on Ilha Grande since 1994 as it was previously used as a prison and quarantine. It has a fearsome reputation for Brazilians as somewhere in those jungles is a prison where political prisoners were tortured. One of our number, Gary, reckoned that some of the quiet hostility that he has sensed comes from those days, as many of the warders/prisoners must have stayed on. This may have given the island a disreputable image but it has kept it in pristine condition.
We eventually chugged into the bay leading to Lopes Mendes. This was stunning--completely enclosed by an enfolding forest with a palm-backed beach. A few fishing boats were offshore but there were only three buildings in sight--two residential and a barraca. The rest of the island was pure wilderness. We took off our shoes, heaved our daypacks onto our shoulders, and jumped into the water. Then it was a walk along the beach to a small uphill trail. The jungle closed in and we passed huge groves of natural bamboo. Ants covered the trail and colorful mushrooms grew on the boles of trees. After a 10-minute walk, the trail descended and we eventually spilled out at Lopes Mendes beach--wow!!!
Everybody just stopped and stared, their eyes gazing out at two miles of uninabited beach. The curve of snow-white sand stretched beyond visible range and was bookended by jungle peaks. Palm trees swayed above us and the roaring of the surf was deafening. The surf in fact was very strong as it crashed against boulders at the far end of the beach. Best of all, we were one of only a handful of people there.
The sun was out but not blisteringly hot--definitely sunbathing weather. Some of our group wanted to explore the end of the beach and set off. A few of us just threw our gear onto the sand and collapsed. Off came the shorts, on went the suncream, and out came a paperback and time to relax. We all went into the water but the pounding surf made swimming difficult, especially when the waves knocked you sideways. It's best to watch for the tide--at one point we had to move our bags further up the beach as the tide was nearly reaching them. Our boat pilot and friend were spotted carrying surfboards--this beach is a favorite with the Brazilian surfing community.
It was a good place to mess around. I could see the pinpricks of the others up against the enormity of the beach and they discovered wild monkeys at the very far end. I took a bit of driftwood and wrote 'STEVE WOZ HERE' in big letters on the deserted beach.
I'm making the most of my time here as I will probably never come back and Ilha Grande will get more touristy. It is a National Park but if they are not careful, it could end up another Buzios or Rio. That would be a shame because it has been so pristine for so long. I am glad I have seen it now--in another 10 years, it could have been discovered, made hip, and probably ruined.
Brazil is for the senses. Not just the ears and eyes but the nostrils and taste buds as well. On one leg of our trip between Angros dos Reis and Paraty, we were taken to a cachaca distillery hidden away in the jungle. Cachaca is a kind of unmatured rum and has a kick like a mule. Also included was a trip into the jungle and a visit to a waterfall.
At this stage of the trip we were down to six people--mainly from the British Isles. There was a Dubliner couple called Derek and Doreen, myself, an Englishman, Gary, who is on his way back to Thailand via Brazil, a Paulista woman who spoke no English called Ilse, and a Yorkshire couple who could only be described as a pair of very friendly punk rockers. We all got on splendidly and when the South American Experience suggested a stop on the way to Paraty, we all readily agreed. Our guide was the superb Marcelo--an intelligent Carioca who had spent ten years in London (Romford, in fact) and whose English was top-notch. She was at pains to point things out. And the stretch of road between Angros and Paraty takes in the famous Costa Verde. The soaring mountains of Rio de Janeiro hit the sea here to create beautiful islands. Our mouths dropped open as it was green cove after green cove stretching for tens of miles.
The town of Paraty is famous for its cachaca and at the distillery we had the chance to purchase this fearsome drink. At about 3:00pm, we pulled over in a town deep in the jungle. First a walk, then a visit to where they make the cachaca. Marcelo led us onto a jungle trail. The earth was scarlet and army ants crossed at many points. We brushed past bamboo groves and lianas and emerged at a river where an enormous, inverted, bowl-shaped rock was used by the locals as a slide (see photo). We stood on precarious boulders as men slid down the rock on a film of water landing with a heavy splash. A toddler had gone down it before we arrived and had landed awkwardly. Marcelo asked if we wished to have a go. . . ummm, no thank you. . .
We followed the trail further along the river and stopped at a boulder-strewn waterfall. There were little bamboo planks across the river to a barraca on the other side, but the views upstream and downstream were the highlights. The jungle was as mesmerising as ever and reminded me of the Erawan NP in Thailand. I always enjoy the experience of the jungle with its thick canopy, birdcalls, and buzzing insects. We took off our shoes and socks and dangled our feet in the water, Ilse and Doreen slithered and slid over the rocks, having trouble keeping their balance, and insects bit Gemma--but we all loved it there.
We ran into the people who were on the South American Experience bus before us and had come out on a day excursion from Paraty. There was quite a bunch of us crossing the road to the cachaca distillery. The owner is an eighty-year-old who built the distillery by hand and we were shown his endeavors. Inside the small shed was a giant wooden hammer. Beneath the hammer was manioc powder/paste and a natural water channel outside filled the hammer. When full, the waters weight pushed the bottom of the hammer downwards so the head rose up. As the water dispersed, the weight from the hammerhead sent it down again to crush the manioc paste. And the process was repeated.
Marcelo showed us the local jungle fruits that are grown nearby. Her enthusiams was infectious as she pointed out natural pineapples, papaya, bananas, and mangos. Ilse had discovered her own fruit and was spotted a little ways off munching on her discoveries. Above her was a tree covered in such a delicacy (see photo). They seemed to come out of the trunk--branches and leaves and the entire tree was covered in pustules like a disease. We all tried some, and they had a sharp, acrid, sweet taste and you had to remember to spit out the stones. My favorite image is Marcelo climbing this tree and sucking on these fruits deliriously.
Even more fun was the plant for making cachaca which was equally ingenious and powered naturally by waterwheels. Five gnarled old men chopped up manioc and threw it into a bucket. This went into the crusher and then a huge mixer stirred the paste. Oliver decided to taste it and came away with white powder covering his mouth like Al Jolson. We got to taste the cachaca at its different stages and the drink in its early stages was pretty tough. Even at its final stages it was strong enough to blow your ears and bring tears to your eyes. This didn't effect Ilse who consumed it in huge quantities. All I can say is that the woman must have a constitution of a rhinoceros.
There is no denying that this, the historical highpoint of Costa Verde, is stunningly beautiful. It was founded in 1520 when silver was mined in the hinterland and brought by mule to the coast. The entire town is redolent of those times and stands on a promontory encompassed by the waters of a bay. Green jungle hills surround the town while white-walled, red-tiled houses stand on flagstone steets built in a grid fashion. The streets are a maze of right angles designed to confuse invading pirates (it worked on me) and the surrounding waters and islands in the 17th century were full of buccaneers. Paraty is dotted with pracas, churches, and old stone buildings. Doors to the buildings are higher up as high Atlantic tides wash through the city's streets in July and February. Paraty is listed on UNESCO's world heritage sites in its entirety.
Paraty has no airport and is not on a rail route so the best way to reach it for the independent traveler is bus. From Rio's central rodovaria (bus station), there are nine buses a day via Angros dos Reis. It costs about 16 reals and travels the spectacular BR101 which takes the cliff roads along the Costa Verde. Buses also arrive from Angros dos Reis taking only 1.5 hours, and Sao Paulo which is 304km away and takes 5.5 hours. The scruffy rodovaria is at Rua Foresta and upon arrival, turn right, which will take you to the main drag of Rua Roberto Silveira. The drive from Rio is very beautiful with green jungle islands sparkling in crystal blue waters and allow plenty of time to pull over and enjoy empty white sand beaches.
We were there at the beginning of spring and it was still blue skies and pleasant warm weather. In the summer it gets very muggy with temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius with high humidity. While there are no beaches in town (the harbor is a morass of black mud at low tide) but within walking distance is Praia do Forte and Praia do Jabaquara. Each is reachable by taking the bridge north out of town and heading east along the coast. More popular are the schooner trips to the islands. I spoke to several people who went on these and they said it was the highlight of Paraty. For about 50 reals (£10-11), you could hire a tall-masted schooner for five hours which will take you out to the jungle islands in the bay complete with grilled prawn lunch.
But the town is most popular with Brazilian tourists. While it was reasonably quiet in early spring when we visited, it gets busy in the high season, but then only at weekends. During the week it retains a small-town atmosphere with kids playing in the streets and people chatting to their neighbors. To cater to this trade are plenty of pousadas, restaurants, souvenir shops, and Paraty is famous for the explosive cachaca drink which is brewed nearby. Regarding orientation, take my advice and make sure you know where your hotel is before you set out as the grid-like streets which are nearly all identical. When the center of trade in this part of Brazil moved from Paraty to Rio de Janeiro in the 19th century, the town was left in a kind of time warp. The main street of Rua Roberto Silveira leads to the Centro Historico. Here the angular streets are lined with irregular stone flagstones and it is cordoned off with chains allowing no motor transportation to enter.
The Centro Historico is a maze of identical buildings, each with their own courtyard and adorned with flowers. The slabs underfoot are aligned to drain the streets of Paraty and at full moon the tides whoosh along the streets of this town washing it clean. The colonial history is best explored in the churches. The churches were for different sections of the population--aristocracy, whites, slaves, etc. The most imposing is the Igreja Senhora dos Remedios on Placa Matriz: a huge sandstone bulk and the symbol of Paraty. I think the most picturesque is the Igreja Santa Rita (see photo below) which stands on the seashore overlooking the bay. To stand in front of this in the sunshine, watching the green mountains across the water/mud, listening to the cicadas, and hearing singing from the boats is to catch a slice of Brazil.
In order to cater to many tourists, there are a number of restaurants in Paraty. I would recommend 'Cafe Paraty' which opens onto the street at Rua Maria Jelone. There is music in the evenings and you can get an outside table and nurse a capirinha. We found the service quick, courteous, and they had English language menus. I went for prawn fritters and shredded beef which was delicious. Also, the café on Placa Matriz seems to be a good gathering point; when this closes the foreign tourists head for a nearby bar.
It was my least favorite stop in Brazil due to a mistake I made on my part. As we were all meeting up in the evening we were distracted by a traveler on the previous SAE bus. He decided to take us to a bank where we could change up money and instead got us lost and not knowing where we were. When we reached the others, we were totally disorientated and after a couple of drinks on the Placa da Matriz decided to find our way back. I was staying in a different hotel from the others, but had not orientated myself due to being distracted when I first arrived. To my horror I couldn't find my pousada in the dark. The old town of Paraty at night is as black as your hand and there are no streetlamps. The only light comes from nearby shops and restaurants and these had closed for the evening. As it got later and later, I got more nervous. It doesn't do to wander around in Brazil on your own at night. In fact, I got scared and eventually stumbled back to the bar and luckily there were people there who knew where we were staying and could direct me home.
I felt like the stupidist tourist ever created. But I did get a sense of old Paraty--flickering shadows, echoing flagstones, and barking dogs. I just wish it had been in the daylight.
They are careful to stress farm rather than plantation here. It was a plantation when it housed 400 African slaves who used to grind coffee beans in its main square. If they escaped or fermented rebellion, then the master clapped them in irons or some other gruesome device. For all its beauty, Ponte Alba coffee farm is rather haunting. As if hundreds of memories--good and bad--still linger on . . .
We visited this gem on the way between Paraty and the Serra dos Orgaos NP in northern Rio de Janeiro state. It is in the heart of Brazil's coffee country and is in a region of green-covered mountains and steamy valleys. Although coffee doesn't dominate this part of the world the way it did in the 19th century, you can see traces of this great era in the fazendas that dot the hillsides. We visited as part of a tour, but it is also possible to visit on your own by taking a bus from Rio or Angros dos Reis to the town of Vassouras which is the heart of the coffee country. There is still a trace of the old coffee nobility in this town which was once the center for 100 tiny individual fiefdoms up and down the valley. One more point--driving in coffee country takes much caution. The roads are mainly dirt tracks and bend around mountain slopes; we witnessed the aftermath of a terrible accident at the side of a lake. The driver was rolling around in pain while onlookers were trying to comfort him. His vehicle was a mess and at an angle in the trees and we supposed that he had been hit by a bus going around a corner. He was lucky he did not plunge into the lake.
The Ponte Alba coffee farm has to be in one of the most beautiful settings in Rio de Janeiro state. The initial sight is dominated by a white colonial house fronted by horse stables, with more buildings behind, and all of it overlooked by green fields and mountains. Waiting at the door was the owner's husband who was dressed for the part of 19th century colonial master. The original Ponte Alba family still own the farm and live in a big house behind the plantation.
The coffee boom went bust at the end of the 19th century and nowadays they have to cater to tourists to keep the fazenda alive. We had the option of staying here--the main factory area has been turned into a beautiful lounge with wooden floor, teak ceiling, expensive ornaments, leather couches, and a bar area. Upstairs was even nicer with armoires, bookcases, and antique lamps.
After much "ooohhing" and "aaahhhing" we headed outside into the sunshine. The farm is on two levels--below us were the slave quarters, consisting of one-story porched buildings surrounding a massive lawn (see photo). The owners’ magnificent house--which was still in use--overlooked it all. In colonial times this was a plantation housing up to 400 slaves from Africa. The pretty lawn below us was where the beans were ground and was a bare expanse of rocky ground in those days. We could all imagine the plantation owner looking down from his house watching his slaves work below.
A bell announced lunch and we sat outside on the verandah eating fejoida, curried meat, and guava juice. There was something hypnotically relaxing about Ponte Alba, as if it wasn’t connected to the real world. Our guide, Marcelo, wanted us to see the small museum at the farm. Brazil did not get rid of slavery until 1888, long after everybody else and the museum housed relics from those awful days. Manacles and a whipping post were on display and lithographs showed slaves living in the quarters where we had indulgently had our lunch. They looked rather emaciated and there were terrible punishments for those who escaped--branding and maiming. There was an emancipation order hanging on the wall even though, by the time the order came through, most slaves had become institutionalized and did not want to leave the plantation.
The attractions of the fazenda were legion, but the museum sobered us all up. I still think Ponte Alba was one of the most relaxing places I have ever visited and two of our group found the ultimate in slow living: two hammocks where they smugly swayed in the heat.
For all its dark past, Ponte Alba was one of the highlights of visiting Brazil. It was another world . . .
London, United Kingdom