Ilha Grande is an island just a few hours away from Rio de Janeiro, but a completely different world. There are no cars, no banks (so bring plenty of cash!), and dirt roads. The island is a lush green tropical paradise full of hiking trails and empty beaches. (UPDATE: a Caixa ATM machine has been installed at Vila do Abraão)
Ilha Grande was closed by the Brazilian government to tourism and development for almost 100 years because it housed a leper colony and a prison with some of the most dangerous criminals in Brazil. The prison closed in 1994, and since then, the island has been a hotspot for tourism.
The biodiversity on Ilha Grande is unique. It features a high population of endangered species and is one of the most complete remnants of the Atlantic Rainforest which is now over 85% depleted.
Once on Ilha Grande, I quickly learned there isn’t much to do. I arrived on a weekend when the island was packed with day-trippers and weekenders from Rio, but things really died down during the week. I stayed a full week but would have been happy with just four days.
The ferries to the mainland arrive here from three spots – Angra dos Reis, Mangaratiba, and Conceição de Jacareí. This website has great instructions on how to transfer between the mainland and Ilha Grande, schedules, and prices. Also, check the ferry schedule on the official website for Ilha Grande.
I got to Ilha Grande via Angra dos Reis. I arrived at the bus station, walked 15 minutes to the pier, and was able to get on a boat right away for BRA$20. The boat took a good 90 minutes to reach the main settlement on Ilha Grande, Vila do Abraão. It was full of passengers and cargo heading to the island.
If coming from Rio de Janeiro or Paraty, you can use a transfer company. I didn’t use one to arrive in Ilha Grande, but I used one to leave. My hostel booked Easy Transfer for me. They provided door to door transport and cost me less than it would to take public transportation. The trip was done in just a couple hours, which also saved me a lot of time. The boat left from the pier at my hostel and went to Conceição de Jacareí in about an hour. Once off the boat, there are two minibuses – one going to Paraty and one to Rio. There was an exchange of people going to and from all three destinations. Just like the name says, it was very easy and convenient. Don’t worry about missing Conceição de Jacareí. You pretty much see the whole village walking from the pier to the minibus.
Finding a hostel or pousada is not a problem when you arrive on Ilha Grande. There are people soliciting them at the pier, and there’s accommodation all over the island on secluded beaches and coves. I stayed at Aquário Hostel in Vila do Abraão. It’s a little tough to find because there are no signs to it – a ten minute walk down the beach – but the setting is amazing. There is a small lagoon, hammocks, a nice common area, and an incredible view of Vila do Abraão and the mountains behind it.
The staff was very friendly and helpful, and they throw a few great parties and BBQs during the week. Internet was terrible the first two days, but they got it fixed and it was lightning fast for the rest of my stay. The bathroom was a little nasty, the room was cramped when it was full (four people), and the breakfast was undesirable, but it’s generally a cool place to stay. I was very relaxed there.
I would recommend trying the BBQ at Aquário Hostel. The food was excellent. The price was BRA$30 and included a free drink. A great party followed the BBQ and lasted until nearly 4am. There were locals and tourists numbering about 100.
The restaurants in Vila do Abraão vary depending on location. The ones on the beach tend to be more romantic and expensive. The ones along the back road off the beach are usually cheaper. I found that the cheaper the price, the lower the quality.
The best meal I had was at the pizza place next to the pier, Marbella. I also liked the self-service “a kilo” Biergarten on the back road. It wasn’t excellent but the price was reasonable for the quality.
Tour offices are located everywhere in town. You can arrange to go snorkeling, diving, or on one of several boat tours offered to the island’s many beautiful beaches. I did three of these boat tours – Meia Volta (half island tour), Volta à Ilha (full island tour), and a tour to Praia Lopes Mendes. The map below shows some of the popular beaches on the island. There are also numerous trails with great hiking through the rain forest.