If you’re traveling within Rio and find you need a change of pace for the weekend, Ilha Grande is one of the top-most rated places by both tourists and locals to go visit for some serious relaxation. Crystal clear waters, shallow lagoons, white sand, tropical rainforest, this island is the epitome of an oasis. The island had been on my list to visit for the entire first semester, so just before the end I grabbed some lads and planned it quite spontaneously!
We left on a Thursday morning at 10:30 to arrive two hours later at a port town near the island. We figured out that there is only one official boat that carries people back and forth from that point (called Mangaritiba) and it had already left for the day, so, we and about 9 other girls on our bus, found a taxi boat to take us over. The boat was small and with the weight of a dozen people plus luggage, we were sitting pretty low in the water. Add that to the fact that we were boating on the ocean for forty minutes and you get a picture of how rocky our ride was. I, the lucky duckling that I am, sat in the front of the boat where I could see the sun light up the tropical island before me, feel the wind and the spray of the sea on my face. My British gals, however, sat at the back and when we arrived at the port I looked back to see that they had been soaked to the bone with sea water splashing over the side of the boat. Each wave brought a new assault and they walked off the boat incredibly unamused that my hair was still dry. I laughed and thought, “Welcome to the island!”
To regroup ourselves, we sit and have some acai (I would argue the best I’ve had in Brazil) and wait for our AirBnB host to come pick us up. Since there are no cars on the island, what I mean by that is he met us with his bike and walked us up to our cabin in the jungle. Like many island homes ours was okay on the inside, poorly decorated and a bit neglected, but the outside was beautiful with a wrap around porch, hammocks, a dining table, and a fresh water shower with water from the nearby waterfall! We all drop our bags and I immediately cozy up in the hammock for the rest of the night until dinner. Since my lovely friends’ bags were still wet from the boat ride, Phoebe was forced to wear full-on pajamas with a konga towel wrapped around her shoulders to a romantic restaurant on the sand for dinner. She looked funny but made light of the night and bought herself some dessert from one of the road-side carts on the walk home.
The next morning we get up and walk into town to find breakfast and a ticket for a boat tour. If you find yourself on the Island, know that you don’t need to but a boat tour in advance unless its high season, in which case, I would recommend buying the night before. Most companies offer half-island and full-island tours ranging from R$100 to R$350. Some include food so make sure you ask about that and always bring water. After another breakfast of acai, we finally make a purchase decision and run across the island to hop on the boat just as it was supposed to leave. An Argentinian couple, a Chilean couple, and a Brazilian bachelorette party greeted us as we got on. The boat was the perfect size for us and although a bit old, had character.
We started the tour by getting a history of the island on the long drive to the other side. While I would love to relay some of this information to you, I cannot because it was all on Spanish. Why Spanish? Because the boat tour we booked was from a Spanish company so while the Brazilians could pretty much make out the Portanol (Portugues e Espanol), we English speakers had no hope. So, we just enjoyed the view before the first beach stop. When we arrived, we had about an hour on the beach before we would walk a short distance through the jungle to another pick up point, so I took a nap in the sun and was living a literal dream on a tropical island. The water here was much calmer than in Rio so I had no problem swimming in it, thankfully, because it was hot! After our first stop, we then went to a lagoon where we swam, kayaked, and (best of all) snorkeled by the reef to see the coral and schools of fish! Maya had her GoPro and we took some cool underwater shots before getting out for lunch. All equipment and gear was included in the tour price, so that was a nice added bonus!
Food! I don’t know about you, but anytime I am in water or on a boat all of a sudden my appetite skyrockets! Thankfully, I was not disappointed by what they served us; rice, cooked vegetables, and a creamy chicken dish to fill our bellies to the brim. There was another hammock near our table area so after lunch I curled up again and napped before stop number three. It only took us about five minutes to get there, really it was just the other side of the lagoon, but the water was so crystal blue it was breathtaking! The ocean is so amazing guys! By the time we were ready to turn back, I was beat, and I boarded the boat one last time to settle in for a great sunset.
To our demise, halfway through the ride our boat’s engine literally dies. So much for a boat with character. We now are in the ocean, feeling the full effect of each wave as other boats pass us by. On a normal day, this would have really freaked me out because I get severely motion sick and have a slight fear of the ocean, but I think my level of relaxation that day was so zen that I just let it be. Our captain got down below and worked with the engine and we all just sat for a while. Eventually another taxi boat offered to tow us inland a bit to get us out of the worst part of the waves. Apparently, the Argentinian man also suffers motion sickness, and with the increased severity of waves at the very end of a long day he was in bad shape. The taxi boat let him and his wife hop on even though they were at capacity. Thank goodness for effective motion medication, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hit by the brutal force that is motion sickness… you literally feel like you’re going to die from the inside out. A part of me wished I had fought for a spot on that boat just as a preventative measure, but thankfully our engine was up and running again after only 40 minutes of being stalled. We arrived safely on shore just in time to see the full moon rising across the pastel sky, illuminated by the setting sun. It was pretty magical if I do say so myself. Back in our jungle cabin, new groceries in hand, we are met by the other two Britts who arrived a few hours prior. We make dinner and chat as we hang our damp clothes over the railings, burning incense to keep the bugs away.
The next day, Saturday, Maya, Safi, and Marielle decide to go on another boat tour to island hop so Phoebe and I have a nice romantic day to ourselves and go to a black sand beach, eat lunch, and go shopping. We had heard of some really cool hikes in the area, one to waterfall, and the other to a secret beach on the other side of the island, but in the end both mutually decided to just chill and came back to the house late afternoon. The black sand beach was awesome, and the water was cool and calm so if you’re not the boating type, I suggest you do this. We met up with the other girls to have another dinner on the sand and hear about their second boat tour which was all day and went to a green lagoon that we didn’t see the day before. We hit the dessert cart again on the walk home and then packed up to go the next morning. It was a relaxing second day, but that was what we went to the island for!
Phoebe and I were up with the sun to catch a boat back to the mainland with enough time to also catch our bus back to Rio. Since it was a holiday, many other people had the same idea and when we got to the port there was quite a line. After 20 impatient minutes we board a boat and get taken to a different town than we need. We rush off, knowing we were going to have to take a taxi, and tell our driver to step on it. At that point it was 8:45am and our bus was scheduled to leave at 9:00am. Problem though, the town was 25 minutes away and our driver looked at us like we were crazy. We committed anyways and figured we should at least try to make it. Our driver was so nice and absolutely did his job! He was fast while also making sure we were safe which I greatly appreciated. We pull up to the bus station at about 9:10 and in a panic, Phoebe sees a bus starting to pull away so she hollers at it to try and get it to stop! Its not ours, however, but not a minute after we set our bags on the sidewalk did our actual bus show up. What a miracle that everything in Brazil is consistently ten minutes late! Phoebe and I board, laughing and shaking our heads that we did it and settled in for a ride home. My skin was a bit burned, and a bit tanned, and when I got back to Rio I gratefully took a shower and moisturized. I took the rest of the day to settle back in and get ready for a great week!
Ilha Grande is the perfect place to do a proper getaway! Its only about and hour and a half south of Rio and is super cheap and accessible to get to. In order to save you from the panic of missing your bus or boat, buy a ticket into Conceicao de Jacarei, not Mangaratiba, even though its closer. This port connects seamlessly to the Island’s main port of Abraao and will save you a transport headache in the end. Bus tickets can be easily bought on busbud.com for really cheap and boat ferries range from R$20-R$50 depending on your bargaining skills. Another important note is that since the island is so untouched, no banks exist there, so make sure you withdraw on the mainland before you go. Finally, make sure you go with good weather. Not only is it extremely hard to do the boat crossing in choppy weather, there’s really not much to do on the island when its raining. Overall, I highly suggest going here if secluded beaches and crystal waters call your name or if you want to experience real island life!
Next Read: How to Daytrip in Colonia, Uruguay