When we decided to go to Brazil and book our flight tickets, we knew we wanted to spend a few days in Rio De Janeiro…and that was it. We had no plans yet for the rest of our travels, about a week-long. So we talked to friends and colleagues, and anyone who had been to Brazil, and everyone Brazilian. “Ilha Grande” came back every single time: “paradise”, “I went for two days and ended up staying a week”, “my friends said it was the highlight of their trips”…
Say no more.
It was the night before Christmas, and after a few hours of shuttle-ride and a beautiful boat trip, we arrived in Ilha Grande, ready to take on this beautiful (and yes, big) island. Until the 90’s, the island served as a federal prison and the island remained mainly untouched. Mountain, jungle, beaches of different sand colours…
Here is what we liked, loved, recommend based on our experience and what we think we could have done differently too.
Getting there: transfer from Rio to Ilha Grande
For our transfer from Rio to Ilha Grande, we used Easy Transfer, which was recommended by Lonely Planet. In total, it’s about a 5-hour trip, (R$110 per person). Because we had planned to visit Ilha Grande and Paraty, we bought the Rio-Ilha Grande-Paraty-Rio package.
The driver picked us up at our hotel in Rio (the Ipanema Inn, highly recommended!) after we booked the transfer on their website and confirmed our hotel address via email. They start from the north of the city and pick people up along the way as they come down, hence give you a pick-up time range. It’s a 3-hour drive to Conceição de Jacareí, with a 20-minute break halfway through and a 40-minute boat drive to Vila do Abraao, Ilha Grande’s main village. In Conceição, we waited for about 30 minutes before boarding the boat as the other tourist shuttles arrived…just the time to snap a few pictures.
Where to stay: Abraao
We went during high season and there weren’t that many accommodations left at a reasonable price when we finally stopped to procrastinate and started looking. We settled for Jungle Lodge and we are glad we did! Let’s start with what might not be to everyone’s taste and get this out of the way: it is a 20min jungle-walk from Abraao and rather on the spartan side. But we loved our hammock naps, breakfast with breathtaking views, chatting with the oh so warm owners Carole and Victor, listening to the jungle cacophony at night…
We definitely recommend staying on the east side of Abraao, which has a more relaxed vibe than the very touristic heart of the village, and still has all the easy access to some good restaurants, small beaches and beautiful hikes.
If, like most human-beings, you find the idea of having dinner with your feet in the sand appealing, you probably want to check-out Lua E Mar and Cafe do Mar. Our hosts also recommended Kiosk Bistro for drinks and Banana Da Terra for typical Brazilian grandma cooked dishes, and we enjoyed L’Ile restaurant, on our way back from Praia da Crena – although let it be said that Ilha Grande, like a lot of islands, is not a gastronomic destination.
If you are planning to stay in different villages on the island, be mindful of its size and that you might have to go back to the mainland first, to take another boat and reach your other Ilha Grande destination (no joke!). We hadn’t read anything about it online or in the travel guide so we were surprised when the locals told us so. We had planned to stay in Abraao first (east side of the island, with easy access to the main hikes), then go to Praia de Aracatiba (west side of the island, more secluded) and well, that, my friend, is not possible…unless you take a private boat at a very high price or go back to the mainland (about 4 hours in total). We ended up changing our plans so we didn’t have to spare half a day (or half a pay!) in transport, and extended our time in Paraty.
First things first: take a raincoat. We didn’t, got drenched as we persisted through the curtain of tropical rain and walked around with stinky clothes for the remainder of our stay. Unless that sounds dreamy, take a raincoat.
Now: there are thousands of trails on Ilha Grande. Or hundreds. Anyway, a lot. We only had time for two (we might or might not have gotten sick from the tropical rain and not taking a raincoat) and hit some of the most well-know ones (they are for a reason, aren’t they?).
Here is an official map of the trails you can print in advance (believe it or not but the tourism office had none left when we asked)
Dois Rios takes its name from the two rivers located on each side of the beach. It’s a 2.5-hour walk (Trail T14) each way and on the beach itself, you can rent paddles, have lunch and sip coconut water. It’s also worth walking the whole beach to see both rivers.
And then of course, Lopes Mendes. For those who need an introduction, it is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil and it’s easy to believe so. People tend to stay on one side of the beach, though you can easily find a quieter spot by walking a few more steps, which also gives you a different view of the beach. A lot of people seem to take a boat from Abraao, but it is so worth walking from the main village to Lopes Mendes, a 3-hour walk (Trail T10+11) of lush jungle and small, picture-perfect beaches (Praia de Palmas, Praia de Mangas, Praia do Pouso). To go back to Abraao, we took a boat from Praia do Pouso (R$15 / person; 45min, but quicker with a more expensive speed boat), a 20-min walk from Lopes Mendes (there are no boat departure from Lopes Mendes itself). The departure point is very easy to find, mainly because you go passed it on your way to Lopes Mendes, but also because everyone does it so just follow the flux when you decide to leave. We didn’t buy tickets in advance and still managed to get the next boat but that might be a good thing to do if you are a bigger group. If you do have to wait or the whole experience left you a tad thirsty, hop on the boat-bar Marola.
For lazier days (or sick day in our case), we enjoyed the short walk from Praia da Julia in Abraao to Praia da Crena. The view from Praia da Crena is beautiful. Just know that about half-way through and if the tide is high, you will need to walk in the water (waist-high) for a few minutes (it’s very short and worth it. Just make sure you walk on the sand, rather than on the slippery rocks).
How long to stay in Ilha Grande
We went back and forth about how long we should stay and settled for 4 nights (2 full days). Retrospectively, we found it a good length to discover the area and different beaches, enjoy the hikes and the evenings on the beach – all of this without feeling rushed. The island is very big though and for folks who wish to discover more, a week seems more appropriate.
Do take the transfer time into consideration when you plan to visit Ilha Grande: even with 3 nights, you only have one full day of exploration, which is short to discover this magnificent island.
The adventure continues: transfer from Ilha Grande to Paraty
From Ilha Grande, we then transfered to Paraty, using our Easy Transfer package and the same boat-shuttle winning combo. Follow along to discover what we liked and recommend to do in Paraty or check out our Brazil-inspired recipes!