Want to Escape Life? Ihla Grande is Brazil’s Secret Island Getaway

I spent a nearly a month in Brazil one summer (Brazil’s winter) with a home base in Rio de Janeiro. And while Rio’s Ipanema and Copacabana beaches were beautiful and there is no topping its ridiculous skyline, after a few weeks in the city we were craving some fresh air. We’d been told there was a ‘secret’ island south of Rio, one without roads and cars and with clear blue, pristine beaches. Throw in the creepiness factor of a not-so-pristine history, with the island once used as a former prison and leper colony, and I knew it was a place we needed to explore.

We had only the name of the island and not much more information when deciding to go (that’s how most good travel stories start), and figuring out the logistics of getting to Ihla Grande proved to be an adventure in itself. We asked around and everyone said “take the bus!” but no one knew which station the bus left from or which bus it was, for that matter. After an entire afternoon of traveling to one station, waiting in line, being told to find another line and then finding out that we were in the wrong station, we were about to give up on this elusive island getaway. But thankfully we did not, because it proved to be one of my favorite parts of our trip to Brazil.

{Getting There}

After leaving Rio Novo Rodoviaria bus station, the Costa Verde bus ride to Ihla Grande was beautiful; we hugged the coast as we headed south and passed through many small towns that gave a glimpse of life in Brazil outside the big city. After 2 hours we reached the small town of Angra dos Reis, a small seaside village that serves as the main port for Ihla Grande. Because the Ihla Grande boasts only one town and its main economy is seasonal tourism, almost all food must be transported in from the mainland and we saw boats loaded with fruits, vegetables and other sundries. The short 50 minute water taxi to the island (many are available running all day) was an easy ride and gave beautiful views of the mainland as we jetted to the small coastal island.

{Where to Stay}

The town of Abraao is the main port on the island and spans the length of about 3 city blocks. The streets of the town can be walked in around 20 minutes, so do not come expecting an urban sprawl or even a bank (get cash before you come). We decided to visit Ihla Grande for exactly that reason–to get away from it all. We ended up staying outside across the bay from Abraao in a small bungalow on a hill that overlooked the bay, only accessible by boat or a 30 minute hike through the woods. It was perfect, the included breakfast was good, and the owner spoke small a bit of English but a lot of Italian (having an Italian husband who speaks 4 languages is a plus when traveling abroad, I suggest finding one).

{Where to Eat}

You really can’t go wrong anywhere on the island, but for a romantic evening dinner definitely try any of the beachside restaurants slighty north of the main strip. We tried a few in our 3 day stay and the ones that were located off the boardwalk and on the sand north of the ‘city center’ (term used very loosely) were nicer and had better service. We found one coffee shop on the island that served espresso and croissants, but for the life of me cannot remember the name (it wouldn’t be hard to find, all of the tourists were there). We also had a great feijoada spread one afternoon for lunch and stumbled upon a festival one evening with typical sweets and lots of grilled meat.

{What to Do}

If you are a person who enjoys the outdoors, Ihla Grande is for you. The island has miles of trails through the mountains, an abandoned prison, run down buildings and small jungle villages, and Praia Lopes Mendes, one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen (more in a post to come). One thing to note while hiking: the island is crawling with alligators and howler monkeys can be heard in the trees, so go with a guide who knows the area. There are numerous small tour companies along the main drag; stroll along, window shop itineraries and you really can’t go wrong. But one thing–leave time for doing nothing, because you’re on a secluded island with no cars or roads for goodness sake. This is the perfect time to not have a plan.