By Hakan Almerfors, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – The Portuguese discovered Ilha Grande (big island) in the early 16th century. Until then it was occupied by about a hundred or so indians living off hunting and fishing. In the wake of the Portuguese arrival followed a turbulent history of the island. Ownership shifted between Portugal, Spain, France and Holland before finally ending up as Brazilian.
In the late 16th century vast amounts of gold were found in Peru by the Spanish and were being shipped to Europe. Ilha Grande served as a stop for replenishing before continuing on to Spain. Ships full of riches were regularly raided by Pirates in the area. The countless little bays and coves made the island and the surrounding coastline ideal for ambushes and hide-outs. Eventually the gold mines ran dry, but ships continued to use Ilha Grande as a stopover point in the slave trade.
In the 19th century the city of Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of Brazil, built two hospitals on the island which served two purposes. The first was as a quarantine station for immigrants coming to Rio, at this time diseases were rampant in the city. The second function was as a leper colony. In those days it was customary to keep the diseased isolated from society. The ruins of the latter can still be visited by a short walk from the main village on the island, Abrão.
In the beginning of the 20th century a prison was built in Dois Rios on the southern side of the island. Soon after, the prison incorporated the buildings of one of the hospitals. The prison went on to play a central role during the military dictatorship in the second half of the century, only closing in 1994.
What was left when the prison shut down was practically an untouched sanctuary of dense mountainous Atlantic rain forest, thriving flora and fauna, pristine beaches and clear indigo water. It quickly became popular as a tourist destination. Today, visitors from all around the world come to experience the island’s beauty.
There are many things to do on the island, especially for the eco-minded traveler. This huge tropical island without cars or asphalt make for superb hiking. The trails extend in all directions from Abrão, and range from moderate to difficult. The most popular route is a three hour trail from Abrão to Lopes Mendes Beach, passing through dense jungle and past some beautiful beaches.
Two longer hikes are to Dois Rios and Praia do Aventureiro, they require preparation and knowledge of legal campsites. The most difficult hike is up to Pico de Papagaiao, where you are rewarded with an amazing 360 degree view of the island and it’s surroundings. For this one a guide is recommended, as there are no proper signs.
Another way to see the beauty of the island without hiking is via boat. There are some really nice day trips from Abrão – you get access to good snorkeling and some stunning views of the remoter parts of the island. There are plenty of operators that will surely attempt to grab your attention in Abrão. Diving is good with marine life and some interesting wrecks, there are dive shops in the village. Surfing is possible on beaches like Lopez Mendez and Aventureiro. You can rent boards in the village.
Getting to Ilha Grande is easy – from the bus station in Rio just catch a bus to either Mangaratiba (2-3 hours) or Angra dos Reis (3-4 hours), the bus company is Costa Verde. Ferries to Abrão leave from Angra at 3.30PM and from Mangaratiba at 8AM, from Abrão to Angra 10AM and to Mangaritiba 5.30PM – the price is R$14 oneway and R$25 round trip, the trips are about one hour. There are other options available at other times and to other parts of the island, check out Ilhagrande.com (click Como Chegar). Accommodation options are many, it is a good idea to reserve ahead during high season and over public holidays.
Hakan Almerfors is Swedish and has been living in Rio de Janeiro since 2003. He has been working with tourists ever since, in 2007 he created the Rio travel information site Gringo-Rio.com