A Handy Guide To Ilha Grande: The Jewel Of Brazil's Costa VerdeBRAZIL
3 June 2023
A Handy Guide To Ilha Grande, Brazil
The lush, mountainous coastline between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo features a gorgeous stretch known as the Costa Verde – or “Green Coast”. And it’s not difficult to see where it got its name from. Home to virgin Atlantic rainforest that hugs the mountainside before plunging down to a succession of island-pitted bays of blue and turquoise water, it attracts year-round visitors from nearby city-dwellers and tourists from further afield.
Just off the coast, Ilha Grande is perhaps the jewel in its tropical crown. With no roads or cars to disturb the aura of peacefulness, and boasting over 100 beaches (some of which are amongst the best to be found anywhere in Brazil), it makes for a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Rio.
Many visitors from abroad visit the island for a day or two as part of a wider organised tour of southeast Brazil. But if you’ve got a bit more time, it’s perfect for an extended stay. Especially if spending your time hiking through well-marked jungle trails to white powder beaches floats your boat. Not to mention kayaking, snorkelling and diving in the clear waters offshore. Or even just taking a half-day or full-day boat trip to some of the more hard-to-reach beaches.
In this Handy Guide, we’ll outline all the things to do in Ilha Grande and show you how you can get the most out of your visit as an independent traveller. Including some of the best hikes we did during our seven-day stay.
Sunset at Aracatiba Beach
Table of Contents
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GUIDE TO ILHA GRANDE
About Ilha Grande
Literally translated as “Big Island”, Ilha Grande is 75 square miles (193 sq km) of spectacular mountainous interior, carpeted with virgin Atlantic rainforest, fringed with mangrove swamps and gloriously clean white powder sand beaches. All very idyllic. Unlike its rather dark past.
Once a notorious pirate’s lair it went through a number of dark chapters over the centuries. In turn, it housed a leper colony and then became a docking port for slaves en route from Africa to Rio de Janeiro.
And, in the 20th Century, it was used as an island prison for political prisoners, together with some of Brazil’s most violent criminals. Symbolically, the prison was blown up in 1994, closing the centuries-long isolation of the island and heralding a new era of tourism.
But it was this isolation that contributed to the island’s extraordinary pristine condition. There are no roads, no motorised vehicles (apart from a fire engine, rubbish truck and police car in Abraao), and building is strictly controlled. As a result, you’re more likely to hear the roar of a group of howler monkeys than the honk of a horn.
Most of the tourism infrastructure is based around the town of Vila do Abraao. But there are pockets of other communities dotted around the coastline, such as the fishing village of Arataciba.
Vila do Abraao
Most visitors to Ilha Grande end up in Vila do Abraao on the west coast, simply because the vast majority of ferries from the mainland head there. But its setting, with the 1000 metre-high Pico de Papagaio (and its distinctive parrot head shape) looming over the mass of rainforest below, is majestic.
However, its dusty pedestrianised streets and a wealth of bars, restaurants, hostels and tour agencies make for a typical backpacker vibe. Although the prices are probably a step up from the usual backpacker destinations.
During the busy summer season (December through March), the place becomes extremely busy. Especially at weekends and holidays when parties feature heavily. But there are still some reminders around of its fishing village heritage, too.
Most people tend to congregate around the streets behind the central beach (next to the ferry landing pier) – which is where most of the restaurants and bars are located. But, to the right of the central beach (looking out toward the bay), a lovely stretch of sand (Praia do Canto) is backed by toes-in-the-sand restaurants, along with more upmarket hotels and pousadas.
Indeed, we stayed at this end of town at the lovely Aquarela do Mar, with its slightly elevated position and wonderful breakfast. Best of all, though, was the fantastic service and personal attention from Hellen. Particularly during Nicky’s enforced visit to the local hospital where she spent numerous hours with her and helped with translation.
So, if you’re wondering where to stay on Ilha Grande, give Aqarela do Mar a look.
View from our pousada balcony
Out of the eating choices on offer, we preferred the ambiance of restaurants on the beach near our pousada rather than those in the centre of town. And, as you can imagine, fish and seafood feature highly. Like many things on the island, it isn’t cheap – although many dishes are meant for two people to share.
We can definitely recommend Lua e Mar, right on the beachfront, where you can sit with your feet in the sand and neck a caipirinha while you order a shared plate of fish or seafood for 185 reais (£30 / $36), rising to 345 reais (£55 / $68).
During the day, Abraao is small enough to mix exploring the town with a spot of beach time. But, very pleasant though it is, if you spend all of your island time here you’d be missing out on the REAL Ilha Grande – much of which is at the end of a jungle hiking trail or a short boat trip.
And here are two hikes nobody should miss.
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Hike to Abraaozinho Beach
Probably the easiest hike from Abraao and therefore likely to be your first.
It’s a gorgeous 30-45 minute walk along the coast, skirting a number of beaches before turning inland across a small peninsula to Praia do Abraaozinho (or Abraaozinho Beach).
To do it, you’ll need to be prepared to get wet – especially at high tide – as one section, in particular, may involve wading into thigh-high water to resume the trail.
View of Pico de Papagaio from Abraaozinho
Just one of the many birds we spotted en route
Hike to Lopes Mendes Beach
One of the best Ilha Grande hikes – and probably the island’s most popular – is the 6 km / 3 hour trail to Lopes Mendes beach. Not only is the rainforest walk a beautiful one, the payoff is that it ends at what is considered one of Brazil’s Top 5 beaches. And you don’t have to walk back as you can once again catch an afternoon water taxi over to Abraao.
It’s certainly a more challenging hike than the one to Abraaozinho. And you’ll be spending a lot more time in the rainforest. But you definitely don’t need a guide. Just wear some sensible footwear (we saw people doing it in flip-flops but we wouldn’t recommend it) and take plenty of water and insect repellant. Mosquito bites are best avoided on Ilha Grande – although the yellow fever outbreak of a few years ago has long gone, there’s still a very real issue of dengue fever in this part of Brazil.
The trail is accessed by initially following the one to Abraaozinho. But, after a short while, a signpost directs you higher into the rainforest for Lopes Mendes.
The first thirty minutes-or-so are pretty much all uphill – some of it steep. But it’s nothing a reasonably fit person couldn’t manage. And it’s so worth it as it’s not just a well-marked trail, but the experience of wandering through such captivating virgin rainforest to the sounds of tropical birds and howler monkeys high up in the canopy is a breathtaking one.
The second part of the trail involves descending down to the beach at Praia de Palmas before working your way through more rainforest to Praia do Pouso. It’s here that the water taxis will be waiting to take you back to Abraao after you’ve finished at Lopes Mendes, which is a further 20-minute up-and-down hike away through more rainforest.
Water taxis and tour boats at Praia do Pouso
A helpful (and colourful) signpost
Our first sight of Lopes Mendes Beach literally took our collective breath away. All of a sudden the calm, lapping waters of the west-facing bays were replaced by the thunderous Atlantic rollers of this south-facing beach. It’s a stunner, for sure. And it ticks so many boxes for what makes the perfect tropical beach for us.
No tourist infrastructure to speak of – just one or two vendors selling ice-cold beers from makeshift stands. Instead of sun loungers and umbrellas, rows of almond trees line the beach, providing plenty of shade. No buildings in sight – just a huge vista of lush, green rainforest rising above a long crescent-shaped white sand beach. And a sea of turquoise interrupted only by the crashing white surf and resultant mist.
Better still, most people tend to hang around the trail access point. But, if you head along the beach, chances are you’ll have a whole stretch entirely to yourself.
However, because of the lack of infrastructure, you’d be well advised to pack some food and drink to take with you. The vendors might be a solution – but they’re not always there.
You might also want to check the times for the return water taxi at Praia do Pouso, too. Maybe even buy your tickets in advance. At the time of writing, the afternoon boats back to Abraao were at 3, 4 and 5 pm and cost 40 reais (£6.40 / $8).
You probably won’t want to miss them!
Lopes Mendes Beach
Praia de Arataciba, on the island’s northeast coast, is considered Ilha Grande’s second-largest community, after Vila do Abraao. But it’s a much more tranquil place, where all-night weekend parties are non-existent and most evening entertainment is centred around small-scale pousadas and a modest selection of restaurants.
Its beach is a stunning stretch of golden sand, surrounded by the usual Ilha Grande staples of lush rainforest, mountainous terrain and a turquoise bay. And, like in Abraao, there are rainforest hikes to nearby beaches on either side of the resort.
We stayed at La Coquille, a fairly new pousada at the northern (and best) end of the beach. To be honest, it was expensive for what we got, but its position right on the sand was a bonus.
The beach in front of our pousada
The main village, which amounts to a few houses, corner shops and a smattering of restaurants, begins at the southern end of the beach and up the hillside. And, although there is no beach to speak of here, additional pousadas have been built at the edge of the bay and amongst the vegetation.
Restaurants and pousadas at the southern end of the beach
For an elevated view of the beach and surroundings, climb the steps in the village to Pizzaria e Restaurant Casa de Maria Amelia. And while you’re up there, try one of Maria’s pizzas. We can heartily recommend the half-and-half combination of fried garlic and broccoli with bacon and cream cheese!
The view from Casa de Maria Amelia
Hike to Lagoa Verde (Green Lagoon)
The easiest hike from Aracatiba is to Lagoa Verde, so-called because of the rare green corals in the lagoon that help to create its greenish hue. And, of course, along with the coral, there’s plenty of fish for snorkelers to enjoy.
However, as it’s a favourite spot on the island’s boat tours, it’s not a particularly serene place at times. Especially when the party boats arrive. So get there before 09:00 if you want it to yourself.
It’s a 2 km walk to the lagoon and takes about 30 minutes over mostly flat terrain – apart from a steep section at the very end. The trail begins at the northern end of Praia de Aracatiba before winding past the lovely Praia da Cachoeira.
You’ll need to watch out for where the trail splits as there were no signposts for Lagoa Verde when we were there. You’ll know you’re there when you arrive beside a stream following a clutch of tall bamboo. Just cross the stream via the rocks and continue along the trail on the other side.
Hike to Vermelha Beach
This is another hike that combines a rainforest trail with a spot of beach hopping. At 3.5 km long, it takes about an hour to complete. And once again, there’s the option for a water taxi back to Aracatiba.
Beginning at the southern end of Praia de Aracatiba, the trail leads beyond the clutch of pousadas and restaurants overlooking the bay before dropping down to Praia de Aracatibinha. The sand here is a remarkable rusty-golden colour, which contrasts vividly with the strong greens and blues all around. We didn’t get the chance to see it but we understand that the water in the bay is full of bioluminescent plankton which produce a green neon glow after dark.
At the opposite end of the beach, the trail hugs the coastline as it climbs and dips like a rollercoaster through the rainforest. And eventually, it arrives at Vermelha.
Although its name literally translates as “red”, Vermelha Beach actually features golden sand. We wouldn’t necessarily rate it as highly as Aracatiba or Aracatibinha. However, apart from the enjoyment of the hike itself, there’s one very good reason for making the effort to get there. Which, as a lot of our recommendations tend to be, involves food.
Just work your way to the far end of the beach and grab a table on the sand at the family-run Ponta da Barca. Then briefly peruse the menu before ordering the octopus. Grilled to absolute perfection and served with smashed potato, shallots and broccoli in an unbelievably rich spinach and cream sauce, it was one of the standout dishes amongst anything we’ve tried in eight years of travelling the world. Simply outstanding.
We get that some people might be put off by the idea of eating octopus. And it’s not an easy dish to prepare. But believe us, the owner, Dona Marlucia, knows exactly what she’s doing!
The red sand of Aracatibinha Beach
Grilled octopus at Ponta da Barca – enough for two
Other Ilha Grande hikes
If you’re in Abraao and are happy to get up in the early hours of the morning, you can take a guided hike to the 1000 metre high Pico de Papagaio just in time for sunrise. It’s a strenuous 4-hour climb through the rainforest – in darkness – for most of its 6 km length. So arachnophobes and anyone worried about night-time jungle creatures might probably want to give it a wide berth. We certainly did. But, for many, it’s THE thing to do on Ilha Grande.
Also from Abraao, Cachoeira da Feiticeira Waterfall has a drop of 15 metres and is the largest on the island. It takes about 60 to 90 minutes of moderately strenuous hiking inland to get there, but the payoff is the opportunity to bathe in cool, clear water beneath the falls. However, it’s also an extremely popular hike so head out early if you want some space.
Elsewhere, there are many other trails around the island – far too many to be included here. You can check out the All Trails website for a comprehensive guide to what’s available. Alternatively, your accommodation should be able to make recommendations or point you in the direction of a good guide, if you want one.
Just be aware that the island’s wildlife includes rather large spiders and poisonous snakes. Indeed, en route to Lagoa Verde, we had the pleasure of seeing two snakes (one bright green, the other yellow/black) slither across our path. One more reason why proper walking shoes or trainers/sneakers might be a better option than wearing flip-flops.
Exposed tree roots are a feature of many Ilha Grande hikes
Map of Ilha Grande hikes
Boat trips to Ilha Grande beaches
Apart from hiking, the other great way to seek out hidden beaches is to go on a boat trip – either for a full or half a day. In Abraao, there are plenty of tour agencies advertising trips. But you could just as easily book one through your pousada or hostel.
Prices (as of April 2023) are typically 180 reais (£29 / $36), but that doesn’t normally include food and drink.
The main three trips involve either the north coast, south coast or a full round-the-island loop.
Although trips to the south coast beaches (which are considered the best) depend on the sea conditions as the open water can get pretty rough at times.
We took a boat tour from Aracatiba to some beaches on the south coast we’d heard were remote and idyllic. What we didn’t realise was that we unwittingly chose to go on a National Holiday, which meant that the normally serene bay at Praia de Parnaioca was transformed into a parking lot containing rows of party boats with bass-heavy music speakers dialled up to eleven. Which was a shame as the scenery wouldn’t have looked out of place as a backdrop in Jurassic Park.
Nearby, the equally spectacular Aventureiro Beach is big enough to take the crowds. Beloved by both surfers and campers, it also features a number of restaurants and plenty of space for the ubiquitous Brazilian beach games.
And, of course, there’s the L-shaped coconut tree. For some reason, its trunk stretches out horizontally into the bay before suddenly twisting skywards, as if it’s hit some invisible wall. Although you might have to get in the queue if you want to take a photograph as it’s a firm Instagram favourite.
The L-shaped coconut tree of Aventureiro
As long as it isn’t high tide, we’d suggest you also walk beyond the rocks at the far end of the beach to neighbouring Praia do Demo. Unlike Aventureiro, there are no buildings and hardly any people to interrupt the peace. Just beautifully clean powder sand.
Praia do Demo
How to get to Ilha Grande
The only way to get to the island from the mainland is by ferry. Much of the information to be found online suggests that Abraao is the only destination. This is absolutely not true as there’s also a ferry service to Aracatiba. And you can even arrange a transfer between the two villages.
There are three ports on the mainland with ferry services. Which port you choose will be determined by where you’re travelling from and your time of arrival.
MANGARATIBA – the closest port to Rio de Janeiro
There’s just one ferry (operated by CCR Barcas) per day in each direction, leaving Mangaratiba at 08:00 and returning from Abraao at 17:30. Although there’s one extra crossing every Friday at 22:00 to accommodate weekenders.
So, unless you’ve stayed overnight in town, or can somehow get there by 07:30, this might not be your best choice.
The journey to Abraao takes 80-100 minutes, depending on the sea conditions and costs 20 reais (£3 / $4) – as at April 2023.
CONCEICAO DE JACEREI – the closest port to Ilha Grande and with the most ferry departures
Unless you’re travelling from Paraty or Sao Paolo, this would be your best option for Vila do Abraao. Not only is it much closer to Ilha Grande than the other two ports, but it’s also the fastest transfer.
There’s a variety of boats to choose from – both fast and slow – and they typically run every 30 minutes from 08:00 until 18:30.
The fast boats take 15-25 minutes to cross and cost about 50 reais (£8 / $10) for a ticket – as at April 2023.
The slow boats leave at 09:00, 11:30, 15:00 and 18:15 (plus extra slots on Fridays at 18:45 and 21:00), returning from Abraao at 07:30, 10:00, 13:00 and 17:00. Tickets cost 30 reais (£5 / $6) and the journey time is 50 minutes.
ANGRA DOS REIS – the closest port to both Paraty (on the Costa Verde) and Sao Paolo + it covers Aracatiba, too
Again, your choices for Vila do Abraao are between the fast and slow boats.
The slow boat (operated by CCR Barcas) departs once per day at 15:30 on weekdays and 13:00 at weekends and on holidays. Tickets cost 18 reais and the 22 km journey takes up to an hour and a half. From Abraao, the boat leaves every day at 10:00.
The fast boats are more expensive but only take 30 – 45 minutes to get to Abraao. Ticket prices seem to vary wildly depending on which agency you go with – anything from 70 reais (£11 / $14) up to 100 reais (£16 / $20). But there’s plenty of choice – and there’s typically one or more departing on the hour every hour between 07:00 and 18:00. It’s easy enough to book – just walk into one of the various tour agencies at the port and pay for your ticket there and then.
As chance would have it, we took the speed boat to Abraao from Angra (costing 100 reais) as we’d travelled by local bus from Paraty.
Angra dos Reis also serves as the departure point for Aracatiba. There are two or three daily boats (operated by Natiga) that service the 25-minute crossing. For specific departure times on each day see the full schedule on the Natiga website. Tickets cost 75 reais (£12 / $15) and need to be pre-booked online. (Weirdly, you’ll be given no confirmation of your booking but your name will be ticked off a list as you board the boat).
You’ll probably find that most of your fellow travellers are Aracatiba locals rather than tourists. And you’ll find that there’ll be a few drop-off points before you actually arrive at the main pier.
TRANSFERRING FROM ABRAAO TO ARACATIBA
Our visit to Ilha Grande included three nights in Abraao and four in Aracatiba. Based on our research, we arrived fully expecting to have to transfer between the two by getting the slow ferry back to Angra dos Reis and catching the Natiga boat back across to Aracatiba.
However, the wonderful Hellen, at Pousada Aquarela do Mar, came up with a simple solution that worked perfectly. She booked us on to a half-day boat trip along the north coast, which happened to be visiting Lagoa Verde, just around the bay from Aracatiba. So, with our backpacks safely stowed away, we were able to enjoy the boat trip and be dropped off at Aracatiba with a minimum of fuss. It did cost us 150 reais (£24 / $30) each but we figured it was worthwhile paying the extra.
If you plan on a similar two-centre stay this arrangement might suit you, too. However, unless you speak decent Portuguese, your pousada or hostel would probably need to arrange it for you.
Just be aware, though, that there’s limited space for luggage on the tour boats so if you’ve got more than a couple of backpacks or carry-on suitcases then you might not be allowed to board.
GETTING TO THE PORTS
From the Rodoviaria (central bus station) in Rio de Janeiro, Costa Verde operate a regular service that passes through all three ports. Running approximately every hour, on the hour, from 04:00 they’re comfortable, air-conditioned buses and cost 68 reais to Angra (3 hours) and Conceicao de Jacarei (2.5 hours). There are just two daily buses to Mangaratiba (2 hours), leaving at 05:00 and 19:00 (48 reais).
Note that the bus station in Angra is 2 km away from the port so you’ll need to take a taxi for the remainder of the journey.
For other routes, check what’s available on Busbud to search for buses from Rio, São Paulo, or Paraty online in advance.
Private transfers are a popular if more expensive alternative. There are a number of operators to choose from but we’ve heard good reports about Paraty Tours, who will pick you up in Rio or Paraty and take care of your ferry transfer to Ilha Grande, too. Otherwise, ask your accommodation for their recommendations.
A third option is to use BlaBlaCar, an app that connects travellers with drivers who have spare seats in their vehicles. We’ve used this service in Mexico as well as Brazil and have found it to be comfortable, convenient and fast. And we took this option on our return to Rio de Janeiro from Angra dos Reis. Unfortunately, our driver on this occasion was in dire need of a Safety On The Road course.
So, to recap…
Rio to Ilha Grande – Costa Verde bus to Conceicao de Jacarei, then fast or slow boat to Abraao (only consider Mangaratiba if you’re already in town or nearby).
Paraty to Ilha Grande – Costa Verde or local bus to Angra dos Reis and either fast or slow boat to Abraao or Aracatiba.
More details on the ferry crossings can be found on the Ilha Grande website.
Surfers riding the waves at Aventureiro
Along with the colonial town of Paraty, Ilha Grande is one of the must-visit destinations on the Costa Verde. Especially if you’re after a back-to-nature experience with a few creature comforts thrown in for good measure.
Indeed, its close proximity to Rio de Janeiro makes it a great option for a relaxing few days away from the noise of the city on some of the best tropical beaches around.
But, then again, when your options include kayaking, cycling, mountain biking, snorkelling and diving in addition to hiking and boat trips, you don’t necessarily need to worry about relaxing too much.
Vila do Abraao
Lopes Mendes Beach
Dois Rios Beach
Angra dos Reis
Conceicao de Jacarei
Rio de Janeiro
Is Ilha Grande safe?
By Brazilian standards, Ilha Grande is very safe. Crime is low and you’ll generally be fine wandering around at night. Of course, with the usual caveats for travelling to any destination.
If anything, your biggest safety issue is not allowing yourself enough time to get back from your rainforest hikes – especially as it gets dark pretty quickly under the canopy.
If you are ill or get injured there’s a small hospital in Abraao. But the pharmacies on the island don’t stock strong painkillers, for which you’d need to get over to the mainland.
Is Ilha Grande worth visiting?
Yes, it’s absolutely worth visiting. In fact, we’d say it’s worth adding two or three days to your Rio de Janeiro holiday to spend some time there. Along with an extra couple of days in Paraty.
Is Ilha Grande expensive?
Accommodation is expensive for what you get. And restaurant prices are higher than in Rio and Sao Paolo. But with its remoteness, and the fact that all supplies need to be brought in by boat from the mainland, it’s perhaps to be expected.
That being said, we wouldn’t describe it as “outrageously expensive” as some other reviewers have suggested.
Are there ATMs on Ilha Grande?
There are currently no banks or ATMs on the island. Apparently, they experimented with one a short while ago, but it didn’t work out because of over-demand.
As a result, you’ll need to take extra cash. Although we found we could use our credit card in most of the shops, restaurants and bars we went to.
When's the best time to visit?
Ilha Grande is an all-year destination, with the peak period being between December and March. However, this also coincides with the rainy season. Although the Costa Verde has plentiful rain throughout the year – which is not surprising given how green it is.
The winter months, between June and August, are the driest and coolest of the year, but temperatures can still hit 25-30 degrees centigrade at times.
Do I need a guide?
For most of the hikes, no. But for the sunrise hike up to Pico de Papagaio, or for multi-day hikes, you might want to consider one.
How long should I stay on Ilha Grande??
If you’re staying in Abraao, we’d suggest a minimum of two nights, preferably three. Plus another three if you want to stay in Aracatiba, too.
What things do I need to know before visiting Ilha Grande?
It’s a tropical island covered in virgin rainforest. Which means two things – lots of rain and mosquitoes. So take plenty of insect repellant and don’t be surprised if you get wet at some point.
You’ll need more cash than normal as there’s no bank or ATM – and some places accept cash only.
And, if you plan on doing any hiking, take proper walking shoes/sandals if you can. We saw plenty of people hiking in flip-flops but the rainforest can get steep, slippy and muddy at times – perfect conditions for unwanted accidents.
Also, just in case you have an encounter with a snake, you’ll want to have most of your foot covered.
Any other questions?
If there’s anything you’d like to ask about Ilha Grande that we haven’t covered here, there are a few ways to get in touch with us.
Firstly, you can simply ask your question in the Comments section below. You can also get in touch using our contact form. Or, if you’d like to join our community on Facebook, you can ask directly there.
Either way, we’ll do our best to get straight back to you.
What did you think? Do you have any recommendations on things to do in Ilha Grande? Or perhaps you’re planning to visit in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.