Published: February 12th 2010February 8th 2010
I organized some transport to escape Rio de Janeiro before my liver failed completely. A gas-powered jeep arrived at my hostel to pick me and some other backpackers up for the journey south. The ride was pretty uncomfortable though. Squashed in the back of a jeep with a pile of heavy backpacks hanging precariously over my head for two hours was not much fun. The jeep bounced its way over hills and round tight corners en route to the paradise retreat of Ilha Grande. The island held promise of pristine beaches and sleepy villages and so, hopefully, the uncomfortable ride would be worth it.
I transferred from jeep to boat - an old wooden ferry laden with local passengers, backpackers and supplies. The ride was picturesque, despite the overcast conditions. We bounced slowly over calm waters as Ilha Grande's lush green rain-forested hills slowly loomed larger. The boat docked away from the main pier next to the hostel I was staying at which was just outside of town - Abraao.
I checked into my room - a small, hot and musty room with wooden bunk beds that looked as if they'd been hastily thrown up. Each bed seemed to
have been merely balanced on top of the other with no effective fixing that I could find. The top bunk was unusually high and a ladder typically absent. Guess which bed was mine. Completing the setup was a rusty old air conditioning unit that pathetically whistled out warm air.
For what the hostel lacked in facilities it made up for with its wondrous location. Set amid secluded beaches and thick jungle-clad hills the hostel was a gloriously relaxing place with lively sumptuous barbeques in the evening and lots of hammocks for lazing around enjoying the peaceful surrounds during the day. After a week in the crazed party streets of Rio the island felt wonderfully slow paced.
The town is also very peaceful and is littered with multiple diving shops, tour operators and restaurants. Late at night the town comes alive with impromptu music and dance as well as drinks stands - very Brazilian indeed. I spent quite a few nights here with the people I was travelling with. It was great fun as wee chatted to the locals as well as other travellers, sharing experiences over caipirinhas which were especially good here. Generally, every caipirinha tastes different -
some a little sour, often too sweet, too much / little cashesa - however this particular white bearded sage had really perfected the combination. I think the secret was the constant smile that was etched into his face - the pure joy he took in getting people hammered plain to see.
The local restaurants were very good too with wonderful savoury crepe eateries, pizza, feijoarda and the obligatory acai juice outlets. On one particular night we were all eating at a great restaurant that had been recommended called Roots. As a group we were comprised of two Englishmen, one French girl and an Irishman having a lively political discussion. After some time we noticed a group of four looking over at us and staring quite intently for long periods. At first it was a little uncomfortable and as time went on it became very strange indeed. Had we offended anyone with our discussion? Did they want to join the debate perhaps and express a strong opinion?
The answer came when the owner of the restaurant swooned over with a beaming smile on her face. She too had been taking a keen interest in our table. She placed her
Hostel in Ilha Grande
Location, Location, Location
hand on mine, smiling and beamed "Chhaaarliee" - the table of four embarking on some vigorous smiling and nodding. To everyone’s immense amusement it appeared that they were convinced I was Charlie from Lost (not for the first time on this trip). I was quite unshaven and spending time on a semi-deserted island so perhaps that is what convinced them further. The restaurant owner asked me to sign a napkin saying hello to her and asked me to include my (fake) phone number. As a group we went back there multiple times for the special attention we received!
Aside from being mistaken for celebrities and relaxing it is also a good place to embark on numerous other activities. The first one we (we being two Englishmen and three girls from Canada, France and Argentina) chose was a grueling hike to a beautiful beach on the other side of the island. This entailed scaling the mountain that rises up in the centre of the island. The walk was long and hard in the heavy humidity. Each member of the group was reduced to a sweaty mess within minutes of starting.
The rough dirt track wound up into the hills
On jungle trek to Dois Rios
and was surrounded by thick, lush vegetation that was alive with the sounds of the jungle. Insects made absurd noises beneath the thick, dark canopy that thankfully kept us shaded from the relentless sun. The abundance of flora and fauna was incredible. The wildlife was unfortunately hidden deep in the jungle apart from a few birds and an enormous spider that was roughly the size of a large hand.
After 3 hours and over 8km, most of which was up hill we hit the small settlement on the other side of the island. There used to be a prison here and the town had sprung up as living quarters for the local guards and their families. It was a ghost town - no one was around at all. We made our way through the town towards the beach - Dois Rios - Two Rivers. It was stunning. The long arc of sand was deserted apart from a few local sunbathers. We picked a spot and enjoyed the isolation, occasionally going for a swim to cool down. The waves were large and fierce, whipping up the crystalline turquoise waters into a frothy frenzy before they broke and hit the smooth
The beaches name is derived from the two rivers that meet the ocean at either end of the beach. These areas were the highlight of the beach as where the two met a beautiful lagoon-like body of water lapped calmly against large forest-covered mountains. The scene was gorgeous as the tea-coloured water of the river met the golden sand framed above by the bright green forests reaching up into a glorious blue sky.
The walk back was terrible. Sweat, sand, sun cream and salt are not the best combination, with each smeared across my skin it felt like exfoliation hell - or as if my skin was being sanded away. We reached the main town exhausted but also experiencing a strange feeling of satisfaction after covering 16km in difficult conditions. We rewarded ourselves with a fish dinner and caipirinhas - a very agreeable end to the day.
I got sunburn and therefore spent the next day swinging from the hammock reading and writing in pain. My lobster complexion betrayed my English roots but I did eventually bronze. It was quite nice to actually do nothing for the day though, as so far each day since
arriving in Brazil had been stuffed with activities both day and night.
Ilha Grande has a reputation for being one of the best places to dive in this part of Brazil. It’d been some time since I had utilised my PADI qualification and so thought this was the ideal time to brush up and submerge myself. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia was the last place I had dived, which was over a year ago. I booked a diving trip for the following day whilst recovering from my sunburn. The trips itinerary included a visit to a wreck site as well as a reef containing a variety of sea life. I had never dived a wreck before so this was a very exciting prospect indeed.
The boat contained around 6 divers and a couple of snorkellers, making its way around the western side of the island and towards the first dive spot. I got a feel here for the size and desertion of the island as forest laden hills continually rolled by with no sign of civilisation. En route to the first dive spot we stopped at an area called Blue Lagoon which was stunning. The morning light
twinkled on the clear surface which revealed the sandy seabed below. The clear, dazzling blue water lapped against smaller islands as we made an about turn and sped towards the wreck.
I kitted up, stumbling at first through the procedures that began to gradually come back to me. The wet suits and fins were slightly different to the ones I have dived with before but I figured it all out in the end. I jumped in followed the guide towards the wreck. I cannot remember the name of the wreck but a big hulking ship soon came into view.
The dive was fantastic and really exhilarating. We worked our way around and under the wreck, the huge hull studded with barnacles as sea-life made its way in and out of every entry point of the sunken boat. We made our way into the boat as well which was very claustrophobic - the exit point leading us out to another part of the wreck. The dive was truly awesome - the only down side was I skimmed my hand across some barnacles sending a shimmer of blood out into the ocean. Thankfully there were no sharks around.
a few snacks on the boat we made our way to another location on the island which was further round still. This was a reef dive and treated the group to an abundance of marine life as well as sea turtles. The colourful coral was teeming with fish both weird and wonderful that I enjoyed for about 45 minutes before heading back to the boat and eventually to Abraao.
On the last day on the island I made my way to the main draw on the island - a beach called Lopez Mendez. There is a hiking trail that leads there but I decided to take the easy option of the boat there and back which only cost 15 reais. The beach is located on the other side of the island - the boat dropping me off at a nearby beach that requires a 15 minute walk. In true Brazilian fashion the walk turned out to be more like 30 minutes but when I arrived I knew it had been worth it.
Dois Rios had been stunning but this was truly divine. The brilliant white sand squeaked underfoot as I made my way to the waters edge. The
water here was brilliant steel-blue and the waves large and powerful as they smashed into the shore and slivered up towards the thick green tree line. It was a larger beach than the previous one and followed the thick vegetation of coconut trees around in a perfect crescent. Crabs danced hilariously across the fluffy sand, disappearing into small burrows and coconuts were strewn across the sand leading to the trees. The only thing that spoilt the scene was the numbers of people which was still enormously less than what one might fine on Ipanema or Copacabana. I spent the day there enjoying the sun and the powerful currents which pushed me effortlessly along the beach whenever I went into the water.
I left Ilha Grande after 5 days and felt like I had achieved a great balance between relaxation and strenuous activities. I caught the ferry to Angra Dos Reis and took in the incredible sight of the mud slide that happened here recently, wiping out a favela on a hill. The consistency of the ground coupled with the incredible amount of rain this area receives causes them quite frequently and unfortunately this time with fatal consequences. I found
my way to the local station before settling on a bone-rattling bus which wound its way around lush tropical forested coastline to the historic town of Paraty.
Paraty is a colonial gem on the south-eastern coast of Brazil. It became a popular stop over and port town when gold was discovered in Minas Gerais further north in the 18th century. Rich merchants poured into the area building a beautiful town comprising of residential, commercial and religious buildings. When the gold rush was over the town was forgotten until new road links across treacherous mountainous terrain opened up the area to tourism.
The town is hemmed in between high forested mountains and a lazy river that snakes out to sea. The mountains serve to pin back the rain clouds and thus ensured my time in Paraty was spent under wonderfully clear blue skies and scorching sunshine. This served to emphasise the town’s beauty even further. The town comprises of a maze of inter-connecting cobbled pathways which vary in width. Some are clearly designed for horses whilst some only seem able to squeeze a human down.
Paraty oozes 17th century charm though and is wonderfully well kept. The buildings
are incredibly ornate and garnished with a variety of intricate cast iron decorations. On each street every building is painted a crisp white colour which reflects the sun and illuminates every cobbled walkway. The town is awash with colour as doors, window frames and even such mundane fixings as guttering are painted bright colours. A dazzling display of reds, blues, greens and yellows all bask in the brilliant sun making the deserted streets come alive.
Wandering the streets is very much like stepping back in time. Cars are banned from this UNESCO World Heritage Site and so the only traffic is strictly pedestrian or horse and cart which still bump over the stubbornly large cobble stones. The streets are filled with shops selling handmade crafts, trendy galleries, cafes and restaurants. Around the edge of the town lies the river which is busy with local fishing boats all painted as colourfully as the town itself. I spent much time just wandering these quiet streets, absorbing the historic churches and the beautiful pastel colours each new turn delivered.
A popular day trip from Paraty is to the beaches of Trinidade - billed as some of the best in the country.
The whole coastal area of Brazil around Paraty is studded with beautiful islands with secluded bays and ample snorkelling opportunities. I caught the bus to the beach at Trinidade which is one of a series of beaches connected through the jungle. The beaches of Trinidade and Melo are wonderfully pristine with beautiful blue water and soft long stretches of sand backed by rain forest and high mountains.
The highlight of this trip however is the natural swimming pool that is accessible by a short hike across the beaches. Once through the beaches I hiked through the jungle for about 15 minutes - a path that led steeply uphill before curving down towards the pool. The location was mesermising and spoilt only slightly by its popularity. Enormous boulders formed a semi circle around the foot of the rain-forested hills to create a tranquil pool that was protected from the fearsome waves crashing into the other side of the boulders.
The water was only a couple of feet deep but it was a wonderfully clear lagoon with lots of fish squirming around bathers and the scattered rocks. I climbed some of the boulders on the other side of the pool.
Those many hours spent climbing in the bouldering room finally coming in useful! The only problem was that the faces of the rocks were red hot. I had scaled the boulders in bare feet and spent my time skipping madly from various shady points as I made my way up. I reached the furthest point I could and surveyed the area's beauty from this unique perspective.
The large pool was calm, serene and inviting - the still waters reflecting the brilliant blue sky as the thick lush vegetation shimmered across the calm waters surface. The sea-side of the boulders was quite different. Harsh, crisp blue waves crashed into the boulders throwing foam in all directions as they broke over the surface of the rock. The endlessness of the Atlantic flowed beyond the horizon as a lonely fishing boat bobbed calmly on the surface some distance away.
I opted to take the easy boat option back and tucked into a large feijoarda lunch in the small fishing village of Trinidade before settling onto the beach to catch some late afternoon rays. The rays on this particular day were incredibly intense and I decided to go paddling by the rocks
to cool down. I got talking - well more gesturing than talking - to a Brazilian traveller who insisted on pointing out various dangerous sea creatures that lurked in the rocks. He stood on the edge of the waterfront with a sharp stick in hand ready to pounce on anything that decided to appear. After this he set off with his backpack and board of handmade accessories that he insisted on showing me. I decided to buy a necklace that my new friend promised was made of ivory but that looks curiously like wood then watched him wander off down the beach with a beer he had managed to convince someone to give him. It’s these quirky people that really make travelling so interesting.
I rounded off my visit to Paraty by enjoying the local nightlife and eclectic variety of restaurants. The cobbled town square is a great spot to just relax with an ice cold bottle of Skol (Brazilian beer) whilst watching the impromptu bands strum their stuff. The bright lights each colourful house twinkles in the clear night sky making Paraty an even more charming place to be as the locals come out from their shaded homes
to join the fun.
The Megalopolis of Sao Paulo is my next destination - a bus ride of around 6 hours away. After quiet islands and quaint towns the world’s 3rd most populous city should be a sensory bombardment of epic proportions.
There are more photos below