Ilha Grande – the island that today seems to be heaven on earth used to be home to a high-security prison. The famous hideaway for Cariocas and tourists alike offers a complete contrast to Rio de Janeiro. But Ilha Grande has not always been a tropical paradise for tourists. Because of the island’s isolated location and strong ocean currents, it was an ideal place for those who were looking for privacy.
History of Ilha Grande
The island served as hiding place to pirates that were assaulting European trading ships, slavery traders used the remote beaches as auction stages and at the turn of the 20th century, ill people were sent to the Ilha Grande to seperate them from society. You can still visit the Ruinas do Lazareto, the ruins of an isolation hospital, just a few hundred meters from Vila do Abraão or “Abraham’s village” in English. From 1903-1994, Ilha Grande was also a federal penal colony, the ruins of the high-security prison Cândido Mendes in Dois Rios are now one of the tourist attractions on the island.
Nature and biodiversity
Whether you live in Rio de Janeiro or are just visiting, take a few days to explore Ilha Grande, “Big Island” in English. The island is famous for its natural beauty including tropical beaches, vast vegetation and a rugged landscape. Ilha Grande is completely covered by untouched Atlantic rainforest, one of the most important ecosystems on the planet. You might also see some of the world’s endangered species on the island. If you’re lucky, you will spot the brown howler monkey or the red-browed parrot. The whole island is a protected area and most of its land is part of the state park.
The island has 193 square km and the main village is Vila do Abraão, which has around 3000 inhabitants. Most of the hotels, pousadas, travel agencies, bars and restaurants are located here. The village can be reached easily from the mainland by local ferries and fast catamarans (See end of article for more information).
Peace and quiet only 2.5h from Rio
Ilha Grande is a paradise if you want to escape the busy life style of Rio de Janeiro for a few days. On the island there are no cars, so you can really feel that you are far away from the crazy buzz of Rio de Janeiro and enjoy the peace and quiet of this heavenly island.
All the beaches on Ilha Grande are beautiful but some of them are just spectacular. A must see on Ilha Grande is the famous beach Lopes Mendes. The beach is facing the ocean on the Eastern part of the island. This 3 km long white sand beach with clear water and excellent surfing waves is considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil. You can hike to Lopes Mendes from Vila do Abraão in about 2 hours.
Hiking on Ilha Grande
The island is a true paradise for hikers and offers many kilometers of diverse hiking trails, linking villages to beaches and mountain peaks. If you don’t have much time, do check out guided day tours with transport from and to Rio de Janeiro included.
One of the classic hikes is to go up to the second highest mountain of Ilha Grande, the Pico de Papagaio, meaning parrot peak in English. The hike is a bit rough but it can be done without a guide. The trail is about 12 km long and goes up 982 m.
Another nice hike is to the village Dois Rios and the prison called Cândido Mendes – the Brazilian Alcatraz. The Cândido Mendes used to be a high-security prison that housed some of the country’s most dangerous prisoners. But don’t worry, it shut down in 1994, so there are criminals around anymore. Ilha Grande is one of the safest retreats you can imagine.
If you want to do an easy hike, a good choice is the beautiful hike to the 15m-high waterfall Cachoeira da Feiticeira, “Waterfall of the Sorceress” in English – which is an easy/medium walk in the neighborhood of Abraão.
In the village Vila do Abraão you find lots of agencies that are happy to help you to set up an excursion, hiking tour, boat and/or snorkel trip to explore the natural wonders of Ilha Grande.
How to get to Ilha Grande
If you are staying in a hotel or hostel, ask at the reception about your trip to Ilha Grande. Many hotels and hostels in Rio offer trips to Angra dos Reis, including a boat ride to Ilha Grande. Normally they offer good deals and you save a lot of time and trouble by organizing everything by yourself. If you don’t have much time, a day trip is a great idea.
From Copacabana or Ipanema, it usually takes about 1.5-2.5 hours to get to Conceição de Jacareí, depending on traffic. You can also take the ferry from Mangaratiba or Angra dos Reis but ferries operate most frequently at Conceição de Jacareí and it’s closer than Angra dos Reis. See map below for more information:
If you use GPS and it doesn’t know Conceição de Jacareí, try Mangaratiba instead, which is a bigger city. When you get to Mangaratiba, continue on the road for another 10-15 minutes. The next town you get to is Conceição de Jacareí. When you get to a gas-stastion on your right hand you need to drive for another 100-200 meters and you turn left and take the first to the right, driving towards the water. From here you just follow the road and you can start looking for a parking lot. There are many places where you can park your car overnight; normally cost per day is 20-30 Real.
A good choice for a Bus Company to travel with is Costa Verde. The bus takes you from Rio de Janeiro to Mangaratiba, Conceição de Jacareí or Angra dos Reis. The bus is comfortable and leaves from Rio de Janeiro several times per day. The bus drops you off only a few minutes away from the ferry. Click here to see the bus schedule.
To and from the bus station in Rio de Janeiro:
For more information about how to get to the bus station in Rio de Janeiro, click here.
Ferry / Speedboat:
From the bay of Conceição de Jacareí the ferry takes about 45 minutes to Ilha Grande and the speedboat takes 15 minutes. There are often other private boat options available when you get there.
Conceição de Jacareí to Abraão, Ilha Grande
Speedboat leaves at: 10.00am, 12.00pm, 16.30pm, 18.30pm
Abraão, Ilha Grande to Conceição de Jacareí
Speedboat leaves at: 09.30 am, 11.30 am, 16.00 pm, 18.00pm.