Why Ilha Grande:
Ilha Grande (pronounced eel-ha gran-jay) is a large jungle island located in the western part of the State of Rio de Janeiro. It is considered one of Brazil’s top tourist destinations.
When planning my Brazil trip, I gave myself 6 days to spend in Rio de Janeiro. After discussions with friends, I determined that 3 days would be the optimal amount of time to spend in the city, which gave me the opportunity to take a side trip. As luck would have it, my business school friend Bruno was going to be in Rio with his girlfriend Maren and wanted to go on an adventure. We decided to plan a trip to Ilha Grande together. I would spend 1 day at his house in the suburbs of Rio, then we would head to Ilha Grande for a 2-day 1-night excursion.
Due to logistical reasons for both Bruno and me, before leaving, we spent a day in Bruno’s home in a suburb of Rio.
Unlike most trips, I did not plan anything and instead decided to rely purely on the expertise of the local. I was simply along for the ride!
January 2, 2021: The Suburbs of Rio
I landed in Rio de Janeiro from Joao Pessoa at 5:30 AM and took an Uber to the home of my business school friend Bruno. One of my favorite things to do is to visit the homes and hometowns of my friends (yes, just like in The Bachelor). I believe that these visits allow me to gain a greater understanding of who they are which allows me to be a better friend. It’s also just plain interesting.
Bruno’s family lived in the upscale suburb of Barra da Tijuca in a Los Angeles themed 8-building high-rise complex. He lived in the Beverly Hills building, but the one next door was called Palm Springs and the one next to that Santa Monica. I didn’t check to see if there was a Pacific Palisades building! The complex’s theme is inspired by Brazilians’ love of the United States and its culture. It is therefore no surprise that Miami, Orlando, and New York City are some of the most popular international destinations for Brazilian tourists and that many US chains open locations in Brazil.
The Uber dropped me off on the street just outside the complex. I was struck by the security, which is probably the most secure residential complex I have visited outside of South Africa. The guard at the gate sat behind tinted bulletproof glass. Behind the gate, a security officer in full body armor stood waiting.
Once inside the complex, Bruno quickly greeted me and took me up to the beautiful apartment. It was 6:30 AM so we both went back to sleep.
At 9:30, I woke up and was introduced to the gang. In addition to Bruno, there was Maren (Bruno’s girlfriend who is also one of my best friends at IESE), Bruno’s father (a military man who has a great sense of humor and speaks good English), Bruno’s mother (very sweet and fashionable, but speaks very little English), his brother Daniel (on vacation from Vancouver) and Daniel’s girlfriend Nathalia (from Brasilia but will soon be moving to Vancouver).
Bruno’s parents prepared an incredible breakfast spread of fruit, eggs, pastries and more! Bruno’s parents are very animated and extremely hospitable. Maren told me that they have been eating these amazing breakfasts every day. While sitting down, Bruno’s father took a real effort to try to get to know me. By the end of breakfast, it was abundantly clear that, despite the distance, the family is very close and that they all love each other a lot. The parents appear to be overjoyed that both their children are home, successful, and have serious girlfriends.
Bruno decided to take me for a drive around the area.
Our first stop was at his cousin’s house 5 minutes away to pick up some lost items from New Year’s Eve. The single-family house was also located in a gated community. Interestingly, each individual house was surrounded by its own humongous wall topped with barbed wire.
The home itself was beautiful and had a steam room attached to the pool so that you could swim under a glass panel and end up in a steam room! This is truly the dream.
Next we visited a beach called Grumari. The landscape here is surreal with jungled mountains falling steeply into the sea.
Next, we drove to the main beach of Barra da Tijuca. Just like in Recife’s Boa Vista, high rises were just across the street from the beach. I dipped my feet in the water. It was still nice but noticeably colder than the water in the Northeast. I would describe the water as refreshing.
For lunch, I was told that we would be going to an Australian restaurant. I laughed very hard after the mystery restaurant turned out to be Outback Steakhouse for two reasons 1. Not actually Australian and 2. In my opinion not somewhere you would take an out of towner for their only meal in the area.
However, I learned quickly that Outback Steakhouse in Brazil is quite different from its US counterpart. Outback in Brazil is an upscale restaurant. The food prices are similar to those in the US. However, due to the weaker currency, Outback is therefore a very expensive restaurant. Additionally, the quality of the food is specifically the meat was far superior to an US Outback. We started with a Bloomin’ Onion and for the main course I ordered ribs with billabong sauce and they were fantastic.
The result of all of these changes is a PACKED restaurant. By the time we left, there was a 1 hour wait for a table at Outback. The Rio area has nearly 20 Outback Steakhouses, including 5 just in Barra da Tijuca. All of them are supposedly as busy as this one and have thousands of Google reviews. I was completely shocked that one brand can be so differently positioned in different countries.
We then drove by the now-abandoned Rio Olympic Park and stopped in a random parking garage and boarded a ferry. The ferry took us to the pedestrian only Ilha da Jibola. Most of the island is residential, but we went to a popular bar to get caipirinhas. We stayed until sundown before heading back to Bruno’s house. We went to bed early because tomorrow was going to be a big day.
January 3, 2020: To Ilha Grande
After waking up on the early side (for Brazil) at 7:30, we got another huge breakfast spread and then the five of us (Bruno, Maren, Daniel, Nathalia, and I) hit the road. Daniel drove. The two-hour drive took us west through the sprawling suburbs of Rio. Alongside the road was a bus rapid transit system (ingeniously called the BRT). It turns out that Bruno used to be a civil engineer and worked on building the stations!
Eventually, the city disappeared, and we were on a two-lane road heading west. I was shocked at how many potholes were on the road! Bruno explained that Rio is notorious for its terrible roads. He surmised that this is because road maintenance budgets mysteriously get siphoned into the pockets of corrupt local officials.
While the roads got worse, the scenery got better. This section of the coast is called the Costa Verde (Green Coast). Jungled mountains drop steeply into the sea in impossible fashion. There were a few resort properties here and there including a Club Med, but in general the topography here was too rugged for human settlement.
Eventually we reached the town of Conceicao de Jacarei, the closest city to Ilha Grande.
The island was just 20 kilometers south across the azure water. On this Sunday morning, Jacarei was full of Brazilian tourists wrapping up their New Year’s vacation. The center of town had a number of secure parking lots. The first lot offered us a combo parking/boat transfer to the island. 5 minutes later, we were on a 30-minute speedboat ride heading south across the strait to Ilha Grande.
Ilha Grande was used by the Brazilian governments to house prisoners until the 1970’s at which point it was declared a national park. As a result, nearly the entire island, save for a town, and a few hotels is pristine virgin forest. Today, Ilha Grande is a popular destination for tourists from all around the world, but the main demographic is middle-class and wealthy Brazilians who come here for long weekends. The island is famously free of cars and motos. Ilha Grande was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.
The speedboat landed in Abraao, the main town on the island. If you were to dream up “adventurous jungle beach town”, it would be Abraao. A US comparison would be Avalon, California mixed with the Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland.
Abraao is built next to a pristine sandy beach that, in true Brazilian fashion, is lined with beach bars. Off the beach is a grid of pedestrian-only dirt streets full of restaurants, shops selling tours and souvenirs shops. Everything in Abraao is oriented towards the tourist, but somehow the town did not feel tacky. Good city planning by the authorities, I guess.
We checked into our quiet pousada (Brazilian guesthouse) and headed into town to figure out what to do. The most island’s popular half-day trip was to a beach called Praia de Lopez Mendes. To get there, we had to take a powerboat ferry for 20 minutes around the island. There are dozens of places advertising tours to Lopez Mendes, but the easiest way to get there is to chat with one of the many boat drivers waiting on the beach. Theoretically, the boats leave every 30 minutes, but in truth they leave when full, just like the minibuses in Africa. Luckily, we found a boat that filled within minutes. Just like that, we were zooming off.
Halfway along our 20-minute ride, we ran into dolphins!!!
The boat didn’t actually drop us off at Lopez Mendes. Instead, you arrive at a different beach called Praia do Pouso.
Then we had to walk 20 more minutes through the jungle to reach it. The walk was tougher than expected and involved climbing some hills and crossing through mud. Eventually, we made it to the wide-open expanse of Lopez Mendes.
It is no surprise why Lopez Mendes is considered one of the world’s top beaches: it is broad, long, has perfect firm white sand and is bounded by the untouched shady jungle. The waves were large and seemed right for surfing.
We spend a few hours hanging out here.
After hiking the 20 minutes back through the jungle, we caught another boat back to Abraao. I probably could have figured out how to do everything today, but it was sure nice to have native Portuguese speakers plan and negotiate everything – especially when dealing with these boat drivers who could be easy by dishonest.
Back in town, we freshened up and then walked to dinner on the beach. Decided on a restaurant called Lua e Mar. Delicious local food including a fish stew with roasted banana. We planned to eat outside, but the rain forced us inside. The atmosphere was great with the live music.
January 4, 2020: The Big Boat Trip
We woke up in our beautiful pousada. The breakfast spread here was somehow even better than the one at Bruno’s parents’ house. The highlight was undoubtedly the passionfruit cake.
Our plan today was to take an all-day boat trip to a few beaches. The logistics were surprisingly tricky. The most popular tour circumnavigates the island. However, for some reason that still beguiles me, all of the round-the-island tours leave at 10:30 am and arrive back to town just minutes after the last boat to the mainland is scheduled to leave. Why they don’t start these tours 30 minutes earlier and allow people to take this tour and leave the island on the same day? I have no clue.
Instead, we took an equally long tour that only visited north half of the island. This tour left at 9:30, returning at 16:30, which theoretically would get us back 60 minutes before the last boat leaves. Our tour had 8 other people on the boat: 5 Brazilians and 3 Spanish speaking ladies who I think were from Argentina. Our guide was a total surfer dude with long hair. He spoke good English with a strong SoCal surfer accent. We hit it off once he learned I was from California. He said that he loves his job and Abraao, but the wages for all jobs are low, meaning most people have to also work a second job to afford the island life. What this means practically, is that he doesn’t have much time to surf.
The first beach was about 30 minutes from Abraao. It was called the Blue Lagoon, although it looked a bit different from its Icelandic counterpart. The Brazilian Blue Lagoon could not be more picturesque with sapphire water teeming with fish. The water temperature was refreshing but okay once you dunked your head in and started swimming. This place is perfection.
Next, we headed to the Green Lagoon. The water here was a perfect emerald and was also teeming with fish. Absolutely incredible.
Next, we headed to a third beach located in a cove with some big yachts. The scenery was stunning, but nobody wanted to get into the water. The marginal benefit of swimming here seemed low.
It was almost 15:00 and we were all hungry. We boated 3 minutes away and stopped in the middle of the bay. A smaller boat picked us up and drove us to a spot where the water was too shallow. We then walked across the shallows to a restaurant.
The food was delicious, but we left at 16:15…and our boat was supposed to be at 16:30. We headed to a mediocre (by Ilha Grande standards) fourth beach for 10 minutes and then drove back to town. We arrived 30 minutes late at 17:00, but we luckily had enough of a buffer to catch a boat.
We got one of the last boats heading back to the mainland. The weather on Ilha Grande was good, but we saw a huge storm looming over the mainland. We braced ourselves as the boat charged through the waves towards the storm.
The rain started 20 minutes in, giving us 10 minutes of what ended up being a light/moderate drizzle. The storm looked way worse than it actually was. In Jacarei, the beach was tourist-free but full of local children jumping off the dock into the water. This was their beach and their town now!
We then drove back to Bruno’s house where I quickly showered and then Ubered into my final destination of the trip: Rio de Janeiro.
Ilha Grande is the tropical island paradise you have always dreamed about. Even better, you can stay there on a budget! We were able to see a lot of the island in two days, but I think three days would be ideal. That was you can do the round-the-island boat tour on the middle day and not have to worry about catching the trip home. Four days could work too if you want to do some hiking.
If you want to work Ilha Grande into a larger Brazil adventure, a very easy to plan and book route would be Sao Paulo-Paraty-Ilha Grande-Rio in 8-14 days depending on your speed. The tourist infrastructure is strong enough so that you could do this type of trip completely on the fly without any prior bookings.