Idyllic Ilha Grande

On an absolutely sweltering Brazilian morning, Stefje and I left behind our comfortable digs in Paraty and headed over to the chaotic turbulence of the open air bus station. Amidst the gaggles of schoolchildren, we were pleased to find Alex and Matt, two British travelers from our previous hostel who were bound for the same destination. 

A two hour bus ride followed by an hour and a half on the ferry brought us to the port of Agraao on the island of Ilha Grande, one of the premier tourism destinations in the entire country. 

The boat’s approach coincided with the setting sun, casting soft twilight rays across the steep mountains and verdant forests that dominate the vast majority of the island. 

Humans have barely made inroads into the wilderness here, with a small town in the main port and a smattering of fishing villages ringing the coastline the only signs of human life. On our first night we met up with Tom and Imogen, a pair of always entertaining familiar faces from Florianopolis, and the six of us made our way around the town, eventually tearing up the dance floor at the only bar in town. 

Lack of sleep be damned, the following morning all six of us were up devastatingly early, trying to prepare for a day long boat trip by sipping on coconut water and nourishing ourselves with bowls of ace, Brazil’s delicious and somewhat healthy answer to frozen yogurt. 

Waiting for us at the dock were two more friends from Paraty, Chagi and Gillian; the eight of us formed a formidable crew as we loaded onto a cramped speedboat, armed for the day’s activity with snorkeling equipment and, of course, an inflatable lobster.

Along the North side of the island we encountered untouched nature: striking rock facades protruding directly from the rolling green hillsides, deserted beaches without a soul in sight, and flocks of majestic birds headed out for a morning fishing trip. 

Following a swarm of similar boats on the same tour, our driver pulled into the pristine waters of the Laguna Azul and we all eagerly jumped in. Here the water was so clear it seemed unnaturally photoshopped, as a tiny island jutting out from the shore captured the current and provided a prime spot for fish to congregate. 

Just tossing a morsel of bread into the water incited a frenzy. Hundreds of fish leaped for a bite of food, and hundreds more came swimming over, nipping our ankles in confusion as we explored the underwater world with our snorkels. 

Yet the main sport here was merely soaking up the crisp and salty water, a welcome respite after the blistering heat of the boat ride. 

Inconceivably, somehow the water at our second stop was even more idyllic, as we could see deep into the ocean’s depths.

The remarkable turquoise area was complemented perfectly by a collection of utterly amazing islands, leading me to start wondering about how much a beach house would cost here. 

All around us boats docked and eager swimmers disembarked, jumping into the crisp waters and feeling the ocean engulf our senses. 

We rotated back and forth between relaxing in the ocean and on the boat, letting the breathtaking scene sink deep into our memories. 

Further along we stopped for two more swims at tiny beaches, interrupted by a lunchtime pit stop at one of the most beautiful possible settings for a restaurant. Over french fries and cokes, waves gently lapped at the surface and we looked out from our shady retreat on a luscious, well-protected cove. 

The time in the sun took its toll the following day, as Stefje and I settled in for one of life’s necessities: a full day of doing nothing. The hammocks, grassy lawn, koi ponds, and overgrown forest on the hostel’s property were the perfect setting to sink into the rhythm of the island, which feels so perfectly unencumbered by the outside world. 

Trapped in our own little paradise, we reveled in the prospect of doing nothing and physically recovered for the next adventure. 

Stuck in the same biorhythm were Alex and Matt, so on Sunday the four of us were sufficiently prepared to tackle the two hour hike outside of town to Lopez Mendes beach. A six kilometer long stretch of undeveloped paradise that is consistently ranked as one of the best beaches in the world, it will be hard to unseat Lopez Mendes from my power rankings as the #1 beach I’ve ever seen. 

A big part of the experience was just getting there, as a trail wound over hilly badlands, traversing through the mountainous rainforest and leaving us soaked with sweat after just 20 minutes. 

Over the first hill I heard a rustling in the branches above and looked up to see a pair of eyes peering right back at me. A group of monkeys were using their tremendously strong tails to swing about the branches, navigating amongst the canopy and leaving us enraptured below. 

An hour of walking yielded our first respite, as we came to an open beach and slowly crossed the wide sands, our eyes blinded by the glare of the sun’s strong reflection. Thankfully for us, low clouds slung themselves across the island’s higher peaks that day, obscuring the most potent heat yet still leaving plenty of light in the atmosphere to offer perfect views. 

Along the last stretch of the hike we passed two smaller beaches with calm water; here boats docked and people of all ages disembarked to negotiate the final twenty minute scramble to the beach. Amidst the waddling toddlers and cooler-toting dads, we even encountered a second species of monkeys. 

Graced by whiskers that made them appear wise beyond their years, these tiny monkeys were largely unafraid of humans, swiveling their heads as their eyes darted around the surroundings looking for food. 

Finally our hard work paid off and we approached the end of the canopy. The trail disintegrated and clean white sand took its place. Quickly shoes came off, and soon after we were sprinting across the open beach to cool off in the water. 

Despite the human traffic on the trail, there was more than enough space for everyone on the beach: just a ten minute walk made me feel as though I was the lone inhabitant of this magical paradise. 

Matt and I both spent many hours in the water, feeling the wrath of immense waves come crashing down steeply on the shore. We body surfed and let the current of the ocean rip us toward shore, always cognizant that behind us another behemoth was coming to crack us in the back. 

On shore the skies cleared just enough and the hot sun demanded we seek shade, offering hours of uninterrupted bliss. 

As the afternoon light began to slant across the horizon, we even got in a few games of paddleball along the wide and flat beach, enjoying the prospect of some friendly competition. 

Ultimately deciding that we couldn’t top such a magnificent beach, on Monday the four of us took off for Rio, where decidedly more urban long stretches of sandy coastline awaited us. Yet it wasn't without longing looks behind us on the way out that we were able to bid farewell to such an alluring haven.