Ilhabela truly lives up to its name: the beautiful island. With a single stretch of road casting the only human blight on a volcanic island, the destination is 85% national park and 100% relaxation. However, it was a comedy of errors to get there. Stefje and I got pointed in the wrong direction in the Sao Paulo subway station, leaving us with a two hour wait until the next bus for the coast departed. The driver quickly turned the journey into a video game, aggressively weaving in and out of traffic on the way out of the city. As he started to turn through a dizzying progressing of downhill switchbacks an hour into the trip, I peeked my head out the window to find the full glory of Brazil’s tropical coastline unfolding in front of us. From our vantage point on the high bluffs, we could see a line of towns, each one with a stretch of praias (beaches) surrounded by wooded rainforest and lined with coconut trees. In the distance across the water was our first mirage of Ilhabela, its steep green headlands protruding abruptly from the calm water flowing through the narrow channel.
Catching a later bus ensured our first taste of the beach would be under the cover of darkness, but we found a lush patch of grass in a campsite on the Southern side of the island; quickly the rhythmic lapping of the waves lulled us to sleep. The next morning I stepped outside of our tent and just steps away a deserted beach materialized, with steep and blistering hot white sand leading down into calm and refreshing water.
I was enjoying the scene until tiny little flies began hovering around my feet and ankles, drawing blood with precocious bites and sufficiently eliminating the peace of the morning. Quickly the slight annoyance accelerated into a full-blown attack, causing itchiness that would sustain for days on end. Sufficiently finished with a campsite infested with bugs in the hundred degree heat, we moved North towards the center of the island, settling in at a comparatively luxurious new hostel for a few additional days of exploration.
The following day we took a long gander at the beaches along the Southern coast. Not lacking for spectacular scenery, this stretch of mostly untouched beaches served as the backdrop for one of the most perfect days possible. By taking the bus towards the end of the line and then walking North we explored our beautiful surroundings, taking in the tremendous sights on foot. Every ten minutes of walking yielded another stretch of empty white sand inhabited prominently by fish in lieu of humans.
The intense tropical sun bore down on us relentlessly, causing us to sweat through our clothing and stop every few minutes for long and luxurious dips in the ocean water.
As the single skinny road wound along the cliffs, our left side was dominated by the ocean and our right by the jungle, as right away verdant green hillsides and mountains sprang up, everything covered in flora.
Further along we came across a dock jutting out into the gentle azure waters, beckoning us to jump off its point.
We capped the day by following a staircase of questionable integrity down to the water’s edge at a remote point, where a tiny cove protected by rocks on either side promised pleasurable afternoon swimming on our own private beach.
Our last adventure on Ilhabela was to explore the underwater depths teeming with life just a stone’s throw from town, so we rented snorkel equipment and took off for Ilha das Cabras. What awaited there was a majestic bounty of fish; attracted by the offerings of bread from boat drivers, entire schools of fish milled about in droves, making for insanely fun snorkeling as we moved amongst the packs.
Under the surface we encountered a whole different side to the island: the clear waters served as the home for thousands of other creatures and we got a glimpse of what awaits in the boundless depths below.
Early the next morning we were off, trading one version of paradise for another. Compared to Ilhabela, Paraty, our next destination, was extremely developed. It’s one of the hottest spots on Brazil’s backpacker route, with a protected bay ensuring that the scores of palm-tree ringed islands sport calm waters and are perfect for soaking and snorkeling.
Yet the history of the town draws all types of tourists as well: take just a few steps towards the historic center and colonial buildings graced by cobblestone streets engulf you, offering one last vestige of what the town felt life in centuries past.
By walking through the old town during both night and day we got different tastes for what the popular streets have to offer. When the sun shines it reflects off the intricately designed facades of the ancient houses, brightening up the atmosphere and making wanderers wonder what secrets these walls hold from long ago.
Yet the vibrant buildings can’t hold a candle to the boats that ring the waterfront, each one painted a bright shade and fully equipped for popular boat tours into the bay.
At night the colors aren’t quite as bright but the streets really come alive, with bars and restaurants opening their doors to patrons from the early afternoon until long into the night. Posh sidewalk tables pop up alongside street performers and artesian jewelry salesman, making for an odd juxtaposition of the economic markets that dominate here.
Just North of the historical center we also encountered an ancient fort, equipped with the original cannons and a fantastic vantage point of the harbor yet otherwise in disarray.
Due to the incredible heat that comes along almost everyday in Paraty, what was more important was venturing down the steep hillside from the fort to encounter a perfect cove for swimming. Populated primarily by locals and much more relaxed than the beachfront right outside of town, we hopped in for a swim and thoroughly basked in the cool water.
Curiously, Paraty can’t seem to make up its mind about what kind of city it wants to be. Does it want to continue with the recent upscale development which has brought luxurious bed and breakfasts into prominence here, filling the tiny alleys with expensive sedans? Or would it instead prefer the old world horse and buggy system to remain, as it still does for some farmers patrolling the streets? Alternatively, maybe it will choose the path of becoming a premier party destination, as evidenced by the up-and-coming clubs and boat trips into the bay that focus less and the area’s rich heritage and more on serving up drinks.
Despite all the confusion, Paraty is undoubtedly paradise. Stefje and I made it our mission to see as much of the islands and beaches that surround this amazing locale, so we hooked up with some other members of the hostel for a boat tour through the bay. As the ship trawled out of the picturesque inlet we were greeted by our first view of the port from the water, where so many of the first citizens encountered this destination.
In the distance the overgrown islands demonstrated the area’s spectacular propensity for life. Year round sunshine and winter rains ensure that nature dominates here, sprouting up thick forests, fruit trees, and palm branches spreading shade over every square inch of land.
The entire trip was a whirlwind dream of perfection: swimming and snorkeling in secret coves, pulling the boat up to largely deserted islands, jumping off steep facades into crystal clear water, and of course enjoying rounds of Caipirinhas to get the party started. Our captain Gustavo navigated into the first perfect little cove and like school children heading for recess we all darted into the water, eager to cool off after just a few minutes under the oppressive sun. Someone (namely me) decided it would be a fantastic idea to bring along an inflatable lobster designed for children; needless to say, he brightened up the entire day.
After a swim, a snorkel, and some time lounging on the boat to dry off, it was off to our second spot, where Gustavo backed the boat up next to an uninhabited island, first trying to lure monkeys down to the shore with a banana and then leading us through a path in the woods to an exhilarating cliff jumping session.
By the time we had fully explored the bay and were headed back to the pier for our deposit on the mainland, the boat’s crew could agree: Paraty is an unspoiled nirvana.
Just South of Praty is a pirate hide-out turned tourism paradise, so we set off for a day trip to the fabled beaches of Trindade. Before and after raiding slave ships bound for Brazil or the New World, ancient pirate clippers congregated here, and for good reason.
The tiny town is smack dab in the middle of a string of some of the world’s most fantastic beaches, with turquoise waters framing green hillsides and expansive blue skies.
The local bus drove through the lone road, graced by restaurants and little ships: the entire town’s economy seemingly subsists on a steady stream of tourists.
Due to the steep mountain pass our bus had to navigate and the precarious winding turns that followed, infrastructure is at a loss in Trindade. Campgrounds were more popular than buildings, but most were sparsely populated due to the oncoming autumn season.
Nevertheless, the heat was intense and the prospect of taking a dip was highly anticipated, so we made our way down to the water’s edge. Under the old adage of “eat your frogs first,” Stefje and I swallowed the day’s toughest task by walking two miles along pristine white sandy beaches and through dense sweaty jungle until coming across an idyllic slice of coast.
Ringed by huge rocks and populated by schools of fish, our eyes beheld a spectacularly clear natural swimming pool. Ocean currents failed to penetrate the rock formation, ensuring we could float around at our own leisure and cool off from the hike.
From there we took the long and very slow way back to town, stopping at every single beach for afternoon tanning, taking long dips in the clear water, swimming inland to discover a powerful waterfall, and spending plenty of time feeling the sand sink into the crevices between our toes, exuding a feeling of deep relaxation.