Once home to leper colonies (in the 19th century) and some of the country’s most dangerous criminals (in the Dois Rios prison until 1994), it’s not surprising it took the Brazilian tourist board a while to appreciate the potential of Ilha Grande. However, this vast island (its name literally means “Big Island”) just off Rio de Janeiro State’s beautiful Costa Verde is now making the most of its considerable assets, which include some of the most stunning beaches in the region, looming mountains, and dense jungle teeming with wildlife.
The island is a nature reserve and protected by rigid environmental protection laws. Building and development are limited, so beaches such as the beautiful, white-sand Lopes Mendes remain pristine. There is only one real town on the island, no cars, and no ATMs.
However, while Ilha Grande is currently more popular with backpackers, ramblers, and surfers than with the luxury travel brigade, the face and character of the island are changing.
In 2006, there were a handful of hostels and campsites here, along with some cosy pousadas (guesthouses) and plenty of local hole-in-the-wall bars. By 2008, several large “party hostels” had sprung up, the town center was beginning to look like tourist destinations across the world, and the hole-in-the-wall bars had largely been replaced by slick bar-restaurants.
Today Ilha Grande is visited by huge cruise ships. It has designer stores and upscale restaurants, and the beaches are far busier than in the past. This is not to say that the island has lost its charm, however. Yet. It is still possible to get off the beaten track and explore the beaches and the jungle, and even to visit the ruins of the notorious prison.
There are plenty of campsites for those who want to get back to nature, and the family-run guesthouses have not yet been entirely replaced by boutique hotels and chain hostels. And off-season there is still plenty of elbow room on the beaches.
But with the island increasingly appearing on the itineraries of luxury package deals, this situation is likely to change soon.
Part of a NileGuide Special Report: 25 Destinations to See Before They Change Forever.