Jungle-heaving Ilha Grande is an explorer’s dream. Home to over 100 unspoiled sugar-white beaches, the island owes its pristine condition to a rather unsavoury past. First it was a pirates’ lair, then a leper colony and, until the mid-1990s, a maximum-security prison home to some of Brazil’s toughest criminals.
These days the car-free island is more popular with weary travellers looking for some carefree downtime after the delirium of Rio. For your next getaway, we've picked out the seven best beaches on the island, all within day-tripping distance of the laidback port town of Abraão.
Praia de Lopez Mendes
Ilha Grande's Lopez Mendes beach has won awards for its beauty
Touted as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, secluded Lopez Mendes is Ilha Grande’s biggest draw. While boat trips are available, the 7-km trail leading from Abraão’s main beach is the most popular way to arrive. The thrilling finale of plunging into the cool azure water makes the long and sweaty hike – which is split into two trails – well worth your while.
Dreamy Dois Rios beach used to be the site of a maximum-security prison
As if being imprisoned wasn’t enough punishment enough, inmates at the now defunct Cândido Mendes penitentiary in Dois Rios also had to endure the constant mocking of a paradisiacal beach that was permanently out of their reach. Now a centre for environmental studies and sustainable development, the site is a magnet for history, science and beach buffs alike. A nearby restaurant serves snacks and chilled beer. To get there, follow the hilly 6-km dirt track from Abraão.
Praia de Parnaioca
Escape the crowds and hike to Praia de Parnaioca
This sandy stretch was the most populated beach on the island once upon a time – the small rundown church hidden in the overgrowth harks back to a bygone era – but today just a handful of inhabitants wake to this glorious scene each morning. Facing the Atlantic, Parnaioca has coarser sand and choppier water than most other beaches. However, total isolation is virtually guaranteed if you’re willing to make the trip – either by boat from Abraão, or through 15 km of thick jungle via Dois Rios.
Praia de Aventureiro
Secluded Praia de Aventureiro is popular with surfers for its rippling tide
The only thing you’ll need to get to Praia de Aventureiro – other than a boat or pair of sturdy walking shoes – is an acute sense of adventure, since this beach is the furthest from Abraão. Famous for a horizontal coconut tree that dons the cover of every other Ilha Grande postcard, Aventureiro beach is small, secluded, and popular with surfers for its rippling tide. Take the schooner from Abraão or walk from Praia Provetá on the short, scenic trail.
Pristine Praia Palmas is worth the steep hike from Abraão
Time moves very slowly on picturesque Praia Palmas, the largest of several pristine beaches that form the Enseada de Palmas (Palm Cove). You can either hoof it from Abraão – though the terrain is steep and heavy going in parts – or take the boat to neighbouring Praia de Pouso, where the trail for Lopez Mendes begins. Head there for midday to see the fishermen sew their nets under the beating sun, before it gets too crowded.
Praia de Abraãozinho
Abraãozinho beach offers a quick and relaxed alternative to Abraão
Praia de Abraãozinho (Little Abraão) is the go-to beach if you’re looking for something quieter but not too far from the village. The scenic 1-km path leading from Abraão can get quite muddy following a downpour – and there’s a boulder or two to clamber over – but the short hike is unchallenging overall. Arrive early to beat the crowds and have this sandy slice of paradise all to yourself, with an icy Skol beer in hand.
Saco do Céu
Unwind at Saco de Céu, the island's paradisiacal lagoon
The slightly more developed Saco de Céu (Sky Bag) – so-called for the way the bag-shaped lagoon reflects the starry sky at night – is a great spot for snorkelling, jet-skiing and kayaking. From Abraão, hike north over the headland that separates the town from Enseada de Estrelas, and be sure to cool off at Cachoeira Da Feiticeira – a beautiful waterfall hidden in the jungle – along the way.
Where to put your feet up:
Sunbathing may not be too exhausting, but all that hiking in between is. Rest your tired legs at Pousada Recreio Da Praia, a two-minute walk from Abraão’s main beach, and take in stunning balcony views of the Ferreira and Papagaio peaks.
Alternatively, make yourself at home in Ilha Flat Boganville – a stylish self-catering apartment close to all the local shops and bars, or stay at Pousada Riacho Dos Cambucas, where a varied buffet breakfast is served daily on the hotel’s private decking.