Free of its history

Place of exile, punishment now markets its natural life

By Colin Barraclough
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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ILHA GRANDE, Brazil — This tropical island looms out of the Atlantic haze as if from the pages of Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.’’ Even from the catamaran that crosses daily from the mainland, I could make out its palm-studded beaches and dense jungle, an unbroken emerald wall that rises to serried peaks towering 3,300 feet above the surrounding ocean.

Despite its proximity to Brazil’s major cities — the nearest mainland port, Angra dos Rios, lies just 110 miles south of Rio de Janeiro — Ilha Grande was long closed to visitors. By turns leper colony, quarantine station for suspected cholera cases, and Alcatraz-style prison, it was only when local authorities dynamited the much-feared Cândido Mendes Penitentiary in 1994 that the island began slowly to open to tourism.

Today, Ilha Grande ranks among the top destinations on the continent for yachting. “My beloved bay, my adoptive land,’’ wrote Amyr Klink, a Brazilian yachtsman, on returning to the island after sailing solo around Antarctica in 1998. “Of all the treats in the world, none would be more special than sailing across the bay of Ilha Grande.’’

The island is covered almost entirely by pristine Atlantic rain forest, cited by UNESCO as one of South America’s most biodiverse — yet endangered — ecosystems. It’s possible to walk around the island in five days, but dozens of shorter trails are laced through the jungle to cascading waterfalls, jagged peaks, and steep ravines, most of which are protected by a state park. More than a hundred beaches, sickle-shaped, palm-fringed, and with startlingly white sand, are scattered around the coast.

In the 18th century, coffee and sugar barons came to Ilha Grande to make their fortunes on its coastal flats; slave traders, too, used the shoreline as a staging area for their human cargo. Today, the complex interweaving of this ethnic and social mix is evident in the islanders’ caiçara fishing culture, which blends indigenous, African, and European elements.

What draws the amateur sailor is the island’s ban on motor vehicles. In their place, the primary form of transport is the boat.

Along the beach at Abraão, the island’s only town, dozens of dinghies, yachts, fishing smacks, and schooners are available for casual hire. Vacationers spend their days puttering between coves, beaches, and tiny hamlets, exploring rocky headlands, sand banks, and mangrove lagoons, and returning each night to Abraão by boat or on foot. “Getting a boat is like hailing a taxi,’’ said Rodrigo Pereira, a guide I had engaged to show me around. “You just stroll along the beach and call out to the sailors.’’

The absence of vehicles hit me the moment we docked at Abraão’s wooden jetty. The silence was broken only by a stiff breeze and the cheerful voices of locals chatting in the middle of the cobbled streets. A single row of houses, each painted a vibrant shade of lilac, papaya, or magenta, lines the waterfront; a cobbled street, Rua da Igreja, leads toward a tiny white church.

On weekends and public holidays, the town’s population swells dramatically as Brazilian backpackers crowd its pousada guesthouses. Arriving on a weekday during the quieter May-August dry season, however, when afternoon temperatures in the high 70s cooled agreeably at dusk, I settled into a neat, friendly pousada and found I was the only guest.

The following morning, I followed Rodrigo to the beach to test his claim. We would be hiking to Praia Lopes Mendes, regularly voted one of the country’s most beautiful beaches by readers of the authoritative Brazil travel guide Quatro Rodas, and we needed a boat to bring us back. We settled on the Gloria Deus, a battered former fishing smack, whose skipper agreed to collect us that afternoon. The casual handshake deal left me nervous: If the boat didn’t show, we’d face a chilly, uncomfortable night on an empty beach.

From a distance, Ilha Grande’s forested interior is so dense it can look menacing. Brazilwood, cedar, and ironwood form a dense canopy overhead. Giant ferns loom out of the undergrowth, and creepers, lianas, and ivies coat every trunk.

Once in the forest, the path to Praia Lopes Mendes wound over a series of headlands, descending regularly to idyllic beaches, where amiable locals sold grilled prawns and ice-cold beer from beachside shacks.

In the forest, the air was alive with the howls and squeaks of tanagers, fire-eyes, and flycatchers. Rodrigo showed me an urucum tree whose fruit provides fishermen with a dye they use to disguise their nets in the water. Digging at the roots of an embaúba tree, he provoked a colony of ferocious Aztec ants, which marched out to defend their symbiotic host.

The trail ended abruptly at Praia Lopes Mendes, a swath of sand so virginally white it hurt my eyes, its grains squeaking delightfully beneath my feet. Locals had proudly told me that Ayrton Senna, a former champion racing driver, used to fly to Lopes Mendes by helicopter, just to hear the sound of the sand beneath his feet. I glanced up and down the beach’s two-mile sweep: We were utterly alone.

The sun was hanging low in the sky when the Gloria Deus chugged into view, a pair of magnificent frigatebirds soaring in its wake. The skipper greeted us with a grin, pegged open the throttle with a screwdriver, and sat back nonchalantly, playing the tiller with his bare toes. I was keen to listen for the grunts of howler monkeys bedding down for the night — until the skipper slipped a CD into his on-board sound system. We cruised back to Abraão to the crackling din of ’70s pop.

Ilha Grande’s great attraction, I quickly learned, is that the day’s sailing destination is rarely too important. I spent an entire afternoon happily moving around Abraão bay in a motor launch, exploring tiny coves and ogling the sumptuous vacation homes erected on private beaches by Brazil’s new rich.

On another morning, I chugged westward for an hour in a turquoise-and-sunflower riverboat, a craft favored by Ilha Grande’s fishermen for its low cost. The boat’s long prow, designed to ride high on riverbanks for the easy loading of cargo, was unfit for the open sea, but the boat’s pitching and yawing only seemed to add to the fun.

The most compelling destination is the eerie ruin of Cândido Mendes Penitentiary, some eight miles west of Abraão.

A prison was first built at the hamlet of Dois Rios in 1894, and was used to incarcerate drunks, vagrants, vagabonds, and adherents of “capoeira,’’ a dance-like martial art developed in Brazil by African slaves.

By the late 1970s, with the country in the grip of a cabal of generals, conditions within the prison had grown so violent that inmates termed it “the devil’s cauldron.’’ The military regime locked up dangerous criminals and political dissidents side by side, unwittingly leading to the creation of Comando Vermelho, the powerful criminal organization targeted by the military in its crackdown on Rio’s slums last month. .

Human rights defenders launched a campaign to close the prison soon after the return of democracy to Brazil in 1985. With a tourism industry growing on Brazil’s coastline, officials also feared embarrassment if escapees should threaten newly developed resorts. In 1994, after environmental laws protecting the Atlantic forest came into force, Dois Rios’s remaining prisoners were transferred and the facility dynamited.

Vultures circled ominously overhead as Rodrigo and I picked our way through the ivy tendrils and matted weeds that covered what had once been cell blocks. From the guardhouse, I gazed through a slit window, imagining myself momentarily as an armed guard. Beyond, where the administration block was now a chaotic heap of tiles, bricks, and iron bars, I ducked beneath a heavy beam and pulled out a rusted movie projector, once used by the guards, now lying exposed to the elements.

“Robinson Crusoe’’? Ilha Grande certainly displays some of Defoe’s innocence. Yet as I turned to leave the ruined prison and its somber air, I realized the island has its shades of the movie “Papillon’’ as well.

Colin Barraclough can be reached on

If You Go

Getting there
Ilha Grande has no banks, ATMs, or money exchange offices, so take cash. From Rio de Janeiro, Costa Verde (www.costaverde; three hours; $9 each way) operates buses every hour to Angra dos Reis, where ferries (www.barcas-sa; 1 1/2 hours; $4-$8 each way) and catamarans (; 45 minutes; $15 each way) leave for Abraão.
What to do
Paraty Explorer
Hiking and kayaking tour operator. Seven-day Ilha Grande hiking circuit, $1,450 per person.
Elite Dive Center
Diving excursions to caves, chimneys, and wrecks run by certified instructors. $100 a dive.
Where to stay
Beto’s Pousada
Travessa Buganville 63, Abraão
Simple, clean, 11-room guesthouse. Two-minute walk from Abraão’s jetty, 50 yards from the beach. Doubles $34-$110.
Sagú Mini Resort
Praia Brava, Abraão
Nine stone cabins, each with a hammock and private veranda. Set on its own beach, a 15-minute walk east of Abraão. Doubles $170-$230, including breakfast and water taxi on arrival and departure.
Brazilian Beach House Company
Staffed rental villas; from $50 per person per day.
Where to eat
O Pescador
Rua da Praia, Abraão
Candlelighted beachside restaurant offering crab, grilled shrimp, stuffed squid. $50-$65.
Restaurante Dom Mário
Travessa Buganville
Hearty portions of grilled shrimp, salmon, or crevalle jackfish with passionfruit sauce and zucchini, $43 for two.