Once Mainly a Prison, Brazil's Ilha Grande Is Now an Unpaved Island Paradise

By Remy Scalza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 10, 2009

It was a Brazilian Alcatraz. For more than 90 years, Ilha Grande, an island about 100 miles down the coast from Rio de Janeiro, housed some of the country's worst prisoners: drug lords, street thugs and criminal masterminds crammed into maximum-security cells with ocean views. "Sometimes, they'd escape," says Flavia Lucas, a lifelong resident who runs a small guesthouse on the island. "They'd knock on your door and ask for food and clothes. . . . And then they'd steal your canoe."

The prison shut down in 1994. And now Ilha Grande, spared from development all that time, is drawing a different kind of crowd: international travelers lured by unspoiled beaches and one of the best-preserved sections of Atlantic rain forest on the Brazilian coast.

"Parts of the island are still primary rain forest," says Martin Marpegan, an Argentine transplant who runs the Island Experience, a lodge set on a remote beach. "Out there on the trails you see parrots, lizards, howler monkeys -- everything." This morning Marpegan is busy. Counting heads, he helps guests into a small fishing boat docked at the lodge. In the distance looms Parrot's Peak, a 3,000-foot jungle summit set to be scaled before the day is out. Loaded up, the boat chugs toward the trail head in a nearby village.

Three times the size of Manhattan, Ilha Grande remains defiantly wild. Among its 106 white-sand beaches, only a handful are at all commercialized. There are no paved roads and no private cars on the island. Instead, a network of foot trails links secluded coves with mountain peaks and sapphire lagoons. Now inmate-free, this unique combination of world-class stretches of sand and pristine rain forest has proved hard to resist: About 400,000 travelers, mostly Brazilian, visited last year, up from just a few thousand a year in the '90s.

"When I came here eight years ago, there were five lodges. Today, there are 140," Marpegan says as the boat steers toward the village of Abraao. Set on a privileged strip of land between jungle peaks and an island-studded bay, Abraao was once a fishing outpost. Today, its streets are home to dozens of waterside restaurants and simple guesthouses. Along the main drag, signs in French and bad English hawk fresh shrimp, cold beer and the Internet. Progress, however, is relative. In Abraao's main square, old men still play dominoes in the shade of a whitewashed church. And just two blocks back from the water, the village's few streets abruptly give way to sandy trails, then jungle.

"The hiking is intense," Marpegan says, shouldering his pack for the climb. "Brazilian trails don't zigzag; they go straight up. I love it."

But Ilha Grande's draw extends beyond bushwhacking. While Marpegan strikes out for the lush interior, visitors seeking sun and sand congregate on the village pier. Down in the bay, a fleet of weathered fishing boats waits to ferry travelers to secluded corners of the island.

One captain, boat wired with speakers playing Brazilian reggae, makes a last call for Ilha Grande's signature beach: a storybook strand known as Lopes Mendes. After a 20-minute ride through turquoise water, the boat slows next to a crescent of sand backed by jungle and a few huts. The tiny village, postcard material by most standards, is only a drop point. As passengers go ashore, the captain motions to a well-worn trail slicing into the rain forest. The rest of the journey is on foot.

After a steep ascent past trees heavy with tropical jackfruit, the path plunges down to a two-mile stretch of finer-than-sugar white sand. Rimmed by palms and opening to the blue-green waters of the Brazilian Atlantic, Lopes Mendes has Club Med written all over it.

But apart from day-trippers -- and a few enterprising islanders selling cold beer out of plastic-foam coolers -- the beach is empty. No hotels, no power lines, not even a house.

"The whole island is a nature reserve," Marpegan explains. "It's protected by federal, state and local laws. You can only build in a few restricted sites. . . . Some places you can't even go."

Crowds and building codes are new on Ilha Grande. For most of the island's history, keeping people away was hardly a problem.

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