The Great Escape
Once Mainly a Prison, a Brazilian Island Now Offers Visitors an Unpaved 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.

"It was always seen as a cursed place," innkeeper Lucas says. "No one wanted to be here."

The island's rap sheet stretches back at least four centuries. First came pirates, who used Ilha Grande as a base for raiding Spanish galleons bound for Europe with South American gold. Slave runners followed, turning the island into a center for smuggling after Brazil banned slave trading in 1831.

Things got worse. With immigrants pouring in from Europe in the late 19th century, the Brazilian government began to detour ships suspected of harboring cholera to Ilha Grande. Sick passengers would be quarantined -- and often left to die -- in stifling island hospitals. Still, the island's darkest hour came as a prison colony.

Back in Abraao, a rutted trail leads away from the village, passing stands of fragrant eucalyptus and lemon grass as it winds along the coastline. At a turn in the path, the black sands of Praia Preta come into view. A few tanned bodies in G-strings and Speedos sprawl under overhanging palms. Out in the bay, boulders lie scattered like a broken string of enormous pearls.

And a bit back from the beach, just barely visible, the rusted bars of a jail cell peek out from a dense tangle of vegetation. "Prisoners were sent down from Rio," says Antonio Simplicio da Silva, an 85-year-old island resident who spent 35 years as a guard in Ilha Grande's prisons. "They came here for every type of crime, including the worst."

The island started out as a political prison, used to house leftists and communist sympathizers. But facilities soon were expanded to accommodate all classes of offenders. The mix proved toxic in the turbulent '70s, when Brazil's military government warehoused opponents of the regime on the island.

"You had these very intelligent political prisoners in the same cells with the most violent offenders from Rio," Marpegan says. "What did they think would happen?"

From the island's crowded cells rose Comando Vermelho, the Brazilian super gang. Cunning, ruthless and revered in Brazil's poor favela neighborhoods, Comando Vermelho still controls most of Rio's drug trade. A series of high-profile escapes, including a daring 1985 helicopter getaway, sealed the prison's fate. "They had to close it," Marpegan says. "The island wasn't safe anymore."

On a Friday evening back in the village, Ilha Grande's dark days seem a distant memory. The bells of the whitewashed church are ringing, calling worshipers to service. Out in the main square, young couples soak in the sunset from brightly painted benches. A group of children swarms a vendor selling homemade desserts out of a street cart. Then, a few heads turn as the day's last ferry rumbles into port. Several dozen travelers, weighed down with bags and cameras, make their way off the dock and out into the square. One asks for the nearest discoteca. "Life has improved for us," Lucas says. "Tourism has brought more chances to earn a living. . . . But we need to manage the growth."

Time will tell how Brazil's isle of the damned weathers its latest peril: popularity.

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