Across the calm waters, green, mountainous forest rises up in front of us. There’s a collective happy sigh from those surrounding us on the boat, and some eager people start to make their way to the front in the hope of being the first ones to set their feet down on this paradisiacal island.
Arriving at Ilha Grande, just a four hour journey from Rio de Janeiro via bus and boat, the first thought I have is about colour: the rich azure of the sky, the whispers of white clouds floating above the thick verdant jungle.
My second is thought is about getting off this boat as quickly as I can, sinking my toes into the sand, and starting to enjoy this place.
Ilha Grande (which means “big island” in Portuguese) is only 17 kilometres long and, owing to the lush jungle that covers it, feels far more remote and secluded than one might imagine. The remoteness of the island was perfect for its former life as a penal colony and then leper quarantine, but the ruins of those places are slowly being overtaken by the jungle as tourists flock here for a slice of paradise.
It’s a place where you can do as little as you like, or spend days hiking the various routes that crisscross the island.
My husband and I do the former. Our first day is spent recovering from a caipirinha-induced hangover, lounging on the small beach in front of our pousada in Abraão, the island’s main (and seemingly only) town, made up of a strip of buildings that hug the thin crescent-shaped cove. Behind us, dreadlocked artists strum guitars as they sell jewelry and unique twisted metal artwork along the cobblestoned footpaths that constitute roads here in a place where there are no cars.
The next day we decide to relax at Lopes Mendes beach, often found in lists of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Forgoing the three-hour, sweaty trek through jungle to the beach, we negotiate a taxi boat to take us there. After 15-minute walk through the jungle we hear the beach before we see it – roaring waves that wash up on a blindingly-white beach where the sand squeaks underfoot. A camouflaged crab peeks out of a hole next to our towels as it considers whether to bravely venture out. On the way back to the boat taxi, a tiny capuchin monkey grabs the attention of passersby, its minute hands deftly shoving bananas into its even tinier mouth.
Other days we join our friends and sign up to the myriad boat tours on offer to explore the beaches around Ilha Grande. We spend the days swiftly tripping over the baking sand in search of shade, or snorkeling in the crystal clear waters of aptly-named places such as Lagoa Azul (the water really is very blue) or Lagoa Verde (the water really is quite green).
At night, we join the tables of people that spill out of the restaurants and into the streets, sipping caipirinhas and beer and nibbling on peanuts as the sun goes down. We eat dinner on the beach, digging our bare feet into the sand and gorging on fresh seafood. Erratic power cuts make for an impromptu romantic candle-lit dinner.
Afterwards, we hunt out the “dessert carts”: big boxes on wheels with perspex lids showing off the various desserts that lie underneath, just waiting to be licked off sticky fingers. Brigadeiros, the size of golf balls and so sweet they send shivers through your teeth, compete with flan and other tempting treats. Making a decision is hard.
Five days here just isn’t enough, and we wistfully take the reverse trip, leaving on the boat. Looking out longingly over the water and up into that jungle, those colours remain just as rich.