We have not met any other Americans here on Ilha Grande. It’s somewhat of a Brazilian secret. A weekend getaway or summer vacation for Brazilian families as well as the twenty-something backpacker set.
A few foreigners know the secret. We hear some French being spoken. A bit of German. Perhaps some Swedish. But mostly it’s Portuguese as we make our way with our limited language skills beyond English.
Like us, everyone is here for the Ilha Grand beaches. Touted as Brazil’s most beautiful, the effort it takes to get to these glorious and remote beaches is worth it.
The white sands of Lopes Mendes
Starting the hike to Lopes Mendes
My favorite Praia Palma
After nine days on the island, we can report first hand our favorite Ilha Grand beaches as well as report there isn’t a lot else to do. The tiny town of Abraão has some restaurants and a hand full of shops but not even an ATM. There are no cars here either. If you want to go you walk or take a boat. There is a bustling water taxi and boat shuttle business to remote beaches, other islands and the mainland. We walked and took the boat to discover our favorites. Walking however involves climbing, on this hilly and often muddy tropical island. Good footwear is a must. And for me, having my walking poles was a lifesaver. I took one tumble, with no damage done.
There are many more Ilha Grande beaches on the island we did not see, but here is our list of our favorite beaches of Ilha Grande;
Praia Lopes Mendes – at 3K long, Lopes Mendes is the largest of any of the beaches we visited on the island. Listed often as one of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches, the beach is a beautiful stretch of powdery white sand that squeaks when you walk in it. Very limited services at this beach, just a few hardy entrepreneurs selling cold drinks out of coolers. Getting to this beach is a challenge. You either hike about three hours from the village of Abraao or you take a nearly hour-long boat ride through rough and choppy seas then walk another twenty minutes to reach the beach.
Praia da Crena
Praia do Abraazinho – walking from the village of Abraao north you can visit five different beaches through a series of trails and beach walks. The fifth beach Abraazinho was my favorite. We spent a wonderful morning here after a hot and sweaty hike and the warm blue waters were a perfect reward for our efforts. This beach has a few restaurants offered and we enjoyed one of our best meals in all of Brazil here, a Fish and Banana stew that was huge, cheap and delicious.
Praia da Crena – after enjoying Abraazinho we walked back towards the village and stopped at the next beach of Praia de Crena. Smaller than Abrazinho, Praia de Crena offered a shallow swimming area and seemed popular with families. The water was ridiculously warm and calm. There was some shaded areas for the late afternoon heat as well as a small restaurant and bar.
Praia Palmas – a rigorous hike of nearly two hours on a very hot day brought us to the collection of beaches in Palmas. This was in my opinion the most beautiful beach we saw on Ilha Grande. A steep beach leads from the shady tree line down to the warm blue water, which on the day we were there had some good rolling surf.
Praia de Dois Rios
Praia de Dois Rios – What a workout getting to this beach. Six mile hike each way from Abraão and straight up. But the result was a spectacular beach nearly all to ourselves. Lots of shade and really warm blue water. I loved it. A couple of vendors selling cold drinks. There is a town here too – a former grand company town where a penitentiary was. But now the once beautiful homes and buildings are mostly abandoned. Just a few people left to cater to the beach visitors.
Praia Preta – Close to town but prettier than the beach found right in town, Praia Preta has a little lagoon that is a favorite with families as well as shady area great for picnics. This beach abuts the original settlement on the island. Full of history, the site was originally a farmhouse, later a quarantine site for European travelers coming around the horn and suffering from cholera, and then a
penitentiary for many years before being abandoned. What remains of the buildings are large boulders and building blocks covered in jungle vegetation and moss. Additionally the remains of a historic aqueduct culminating here is also interesting.
It’s easy to see why Brazilians love this place so much. I had never even heard of it, so I am really glad Arne did his research and discovered it. A hidden gem I highly recommend you consider when you come to beautiful Brazil.
It’s a gigantic place. Huge. Impossible to see it all. But the tiny piece of the Amazon Jungle we experienced was a privilege that will stay with us forever.
First let’s talk numbers in the Amazon Jungle; 5.5 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles); one fifth of the freshwater flowing into the Earth’s oceans comes from the Amazon River; there are more than 40,000 different kinds of trees and plants; 2.5 millions kinds of insects; 3000 freshwater fish; 427 mammals; 378 reptiles; 400 amphibians; and 1300 kinds of birds. It is the greatest biodiversity area on the earth.
Multiple rivers feed the jungle emptying eventually into the giant Amazon, which can be as wide as 20 miles in some places. The Amazon is the greatest river of South America and the largest drainage system in the world in terms of the volume of its flow and the area of basin. The total length of the river from the headwaters in southern Peru, is at least 4,000 miles (6,400 km), which makes it slightly shorter than the Nile River but still the equivalent of the distance from New York City to Rome (source Britannica.com)
So many birds
The Amazon Jungle Basin can average rainfall of approximately 2300 mm (7.5 feet). In some areas of the northwest portion of the Amazon basin, yearly rainfall can exceed 6000 mm (almost 20′), often flooding the civilizations that make Amazonia their home. In 2012 the highest flood level ever recorded in Manaus reached 29.97 meters (93 feet).
A word about mosquitos. We were prepared to take malaria meds the entire time we were in the Amazon Jungle. We began our meds the day before arrival and immediately I suffered from stomach upset. When we arrived at Manati Lodge we learned that this particular area of Amazonia on the Rio Negro is generally mosquito free. Due to the decomposing material from flora (which also gives the river a coffee color thus the name) the Rio Negro is naturally acidic, with ph ranging 2.4 – 4.9, thus preventing mosquito larvae from developing. Although some people still may want to take the malaria meds, I chose to stop taking them as soon as I learned this information – and me and my tummy were both grateful. Each person should make their own decision and consult with their doctor. I did receive a handful of bug bites – unknown to me from what kind of bugs. They have healed quickly.
Today at least 400 indigenous tribes live in the jungle, much as they have for millennia. The Brazilian government works to protect the rights and traditions of these tribes, all while also trying to help them find diverse ways to earn and survive. Additionally a handful of tribes still live untouched from any interference by the civilized world and they wish to remain so.
For our visit to this fascinating place we chose to spend five days at the Manati Lodge, a simple but comfortable and very well run small lodge about two hours from the city of Manaus.
Manaus (population 1.8 million) is the major city of the state of Amazonas, and the jumping-off point for most visitors to the Amazon. From here you can begin your journey to multiple lodges and resorts inside the protected area. A variety of styles and price ranges are available for lodging. For us Manati was just what we needed. All inclusive (transport, comfortable room, all meals and all tours) for two people for five days cost $1100. We spent an additional $20 on alcohol (we did not drink very much by choice) and $75 on gratuity. For what we got, an absolute bargain.
Manati has 6 rooms that can sleep four each. During our five days, guests on two, three and five-day tours revolved in and out. We met a nice variety of world travelers from Brazil, Canada, England, Italy, France, Croatia and the USA.
Isaac, right, shows me how to weave
Our guide Isaac was wonderfully full of enthusiasm, stories and wisdom about his native region. Some days we had Isaac all to ourselves and other days we shared him with other guests.
New Years Eve
Isaac made sure we saw and did so much. We began with a serene and beautiful tour by boat to enjoy the jungle from the water. There is green, and then there is Amazon jungle green – an indescribable range of hues I never knew existed on the planet. Throw in the remarkable rainbow and it was such a pleasant way to start our adventure.
A special celebration on our first night for New Year’s Eve was totally unexpected and so wonderful. The staff decorated with palms and flowers we ate and toasted with sangria and champagne and even had midnight fireworks. Not at all what I expected in the middle of the jungle. It was wonderful.
So much to see
Over the next four days we had a huge variety of experiences, but also plenty of downtime to relax and read. I had neither WiFi or cell service over the five days which turned out to be a blessing – giving me a news and social media break I didn’t even realize I desperately needed.
Sloth trying to hide
A visit to a local village provided us our first spotting of a sloth in the wild – a lifelong dream for me. Going piranha fishing had never been on my lifelong dream list but it turned out to be very entertaining and fun.
I really enjoyed our three-hour jungle walk, where we were introduced to a fascinating variety of flora, including dozens of plants that are used in medicines we know and use regularly from Vick’s Vapor Rub to Milk of Magnesia. We saw wild acai, Brazil nuts, palms used for roofs, plants the indigenous people used for poison and hunting and other plants used for survival in the Amazon jungle. And some in our group even ate butterfly larvae. I declined the offer.
Later that same day, under thankfully sunny skies we swam with the famous Amazon pink dolphins. The government allows the dolphins to be fed four days a week, this is how the tourists get to see them. The rest of the time they are left alone so they do not grow overly dependent on humans. They are not in a pen. They swim freely and come to the platform when fish is available. They were large and incredibly strong, but also gentle. They enjoy being petted. And they smile.
I swam with dolphins once before, in Zanzibar. But this was different. In Zanzibar we did not touch them. I enjoyed both experiences for different reasons. The dolphin skin is soft like a baby. Their eyes are so tiny. Also known as botos, they are born grey and become pinker with age. As they mature its skin becomes more translucent allowing the blood to show through. When excited, they will flush to a bright pink , like your face might when you get embarrassed or excited.
After saying farewell to our new dolphin friends we took a beautiful boat ride to another part of the river. We parked the boat on the river’s edge and watched as dozens of inquisitive little squirrel monkeys cautiously approached and then, when realizing we had bananas, jumped right on board.
I’ve seen monkeys big and small all over the world, and generally am not a fan. They can be mean and smelly. But the Amazon Jungle squirrel monkey was by far the cutest and sweetest I have met.
Squirrel mo key
We ended this amazing day with a sunset swim in the warm Rio Negro before returning to Manati.
The next morning we woke at 5am to clear skies so we groggily (before coffee!) headed out to watch the sunrise. It was beautiful and worth getting up for.
Water is life
After breakfast we visited a local family home where we learned more about plants used for medicine in the jungle. We also learned all about the staple native food of manioc, a tuber that is the source of tapioca as well as numerous other products. Manioc is part of the daily diet not only of the indigenous people but nearly everyone in Brazil.
One big snake
We ended this day with a visit to another local home. Here an anaconda that was accidentally caught in a fishing net is being nursed before being released back into the wild Amazon jungle. Those who wanted to were allowed to hold the beast. It was about eight feet long. Damp. And strong. Another once in a lifetime experience. I think once is enough.
Our final day dawned stormy so our hour-long boat ride to visit an indigenous village was down right painful as we crossed the giant Rio Negro in a healthy wind and serious chop. But I’m glad we did.
The tribe we visited
The village of the Dessana people accepts visitors as a way to earn money and to share their culture. Originally found in their ancestral home 600 miles (965km) away in the dense remote jungle of northwestern Brazil, they came to the Tupe region for a better life to fish and farm. Dessana began benefiting from tourist who were curious to see their ancient traditions (source theCultureTrip.com.)
The Chief explained in detail (through an interpreter) many of their rituals about boys initiation to manhood, marriage, leadership, food, hunting and celebrations.
Dancing with the Chief
The Chief and about twenty-five people from the tribe including men, women and children then performed for us several ritual dances and songs with handmade instruments. We then were invited to dance with them. The Chief took my hand and he was amazingly strong as he led (well, dragged) me alongside him as I tried to follow the intricate steps of the dance. Arne was also dancing, although I was too busy to see him trying. Luckily Isaac snapped a few photos.
Arne dancing too
Before leaving we purchased a few handmade items from the tribe and thanked them for sharing. It was a great way to end our amazing Amazon visit.
One of my fav photos
After lunch we headed back to Manaus and civilization, forever changed by the experience. Just one more remarkable memory and a spectacular way to begin 2019.
It was a two-hour flight from Rio. An hour city bus ride packed in like sardines was followed by more than an hour in ticket lines and shuttle lines to actually reach the falls.
I began to wonder if it could be worth all this?
Yes. Yes it was. Totally worth the effort to get there. What adjectives to use? Stunning, awesome, powerful, beautiful. It was all that and more.
In fact, once off the bus and on our own, the post-Christmas crowds didn’t seem a big issue, except on the one major platform that takes you out closest to the thundering falls.
A stones throw across the raging river, it was easy to see the Argentinian side was just as crowded. Perhaps even more so. There are those who argue the view is better from Argentina. I can’t say. But the view from the Brazil side was incredible. And definitely worth the effort to get there.
Ten dollar entrance to the National Park provides your park transport. Additional activities require additional fees including guided hikes, boat tours, kayaks and food.
In hindsight the thing I would do differently (other than not come Christmas week) is stay in one of the hotels next to or inside the park. More expensive than our in-town Airbnb (which we really liked) but the convenience would be worth it. Especially since our time here was limited.
A definite “I don’t have a bucketlist” bucket list item. Iguacu Falls Brazil Side. Entirely worth the effort to get there.
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