My favourite spot in Brazil, perhaps in the world, is Ilha Grande (Big Island). It is located about 3 hours south of Rio de Janerio, along the Costa Verde (green costa) and this island is paradise on earth. The island is blissfully pedestrian-only, with a small town, and hotels stretching out along the pristine waterfront. Just a whole lot of beach, bbq, beer and Bob Marley.
To get to Ilha Grande required a several hour-long cab ride south from Rio de Janeiro, and then a water taxi out to the island. We made our way to our worn guest house to leave our bags, and then set off on foot to explore the town to talk to the local dive shops. When planning my big trip to South America, scuba diving came up time and time again while researching things to do in Brazil. Scuba diving was always something I wanted to try, so having this new experience in beautiful Brazil seemed like the perfect fit.
Ilha Grande is famous for its icing-sugar soft white sand beaches, and reefs filled with sunken shipwrecks. Ilha Grande Bay has at least 16 shipwrecks (one of the highest concentrations in the world), most of which are at easy to reach depths. The warm waters also mean there is no need for a wet suit, the water is crystal clear, and there are dozens of species of tropical fish and sea turtles – making it ideal for exploring the underwater world for the first time.
Before departing for South America, I took my PADI Open Water certification at a local dive shop and my open water dive test in a frigid Canadian lake. I sure hoped my Brazilian experience would be warmer and more colourful, but I was glad to get the certification out of the way, so I could focus on enjoying my dive in Brazil. Upon arriving at the island, we immediately found a PADI certified dive shop with availability and booked a two-dive tour for the following day.
Bright and early we set off for the open water. Our first dive was to the Pinguino, a sunken freight ship at a depth of 7 meters. I struggled to descend, so I needed to use a line to slowly lead me down to the ocean floor. As I struggled over and over, unable to get down the line, the diving coach held onto me and looked me in the eye, helping calm me as I very slowly climbed down the line. Suddenly, my foot touched, and I looked down to see the Pinguino beneath my feet. I made it.
Our group was small enough that each participant had a divemaster and it made exploring much easier. My guide toured me around the wreck until he was sure I was capable, and then we went through the massive hole in the side. The inside was barnacle-covered and teeming with sea life. Dark hallways with patches of light streamed in from above and lit odd shapes in the eerie darkness. We gently swam through the hull, and the carefully explored a few large rooms. It was an unforgettable experience.
We spent several more days on Ilha Grande relaxing on the beach and hiking in the jungle. One of the major highlights of Ilha Grande is the Lopez Mendez Beach, by far one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The powder-fine, white sand beach is located on the opposite side of the island from the town of Abraao (where most accommodation is).
Lopez Mendez Beach can be reached by boat, but I highly recommend taking the 2-hour jungle trek to get to it. While the trek was sweltering hot during our visit in February, the views were incredible and along the way, there were 2 other beaches to stop and swim at. Imagine hiking for an hour through a steam hot jungle and then stumbling across a deserted white sand beach surrounded by warm turquoise blue water! Absolute paradise!
To get to Ilha Grande it’s possible to catch a Costa Verde bus from either Rio or Sao Paulo, and then a ferry from either the Angra dos Reis or Mangaratiba port. Several hostels offer a pickup service, but in our experience, it wasn’t a smooth experience. Island life is rather “easy-going” and nothing happens according to plan or schedule. Instead, a group of us took a taxi to Mangaratiba and paid for a private boat to Ilha Grande. It was well worth the journey though, Ilha Grande is the perfect fix of everything Brazil has to offer. I would go back in a heartbeat.