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Paradise Prison Island: Ilha Grande (Costa Verde, Brazil)

Fishing boats off Paradise island Ilha Grande in Brazil - Happier Place

The Brazilian island Ilha Grande is a tropical paradise with magnificent beaches, hiking trails criss-crossing through rainforest and no cars! Maybe its dark history had kept development at bay until fairly recently…

Despite being only a few hours south-west of Rio de Janeiro, Ilha Grande is a world removed. There are countless beaches on the 193 km2 (75 sq mi) island and about 150 km (90 miles) of hiking trails. But there’s only one major village, Vila do Abraão, with a population under 2,000. Abraão offers access to the mainland via ferry and most of the island’s accommodations and restaurants. But there are campgrounds and rooms-for-rent near many of the other beaches as well.

To get to any of the other beaches and sites on Ilha Grande, you’ll have to hike through the forest or take a boat. There are no private cars on the entire island (just emergency vehicles and a garbage truck).

Abraão village and the Pico Papagaio peak on Ilha Grande, Brazil.
Abraão village with the Pico Papagaio mountain peak in the distance – Ilha Grande, Brazil.

Ilha Grande has remained so wonderfully underdeveloped because it was closed to free settlement for about 100 years. At first, it was a leper colony and later housed a high-security prison for political and the most dangerous prisoners. The prison was closed in 1994. Remnants can be found near the beach of the Dois Rios settlement. 

Today development is very restricted. Almost 90% of the island are protected as nature reserves (Ilha Grande State Park and Aventureiro Sustainable Development Reserve).

Muddy rainforest trail through the hills of Ilha Grande, Brazil. Happier Place
Muddy rainforest trail over the hills of Ilha Grande, Brazil.

Ilha Grande is a paradise for all who love to hike, explore and relax on a gorgeous beach. The extra lucky ones might even see a sloth, howler monkey or penguin. But everyone who hikes can appreciate ascending up hills through dense jungle and suddenly reaching a clearing to look down on the blue water and green hills below. Or how about hiking through the mist of a warm cloud and then stepping out onto a vast beach where a vendor is waiting to sell you a cold beer? Or coming upon the 19th century aqueduct, the former leper colony, the waterfall, the natural swimming hole, the former prison or beach after beach after beach.

Hiking trail through rainforest mist on one of the main trails from Vila do Abraão. Happier Place
Hiking through rainforest mist on one of the main trails from Vila do Abraão.
View of Ilha Grande and the Brazilian mainland from a clearing on the trail to Lopes Mendes Beach.
View of Ilha Grande and the Brazilian mainland from a clearing on the trail to Lopes Mendes Beach.
Praia Palmas, one of a hundred beaches on Ilha Grande, Brazil.
Praia Palmas, one of a hundred beaches on Ilha Grande, Brazil.
House, cross, boat on a beach - things you find along the jungle-and-beach trail between Vila do Abraão and famous Lopes Mendes beach. HappierPlace
Things you find along the jungle-and-beach trail between Vila do Abraão and famous Lopes Mendes beach.
Purple wildflower on island Ilha Grande, Brazil.
Purple wildflower on otherwise mostly lush and green Ilha Grande island.
Vast Lopes Mendes Beach is rumored to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world according to Vogue and Lonely Planet.
Vast Lopes Mendes Beach is rumored to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world according to Vogue and Lonely Planet.
Nature take back over an abandoned prison building in Dois Rios on Ilha Grande.
Abandoned prison building in Dois Rios on Ilha Grande.
Look inside abandoned building in Dois Rios, Ilha Grande, Brazil.
Nature takes back over an abandoned building in Dois Rios.
Atlantic rainforest covered hills disappearing into the clouds behind large and mostly empty Dois Rios beach on Ilha Grande, Brazil. Happier Place
Atlantic rainforest covered hills disappearing into the clouds behind large and mostly empty Dois Rios beach.
Tree jail: remnants of the former leper colony and secondary prison on Ilha Grande.
Remnants at the former leper colony and smaller prison on Ilha Grande.

All photos in this post were taken by Luci Westphal. By clicking on any photo you can see a much larger high-resolution version. 

P.S.: Jess Grotfeldt listed Ilha Grande as one of her Happy Places in her interview: Jess Grotfeldt (Acupuncturist in New York City). Luci and Jess didn’t travel to Ilha Grande at the same time. It’s just that amazing of a place that it comes up more than once on the Happier Place website.

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