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Ilha Grande: With its well-preserved Atlantic rainforest and unspoiled beaches, this tropical paradise off the coast of Brazil is a hot spot for biodiversity and conservation, as well as an exemplary model of responsible tourism.

Ilha Grande looms out of the Atlantic haze like a tropical island from the pages of Robinson Crusoe. From the catamaran that crosses daily from the mainland of southern Brazil--the nearest mainland port, Angra dos Reis, lies just 105 miles south of Rio de Janeiro--an unbroken emerald wall of dense Atlantic forest rises to serried peaks that tower 3,000 feet above the surrounding ocean.

Today, most of Ilha Grande is a state park. There are no roads; no cars, either. Surfers fawn over the island's hundred-odd beaches, each Sickle-shaped and fringed with palm trees. Hikers come to tramp among cascading waterfalls and steep ravines, some to circle the island over five days, others to stroll on shorter day trails that lace through the jungle.

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Local yachties, too, rank the area as a choice destination. "My beloved bay, my adoptive land," wrote Brazilian yachtsmen Amyr Klink, on returning to the island after sailing solo around Antarctica in 1998. "Of all the treats in the world, none would be more special than sailing across the bay of Ilha Grande."

Today, vacationers kayak in the island's coves or dive with PADI-registered scuba guides to the caves, rock chimneys, and wrecks that litter the surrounding ocean. Enticing paths lead off through the forest to natural highlights such as the white coral of Lagoa Azul pool, the 50-foot plunge of the Cachoeira da Feiticeira waterfall, or the spectacular late-afternoon reflections visible at the Gruta de Acaia cave. Bird-watchers, too, come to spot forest rarities like the white-tailed trogon or the blue manakin.

The island's great attraction is that the day's destination is rarely too important. Some visitors limit themselves to puttering around Abraao bay in a motor launch, exploring tiny coves, and casting envious glances at the sumptuous vacation homes erected on private beaches by Brazil's newly wealthy. Others chug around the coast in the Bahia-built riverboats much favored by Ilha Grande's fishermen for their low cost. The boat's long prow, designed to ride high on fiver banks for the easy loading of cargo, is wholly unfit for the open sea, but the boat's pitching and yawing seems only to add to the fun.

The absence of vehicles hit me as I leaped onto the wooden jetty at Abraao, the island's only town. A single row of houses, each painted a vibrant shade of lilac, papaya, or magenta, lined the waterfront; a cobbled street, Rua da Igreja, led towards a tiny white church. Porters sprang forward, offering to transport luggage in hand-drawn carts. Dozens of dinghies, yachts, fishing smacks, and schooners sat at anchor in the choppy, azure waters of Abraao bay.

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Today, most of the island's 7,500 residents form part of Brazil's caicara fishing culture, which traces its lineage to a blend of Tupi indigenous, African, and European cultures. Islanders still follow the Tupi tradition of using nitrogen-fixing trees within the forest to fertilize subsistence crops. Fishing techniques combine African influences--fish are attracted by tossing bundled tree branches into the water--with the European practice of line-fishing.

On weekends and public holidays, the town's 1,821-strong population swells dramatically as Brazilian holidaymakers come to explore the island's hamlets, rocky headlands, sand banks, and mangrove lagoons. Most return to Abraao each night by boat or on foot. "Getting a boat is like hailing a taxi," a local tour guide, Rodrigo Pereira, told me. "You just stroll along the beach and call out to the sailors."

I arrived on a weekday during the May-August low season (the island's driest months but, oddly, the quietest period of the year) and settled into a neat, cozy pousada; I was the only guest. The silence was broken only by the rattle of a Brazilian national flag in the stiff Atlantic breeze and the cheerful voices of residents gathered to chat in the middle of Abraao's cobbled, traffic-free streets.

I followed Pereira to the beach the following morning to test his claim. He'd suggested a hike to Praia Lopes Mendes, regularly voted one of Brazil's most beautiful beaches by readers of authoritative travel guide, Quatro Rodas. To make the most of the sultry afternoon, we'd need a boat to bring us back. We settled on the "Gloria Deus," a battered former fishing smack, whose skipper agreed to collect us from the remote beach the same "afternoon. The casual handshake deal left. me nervous: if the boat didn't show, we'd face a chilly, uncomfortable night on an empty sliver of coast.

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From a distance, Ilha Grande's forested interior appears almost menacing. Brazilwood, cedar, and ironwood form a dense canopy overhead. Giant ferns loom out of the undergrowth; creepers, lianas, and ivies coat every trunk. Once in the forest, however, I found the path to Lopes Mendes wound delightfully over a series of headlands, descending regularly to idyllic beaches, where amiable locals sold grilled prawns and ice-cold beer from beachside shacks.

In the forest, the air was alive with the howls and squeaks of tanagers, fire-eyes, and flycatchers. Pereira showed me an urucum tree, whose fruit provide fishermen with a dye they use to disguise their nets in the water. Digging at the roots of an embauba tree, he provoked a colony of ferocious Aztec ants, which marched out to defend their symbiotic host.

The trail ended abruptly at Praia Lopes Mendes, a swathe of sand so virginally white it hurt my eyes. Locals had told me proudly that Ayrton Senna, Brazil's former champion racing driver, used to fly to Lopes Mendes by helicopter, just to hear the sand squeak beneath his feet. I glanced up and down the beach's two-mile sweep: we were utterly alone.

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The sun was hanging low in the sky when the "Gloria Deus" chugged into view, a pair of magnificent frigatebirds soaring in its wake. The skipper greeted us with a grin, pegged open the throttle with a screwdriver, and sat back nonchalantly, playing the tiller with his bare toes. I strained to hear the grunts of howler monkeys bedding down for She night, but abandoned the attempt when the skipper slipped a CD into his on-board sound system. We cruised back to Abraao to the crackling din of seventies' pop.

Despite its proximity to Brazil's major cities, Ilha Grande was long closed to casual visitors. In the 18th century, coffee and sugar barons came to make their fortunes on its coastal flats; slave traders. too, used the shoreline as a staging post for their human cargo. The Portuguese built a leper colony there, the Brazilians a quarantine station for cholera-ridden sailors. In 1894, when authorities erected a prison at Dois Rios, a hamlet on the southern shore, Ilha Grande became a Devil's Island-style penal territory.

The prospect of exploring this checkered past lies at the heart of the island's transformation from dumping ground for the unwanted and unclean to up-and-coming ecotourism resort,

It's a three-hour hike to Dois Rios from Abraao, the path lacing southward through dense forest and rising through the island's mountainous interior. Jail-bound convicts once took the same trail. Pereira and I cupped our hands to drink from a creek named Soldiers' Pool, where guards once watered their charges on the inward march.

The jail at Dois Rios was built as a model facility, the result of a new penal code that championed the redemptive power of education and work on drunks, vagrants, vagabonds, and adherents of capoeira, the dance-like martial art developed in Brazil by African slaves. Later, the prison housed celebrated criminals like 1930s trickster Madame Sata and a slew of Butch Cassidy-style bank robbers. By the late 1970s, however, with Brazil in the grip of its cabal of generals, Dois Rios had been transformed into the Candido Mendes Penitentiary, a high-security facility so violent that inmates called it the Caldeirao do Diabo--"the Devil's Cauldron."

With Brazil's return to democracy in 1985, human rights defenders launched a campaign to close the prison. A tourism industry was growing on Brazil's coastline, and officials also feared the potential embarrassment of escapees lurking around newly developed resorts. In 1994, in the wake of new laws strengthening environmental protection for Brazil's Atlantic forest, Dois Rios' remaining prisoners were transferred and the jail dynamited.

Black vultures circled ominously overhead as Pereira and I breached the tree line at Dois Rios and squinted in the glare of a wide, grassy square. Ivy tendrils and matted weeds covered what had once been the penitentiary's cell blocks, now reduced to crumpled folds of concrete. We stumbled inside a circular tower, once a gatehouse. An iron chair still stood chillingly by a slit hacked from the concrete. I narrowed my eyes, unconsciously measuring firing lines across the green sward outside.

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Beyond, where the administration block was now a chaotic heap of tiles, bricks, and iron bars, I ducked beneath a heavy beam and pulled out a rusted cine projector, once used by the guards, now lying exposed to jungle storms. I pulled on a patch of leather and hauled out a boot. Brushing past a severed chain, I found the innards of a barber's chair spooling chaotically across the tiled floor.

It was Pereira who spotted the filing cabinet, wrenching at its steel drawers to reveal the paperwork within, blotched and browned with age, the margins charred. We hauled out a clutch of prison files, skimming through petty purchases--30 tap valves, a three-ring Alfa stove, a four-ring Sever--until the archives fell open to a list of prisoner records: names, admission dates, brief prison histories. My eyes were drawn to a record from 1976. Neatly typed, its brevity masking a torrid tale of terror, ire, and joy; it ended with a single, electrifying word: "Escaped."

Colin Barraclough is an award-winning British journalist, travel writer; and frequent contributor to Americas.
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Author:Barraclough, Colin
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:May 1, 2012
Words:1847
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