It is fair to say that Brazil’s Ilha Grande lives us up to its name. It is indeed a “Big (and beach-covered) Island” of about 190 sq. km. in which you'll find plenty to keep you entertained.
In the main town, for instance, you’ll come across any number of tour operators selling boat trips, snorkeling tours, or transport to the island's less accessible sandy spots. With around 100 or so beaches to explore, as well as plenty of trails and hikes, you'll struggle to be bored.
The problem with tours and boat trips, as you'll no doubt know, is that you always arrive with a whole bunch of other people who are also on your tour. Needless to say, this doesn't do wonders for the tranquility of the place you're visiting.
To try something different, then, we suggest you leave behind the other tourists and head out on your own mini adventure: to go and find the sea turtles that call the island home.
Here’s how to go about it:
The best chances of tracking down one of these little guys is in the slightly cooler and quieter hours of 7am - 9am. Later in the day sea turtles are a bit more elusive as they get spooked by the noise of passing motorboats and sun-seeking tourists.
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As animals are apparently early risers, so you will need to be too. Make sure that you are on the beach and ready to set out from Abraão by 7.30am, at the very latest.
Undoubtedly, the easiest way to see the turtles is by approaching them as quietly as possible
Undoubtedly, the easiest way to see the turtles is by approaching them as quietly as possible. That’s why boat trips aren’t really any good for this purpose – the animals will get scared off before you get near them. If you are a silent and confident swimmer, you might just head out as you are, armed only with a pair of good googles or a snorkeling mask.
Better, though, is to head out on the expedition atop a kayak or a stand up paddle board. That way, you’ll be able to quickly cover much more ground, and will have a better vantage point for seeing into the water and for spotting marine life, even at a distance.
Unless you have your own bits of kit, you’ll need to hire the kayak/board in Abraão. Though there are a few different places which rent these out along the beach, none of them open until a bit later in the day. No matter - all you need do is talk to one of the stall owners the day before and get them to agree to take the boards a little earlier than usual.
Once on your exploration vessel of choice, you're ready to make your way out to sea.
Maximize Your Chances of Success
Fortunately, this trip is not like many excursions out into animal habitats, where guides promise you encounters with all sorts of exotic animals, but in the end you see nothing more extreme than the odd bird or two. On Ilha Grande, it is really likely that you will return from this trip having seen at least one turtle.
First, though, you’ll need to get to the areas where they hang out. So, start by paddling out of Abraão and make your way slowly along the coast going via the three little bays immediately to your right. Make sure to stay near the rocks and calm waters of the bay, where sea turtles are most likely to be searching for food.
The optimal place to look is in water of a depth of about 1-2m. You'll have no trouble seeing this far down, as water visibility is near perfect at this level (incidentally, it is also amazing to swim in, should you fancy a quick dip along the way).
The water is amazing to swim in, should you fancy a quick dip along the way
If possible, it’s best to go out with a group of people so you can all split up and maximize the amount of ground (or water, as the case may be) that you cover. But keep quiet if you do – laughter and loud conversation with your friends will reduce your likelihood of success.
Particularly fruitful areas to search are in the various sections near the shore that are cordoned off from boats and are for exclusive use by swimmers. As these spots are especially peaceful, they are where more animals tend to be.
The easiest things to spot are large shoals of fish which inhabit these waters – but we all know that these are not the prize you’ve come searching for. More interesting perhaps are the large rays which also hover past and cause the occasional splash as their fins flap out of the water.
Show a bit of patience and before long you’ll come across several of the turtles. They generally swim about on their own, but are pretty relaxed when you find one and show no signs of wanting to dart off. This means you can happily swim along with them for a decent amount of time.
Don’t be surprised if time just slips by as you gaze on the turtles
Watching these little happy chappies slowly glide through the water and munching on the seabed is highly addictive. Don’t be surprised if time just slips by as you gaze on. Most people manage to tear themselves away only when the turtles sink back down into the deeper water where they are most difficult to see.
When eventually you have your fill, you can make your way back to the beach in Abraão, stopping off for the odd swim or two on the way. Most likely, you'll get back by about 11am, leaving you the rest of the day to enjoy some of the hundreds of other picturesque spots on the island.
Ilha Grande: Some Practicalities
You can reach Ilha Grande by taking one the Costa Verde coaches that leave Rio de Janiero and take you the approximately 3-hour journey to the port at Angra dos Reis. The coaches drop you right opposite the jetty from where you can catch one of the frequent taxi boats across to Abraão (about 20 minutes).
Bear in mind that Ilha Grande has no ATMs so you’ll need to take all your cash with you
Bear in mind that Ilha Grande has no ATMs so you’ll need to take with you all the cash you plan on spending. If you run out, it is inconvenient, rather than a complete disaster; a few of the restaurants, hotels and tour operators etc do accept credit and debit cards. However, these places are often the more upmarket ones so, without cash, you might end up spending more overall.
The island is pretty rustic overall, but if you’re staying in Abraão or nearby, you won’t need to take any supplies with you. There are a couple of little shops in the town and quite a few restaurants and bars knocking around too. Head to some of the more remote beaches and hotels (for example, some of those available on AirBnB), on the other hand, and you will have to go armed with sufficient food and drink to sustain you during your stay.
Either that, or you’ll need to do a lot of ferrying backwards and forwards to Abraão to resupply. This would be a pain as no cars are allowed on the island, so for long(ish) travel you're limited to transport y boat. Probably you’re better off to stay in the main town and use this as a base to later explore your surroundings more fully.