Ilha Grande – a tropical island free of roads and cash machines where monkeys roam and fish bite
String bags overflowing with bananas, papayas and watermelons, sacks of rice and flour, and gallon bottles of water crowd the wooden benches on the ferry from Angra Dos Reis. Damien and I eye the mounds of groceries and hope that we weren’t supposed to have brought supplies. I think that there may be a squashed cereal bar lurking somewhere in the bottom of my bag. It might be a hungry couple of days! As the shore recedes from view and we peer out our porthole at the islands dotting the bay, we decide that we’ll take our chances!
Abraão is the tiny capital of Ilha Grande (pronounced Eel-yha Granj). It perches on the shoreline at the edge of the luxuriant Atlantic rainforest. The streets are, variously, cobblestones, dirt tracks or requisitioned stretches of golden sandy beach. There are no cars and the locals transport their goods using wheelbarrows. Seafood restaurants (phew!) and small shops advertising diving and boating excursions cluster around the village’s wooden pier.
Ecotourism has recently become the economic heart of this former fishing village and penal colony and there are signs of this new wealth in the sleek schooners that bob alongside the tiny, weather-worn fishing boats in the small harbour.
Beaches, jungles and tree frogs
Our guesthouse, Pousada Riacho dos Cambucas, is nestled amongst the trees on the fringe of the jungle. The sky is grey with clouds threatening rain but the strange calls from the trees are too tempting to resist. Eager not to waste a single moment of our time near a rainforest, we pull on our hiking boots and set off on a trail through the trees. The roots of incredibly tall trees and lines of red ants snake across the track and we pass abandoned natural beehives hanging paper-like from branches above our heads. The sounds of the birds in the canopy is wonderful … and then the rain begins. It’s like somebody has flipped a switch in the forest and suddenly we’re surrounded by the almost deafening whirring and croaking of frogs. It’s magical! Determined to find some tree-frogs, we stare into the trees and bushes but it’s like a game of ultimate Where’s Wally and we have to admit defeat.
Puffing, we clamber around mangrove swamps and bamboo groves until we reach our destination – Praia Lopes Mendes. The beach curves before us, lined with palm and almond trees. The sand is so fine and white, it squeaks like snow beneath our feet. The lifeguards have hidden away from the elements in their hut and the waves are rolling in high and fast. It’s a “winter” beach – perfect in its beautiful emptiness.
Night falls at a disconcerting speed in the rainforest and for fear that whatever else is hiding in there will come out and eat us when darkness falls (jaguars! Because, sure, it could happen!), we take a watertaxi from a nearby beach with a French couple. They look just as bedraggled and happy as we do. They tell us that they’ve travelled over for the Capoeira festival which is due to begin on Ilha Grande the following day. Our ears prick up and we promise we’ll be there. The sun is setting as we round the headland and a pod of dolphins surfaces to race alongside our boat. I pinch myself to make sure I haven’t stumbled into a cheesy Woody Allen location movie. Nope, I’m definitely here and grinning like a loon!
That night, Damien isn’t smiling so much as pacing around the room at 3am scratching his several brand new mosquito bites and rooting through our first aid kit for an antihistamine. Unfortunately for Damien, this was to become a pattern. Repeated dousings in insect repellent are to no effect. In fact, he thinks that it’s actually attracting them! To his disgust, I haven’t been bitten once (yet! Asia might be a different story!). During my pre-trip research, I stumbled across an article recommending some natural ways to avoid being eaten alive by flying creatures, namely, to avoid bananas and to take Vitamin B complex, which I did religiously. I wasn’t about to take any chances with Amazonian beasties. Damien reckons I just have insipid blood! Who knows but here’s hoping my luck holds out!
The high(ish) seas
The next day, we’re up at dawn – sleep is not an option when I can hear the rainforest outside! We feast on the breakfast of papaya and mango before we set off for a day trip to the island’s Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon). The schooner takes us around the north of the island past wild headlands, hidden coves and drops its anchor an hour later in this natural swimming pool. The bad weather the day before means that the visibility isn’t as good as usual but we merrily snap on our snorkel masks and spend the next half an hour following small schools of yellow and black striped fish. When we finally look back up, we see the rest of the passengers shivering on the desk on the boat. We clamber aboard and the sun comes out. Everybody heads up to the roof of the boat where we bask in the heat as we continue on to our next stop – a white sandy beach bordered by palm trees. The water is crystal clear and bath warm. I could spend the entire day there. Well that is until my traitorous skin turns against me. The sunlight against my pale Irish skin in the water has transformed me into a luminous lure for all the fish in the area. I’m surrounded!! It’s pretty fantastic … until they start to bite! Really bite! Lots of little mouths chomping away! Horrendous! I’m very happy to escape back up onto the boat!
Rythmic beats and leg sweeps
That night after a meal of traditional fish and banana stew, we stroll over to a community hall to watch some of the Capoeira festival. Capoeira is a Brazilian material art that combines elements of fight, acrobatics and dance. Music is integral to Capoeira and the combination of the berimbaus (arc shaped instruments which dictate the tempo), the chanting and the smooth movements of the fight is almost hypnotic. A group of about 20 children of between the ages of 6 and 11 sit in a circle before 5 musicians. The mestre (master) chants and the children sing out responses while two of their number face each other in the centre of the ring. There appears to be no weighting according to size, age or sex and their enthusiasm is infectious. It is beautiful to watch. There is no violence, no body contact. Instead, it is a dance where the two mini capoeiristas weave and dive around each other’s movements. A local sits beside us and welcomes us to the event. We comment that the dance is beautiful and he explains that the purpose of the dance is to mask the fight. Capoeira’s origins are thought to lie in the development of methods of self-defence by African slaves in Brazil. In order to disguise their training and avoid detection, music and dance movements were incorporated. When the adults later take to the floor, the previously obscure fight element becomes apparent. Cartwheels, rhythmic movement and impressive flips are interspersed with kicks, elbow strikes and leg sweeps. The dance had suddenly become alot more intimidating. Yet at all times the combatants are smiling at each other. They are positively beaming through the kicks and jabs. Naïvely, I just think that they are only delighted with this fighting lark – sure it takes all types! I read later that capoeira is always played with a smile to symbolise that the capoeiristas are not afraid of the danger they face.
A jungle, a witch and a beast
The following day, we head back into the rainforest again to hike to Cachoeira da Feiticeira (Waterfall of the Witch) – with a name like that, it’s impossible to resist! The going is steady and, admittedly, my thighs are burning. My muscles are obviously going to have to get used to post-desk life! A noise ahead of us snaps my attention into the moment. Damien and I stare at each other. There is something growling really loudly just ahead of us. We fumble rapidly through our back packs for our minuscule pockets knives, safety whistle lying usefully on bedside table in the guesthouse. We creep forward tiny knives outstretched ridiculously before us. Hand to hand combat with a jaguar? Ehm I know who’d win! The noise gets louder and louder. We see some other tourists crouching on the path ahead of us. They are staring into the trees. Our feared adversary isn’t a jungle cat but a monkey, a male defending his territory against us, and, be to honest, I wouldn’t fancy my chances against him either! My previously burning thighs are only delighted to whisk me up the rest of the track at a trot!