Monday, May 23, 2011

Baia da Ilha Grande

Georges Moustaki, the great Jewish/Greek/Egyptian/French chanssonier,  once wrote a haunting song called Alexandrie. If you understand French (or even if you just love music) you might like to listen to it here:

He sings, as you might have guessed, about Alexandria, his coin de paradis perdu, son petit jardin defendu (lost corner of paradise, his little forbidden garden).

I can never hear that song without thinking about mine.
The Baia da Ilha Grande.

It is much-changed now from the paradise it was twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, and it will, alas, never be the same for me.
But it’s still a pretty wonderful place.

The change has come about because the good and wealthy citizens of São Paulo and Rio have taken to boating in a big way, and they have infested the place with motor yachts.

It has been transformed from one of the nicest places you could be if you had a boat to one of the nicest places you can be if you, and all of your friends and neighbors, have boats.
And that, of course, has gone a long way toward ruining it for us early pioneers.

Baia means bay, Ilha, island, and Grande, big. But there is actually an island named Ilha Grande.

And that island has given its name to a bay on the Brazilian coast between Rio de Janeiro and Santos.

You can’t see them on the scale of the map, but the island is filled with almost 400 islands, large and small, many with sandy beaches.

Many have springs and streams with fresh water.
One of them even has a private clinic with its own airstrip.

The clinic is run by the great Brazilian plastic surgeon, Ivo Pitanguy, the man who invented the buttock lift.
Wealthy women, and some very famous ones, fly-in from all over the world.
After their procedures, many of them stay on, recovering, until they’re willing to show themselves in public again.

Another island is owned by Caras, the Brazilian equivalent of People Magazine. They lure celebrities there to wine and dine, interview and photograph . And they hold parties, the invitations to which are highly-prized amongst the social set. You can fly in-and-out by helicopter. 
And many do. (Brazil has the largest fleet of private helicopters of any country in the world except the United States.)

Other islands are inhabited by simple fishermen.  They'll cook you a meal of something they’ve pulled out of the water. And charge you a pittance to do it.

Most of the islands, though, remain uninhabited; pristine bits of rainforest set like emeralds in an aquamarine sea.

The whole is encircled by a good deal of coastline, flanked by high mountains and thick jungle, largely inaccessible by road, rife with sandy beaches, springs and waterfalls.

Approaching the bay from seaward, with Ilha Grande to starboard, is Juatinga Point, a promontory capped by a lighthouse. 
The lighthouse is visible from many miles at sea and the channel is wide and deep, making it easy to approach at night. Navigation, in darkness, only becomes difficult within the bay.
Because there are lots of pesky little islands.
And lots of rocks just below the surface.
It doesn’t help, either, that there are few lights or other navigational aids.

In the days before GPS, I’d often anchor off a beach on the landward side of the Juatinga Point to wait out the night. 
There’s a little village of fisherman there. No running water, no electricity. They even turn off their kerosene lamps, shortly after dark, to conserve fuel.

Parati is a lovely village going back to colonial times.
It was the principal port for getting gold out of the State of Minas Gerais – and one of the principal ones for bringing in slaves.
There’s a wonderful literary festival held there each year.
I show some pictures of the place and write about it here:

Ilha Grade is a marvel in itself. Praia de Castellanos, Spanish Beach, situated on the ocean side, is long, unspoiled and almost always deserted. 

And Saco do Céu is a spectacular lagoon, accessible only by a sinuous channel that curves between high mountains on either hand. It is so sheltered from the wind that the water is usually dead calm.
On moonless nights, it reflects the stars like a mirror.
So you can look down and see them by their thousands.

Unfortunately, the people who own those motor yachts are buying the land encircling the water.
They've begun building houses, installing generators, and the ambient light, at night, is beginning to make it difficult to see the stars reflected off the surface of the water.
And the utter isolation of the place is a thing of the past.

Years ago, we anchored there with some friends, ladies who were members of the choir at the University of São Paulo. 
After dinner, and in the stillness of the night, they sat on deck and sang to us.
No instruments.
A capella.
With their ethereal voices, the stars twinkling above and below, the dark mountains between, and a full moon in the sky, it was an experience of transcendent beauty.

Elsewhere, in little coves around the island, there are buildings and ruins that go back to the 16th Century, beautiful to see and interesting to meditate upon.

But the island has its dark side, too.

During the time of Brazil’s most recent military dictatorship, it was the site of a notorious prison.
All sorts of nasty stuff went on behind the walls, but the main building, like the regime that bred it, has since been demolished.
A monument to the tortured and murdered political prisoners who suffered there has been erected in its place. It's the obelisk you see above.

And the fauna on the island is well-worth seeing as well. Howler monkeys, tree sloths and parrots abound in the rainforest.

Ilha Grande is one of the few places in the bay you can get to by ferryboat, but you won't need your own vessel to visit the other islands. From Rio or São Paulo, all you have to do is to rent a car, or take a bus, to Parati, or Angra dos Reis.

There you'll find many fishermen, who are familiar with every square meter of the bay.
And most of them will be happy to take you anywhere you want to go.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Every time I see one of your posts, I feel an urge welling up to visit Brazil again.

  2. Sometimes the best secrets should be just that.

  3. See? Who needed the Rapture to get to Paradise? All we need is a ticket and Leighton.

  4. Just beautiful. Thanks for the "journey."

  5. Wow Leighton what a gorgeous spot. Great photos. Did you take them? One thing I love is the varying coloration in the water. Reminds me of a couple of sailing vacation we took in the British Virgin Islands. Sounds like you have good memories of these places. We've had days and days of cloudy, rainy weather here in the Northeast US. These photos help a little.


  6. Stars above and below. A peaceful night. Music. The transcendent beauty shines through. Thank you for putting this gorgeous picture in our minds!

  7. Seems the perfect setting for a murder. Or two. Can't wait to see what you must have in mind.


  8. If I were rich, I´d book tickets immediately - eh, for the sights that is ;)

  9. Where is the first picture taken? With the pool in front and the ocean with boats in the background?
    We are going to Ilha Grande and are looking for accomodation, That looks just amazing! Would like to rent it!

  10. Hi Anna,

    That picture, I'm afraid, is a private home.
    If you're going to Ilha Grande, you're probably going to Abraão, where you'll have a choice of Hotels.
    But what you want to do is to make sure you get out of the town.
    Get the hotel keeper to find you a fisherman with a boat. And let him take you to unspoiled parts of the bay. (The bay, not just the cove.) Make sure someone translates to him the sort of things you want to see.
    Beaches where tourists don't go. Those fishermen know the bay inside out. And going with one of them is better than any excursion on a boat that is maintained exclusively for tourists.
    Bring walking shoes to climb up and see some of the waterfalls. And don't be afraid to range far afield. He'll want to economize diesel fuel. You should assure him ahead of time that you intend to keep the motor running for quite some time - and that you'll pay for it. If you're lucky, you'll run across a big school of dolphins. Unforgettable when they're jumping all around you.