Ilhabela literally means ‘Beautiful Island’ and it’s easy to see why this Brazilian archipelago is so adored. The islands are a favourite among beach lovers and water sports enthusiasts and its main island, Ilha de São Sebastião, is the largest island off Brazil’s coast.
Ilha de São Sebastião, often called Ilhabela, hosts several sailing competitions and is home to stunning volcanic beaches, dense jungle, waterfalls and tropical birds. With eighty per cent of the island designated a national park and a UNESCO protected biosphere, Ilhabela boasts natural beauty aplenty, some of which is so isolated that it’s reachable only by boat.
Dive among shipwrecks
Well situated off the coast between Brazils’ two largest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Ilhabela is hugely popular among Brazilians for its diving. Despite the calm waters, there is a large concentration of shipwrecks to the south and east of the island where the remains of over one hundred 19th and early 20th century ships lie at the bottom of the Atlantic. The Museu Nautico Ilhabela, a small, well cared-for museum takes you through the history of famous shipwrecks in Ilhabela along with legends of the local people and objects found in the wrecks.
Legend has it that English pirates used to sail around Ilhabela where they are said to have hid treasures pillaged from Spanish galleons loaded with gold – now’s your chance to strike it rich at sheltered Saco do Sombrio, reputed to be a favourite hiding place among pirates!
A multitude of diving points means opportunities for all abilities are plentiful, from simple snorkelling to the most challenging of dives. Aside from ships’ treasures and components, there’s also a host of sea life to marvel at, including coral reefs, anemones and parades of colourful fish.
Bask on stunning beaches
Ilhabela is graced with almost 40 kilometres of pristine beaches, twenty two of which line its western shores. Whether you love or hate the crowds, it’s a good idea to bear in mind some of the most popular stretches:
- Praia Grande – A great beach if you are looking for the convenience of amenities like kiosks, shaded tables, beach beds, showers and even a chapel. The beach is also popular with divers, windsurfers and surfers. Its sands are thick and golden and home to a small, picturesque river.
- Praia da Armação – White sands and calm seas make this beach popular for both sunbathers and water sports enthusiasts while it’s also a favourite for snorkelling and sunset walks. Praia da Armação is busy most of the year and, like Praia Grande, boasts tourist amenities, including plenty of parking, bars, restaurants and parasol and beach chair rentals.
- Praia do Curral – Another one of Ilhabela’s famous beaches, Curral is particularly popular with the young crowd. The waters are clear and slightly rough and harbour the 1921 wreck of the ship Aymoré near Ponta do Ribeirão, a favourite for divers. A large green area of trees serves as a welcome refuge if you need a break from the sun. The full range of beach side amenities keep you fed and watered, some with the addition of live music and parties.
Hike to picture-perfect waterfalls
The island is in fact a magnet for all kinds of nature enthusiasts from bird watching amblers (there are 300 bird species on the island) to more serious hikers. Relaxed Robinson Crusoe types also find it perfect for simply swinging in a hammock and listening to the sounds of nature.
Most of Ilhabela is preserved within a 270 square kilometre natural park known as Parque Estadual de Ilhabela which contains both land and sea treasures, most of which are best explored on an organised excursion. However, should you want to go it alone, an easy solo outing is the three kilometre walk inland from Praia de Feiticeira to Cachoeira da Toca, an idyllic waterfall boasting several cascades and pools, in addition to rope swings and a zip line.
Ilhabela contains over three hundred waterfalls and hikers can set off on any of a number of trails which lead to them – two of the most popular falls are the Cachoeira dos Três Tombos from Feiticeira Beach and nearby Trilha da Água Branca.
Set sail in perfect conditions
It’s small wonder that Ilhabela is known as “the capital of sailing”. Calm waters and strong winds that blow between the island’s northern tip and the continent are perfect for sailing. The prestigious Rolex International Sailing Week takes place here and is the largest sailing competition in Latin America, attracting around 1,500 participants in July. It’s easy to book yourself private sailing lessons or rent a yacht – ask at your hotel or the nearest tourist information office.
If you are after a little more relaxation on the water, boat rides take you to the island’s more remote beaches, fishing spots and smaller islets, while bobbing along in a kayak is also a popular way to see the island from the sea.
If diving amongst shipwrecks and hiking to waterfalls has inspired you to head to Brazil, take a look at our cover options and travel insurance information for Brazil. For destinations further afield, explore worldwide travel insurance.