Ilha Grande is an island in the Rio de Janeiro province of Brazil, about two hours by road from the city. It’s famed for being a haven of nature, a great place to go to get away from it all. And it’s certainly got a relaxed atmosphere.
To get there, you need to first find your way to Angra dos Reis, then catch a half-hour ferry across to the island. When arrived by bumpy public bus from nearby Paraty, we found that we had to wait two hours for the next ferry — but that was no problem; a waterfront bar provided us with beer and I bought some traditional Brazilian sweets from a street vendor’s cart to keep me going. The crossing was smooth and straightforward and delivered us to a wooden jetty in the middle of a sweeping bay.
No cars are allowed on the island; it was amazingly quiet after our loud journey along the highway from Paraty. The island lives up to its name by being large, but not much is inhabited; we were staying in the main township, Vila do Abraão, which boasts two main streets connected by a few narrow alleyways. The buildings all seemed to be either bars, restaurants or tourist offices, which turned into pousadas (guesthouses) the further away from the beach we walked.
Our pousada was located about 800m from the jetty, along a curving road that ended up back at the beach not far away. The hammocks on the second floor looked extremely appealing, but we had something else in mind: caipirinhas.
Caipirinha is Brazil’s national drink (or if it isn’t it should be, they drink enough of it) and can be purchased in any bar anywhere in the country; and it’s usually very cheap. The basic recipe is a mix of cachaça (a local spirit), lime, sugar and ice crushed and shaken together, though there are infinite variations: with vodka or gin instead of cachaça, with different fruit instead of lime.
After a wander around the town to orient ourselves, we headed to a beach bar for our first caipirinha on the island. It didn’t disappoint; fresh, refreshing… It was everything I had wanted after a long day of travel. Later, after a typical Brazilian dinner that included rice and beans, we came across a number of street stalls: several of the ubiquitous sweet sellers, a couple selling meat, and finally a mobile bar. I couldn’t resist; I had to have a caipirinha. The bartender whipped it up in a matter of minutes, and we continued on our way, thinking about how illegal it is in many countries to drink alcohol in the street.
We had planned to make an early start the next day, enjoying the natural beauty of Ilha Grande by doing the two-hour hike across to Lopes Mendes beach. The weather forecast wasn’t great but I hoped it might be wrong… It wasn’t. We woke up to the sound of rain drumming on the roof and decided to sleep in. Luckily it let off later on and we headed out, making good time despite the steepness of the terrain.
The way took us along two beaches, both with several buildings squatting along their lengths. Hammocks were stretched between trees and hand-written signs advertised the fact that beer was available for sale. We continued on, stopping a couple of times to check out the tiny monkeys who live in the jungle.
It wasn’t really swimming weather, but we jumped in the water to cool off after the long walk, then relaxed for an hour or so before heading back. A boat ferries walkers from the second beach back to the main settlement if they don’t want to return on foot; Craig and I waved the others off and headed back into the trees, accompanied by a small pack of dogs. One took it upon himself to be our guide, bounding ahead then waiting for us at the top of hills, looking back at us expectantly as we made our slow way up.
The way back seemed shorter though just as steep and we were tired as we trudged back to the pousada. Luckily, the nearby beach bar had caipirinhas with our names on them; we went to claim them.
The next day’s weather was similar; our dreams of lying around on the beach drinking caipirinhas was shattered. Well, not the caipirinha part — we decided to give it a go for ourselves. I headed out with Angie, one of our travel companions, to find the ingredients.
The local supermarket yielded a bottle of cachaça for the same price as one caipirinha in the beach bar, and limes and sugar weren’t hard to find. Ice posed a problem until we learned the word for it in Portuguese, after which we saw signs in shop windows advertising it for sale.
Next, we needed equipment. The pousada kitchen had a knife and chopping board for the limes, and glasses of different sizes acted as pestle and shaker. We set up our bar on the balcony of the pousada, with Angie and me as the first bartenders. I tried to imitate what I’d seen the mobile bartender do, though to be honest I hadn’t been paying much attention… It didn’t matter. Despite a lack of knowledge, experience or equipment, what came out of the shaker tasted like a caipirinha, and that was all I was going for. We sat back, sticky-fingered but satisfied, and watched the sky change colour as the sun set behind us.
We might not have been able to enjoy the natural beauty of Ilha Grande as much as we’d hoped to, but at least we got our fill of caipirinhas… which are an important part of Brazilian culture, right?