28 February 2010

Ilha Grande

We left Rio on Sunday, amidst confusion of clocks and buses. You see, every single worker at our hostel neglected to tell us that daylight savings time changed. Additionally, when asking for directions to the bus station, they failed to tell us that there were multiple bus terminals in Rio. Our first surprise was arriving at super sketchy bus station with only local buses. Nobody spoke Spanish, let alone English, German or Russian. Somehow, we found a caring bus driver who put us on his bus and then took us straight-away to the central station, even though I don't think it was on his route. A little travel magic, if you please.

Upon arrival at the correct bus station (also super sketchy) we met our second surprise: our watches were an hour off. Somehow we still made our bus. Hours later and with a few minutes to spare, we barely made our ferry to Ilha Grande. Each day brings its own surprises.

Ilha Grande (pronounced Eelya Granje) is an island that is world-renown for it's beaches and wilderness. Two thoughts went through my head as we started the long boat ride. First, my brother Chris advised us to visit this island, but also warned of trouble with bus and ferry connections. I laughed inside that we too scrambled to make that connection, despite having heard his tale of woe.

Second, I felt an odd connection on the ferry, knowing that that my brother had taken that exact ferry many years before. While it isn't the most remote place in the world, I still found it deeply special that I was sharing this same experience. Here I am, years later and in a much different life and under different conditions, but doing the same thing he did.

Our first camping experience in the main port-town was rather horrible in the sense that we had hoped to camp in the park, which is not allowed. Then we hoped at least for some natural foliage. I don't know why, but all the camping in town was on hard dirt with few trees around and lots of concrete walls. Through exhaustive research, I found one campground that was an hour's hike away and was supposed to be more natural. Our information was not certain though, as we had also been told it was a two-hour hike, it didn't have lights, and it was twice as expensive. We went for it anyways.

Not only was it right on the beach and covered by trees, but we were the only ones camped there!! I guess the hour-hike put people off? It was one of the best "organized" campsite experiences I've had. So serene, peaceful, beautiful and quiet.

Now, about the island itself. Most of it is protected as national park. Sometime in the mid-90's, it was decided that no new buildings would be constructed. So, while there are buildings and houses and small towns on most of the beaches, it's still relatively untrammeled. We camped, hiked, swam, read and watched monkeys playing in the trees. Overall, we had an excellent time.

Though this island is touted as a pristine paradise, I do have some beef about accuracy of tourism advertisements. The tourist bureau likes to brag that there are few buildings, no roads and it's a pristine natural environment. This is a flat-out lie. There are numerous roads in the port town. There is a 9km road leading across the island to another town, which is home to a partially-destroyed prison. Along the road there is a trash dump. There are houses at every beach. There are dozens of cars, motorbikes, ATVs and decrepit old trucks and they are ALL used regularly. Additionally, while hiking trails cover most of the island, most travelers prefer to hire out a motor boat to whisk them away to these "pristine" beaches rather than exert oneself on the trails. Instead of roads, the waterways are directly polluted. Perhaps worst of all is that guide books and travel writes relay this myth of a perfect, roadless paradise. They should have more integrity than that. The island is protected and still worth visiting, but don't lie to tourists. Most of us are smart enough to see through it. Still, you can see from the photos that the trip was well worth-it.

The island's main town, Abraoa. The peak in the background is a hair under 1000 meters.

Coming back from a swim, we found this "guard" dog protecting our stuff. We overheard another traveler proclaim that this beach is one of the ten best beaches in the world. How do you prove that? I didn't know that there is a rating system for beaches!

The decaying facade of the century-old prison that was decommissioned in 1994. The prison might not have been dreamy, but the location couldn't be any better.

Another lovely beach, another great day.

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