Guide to Ilhabela: The Beautiful Island
Recently I traveled to an archipelago appropriately named “Ilhabela,” which literally translates to “beautiful island,” located four miles off the northern coast of the state of Sao Paulo. The island is about 205km from the city of Sao Paulo and 340km from the city of Rio de Janeiro and is known for its beautiful beaches, waterfalls, hiking trails, and ruthless borrachudos (mosquitos).
To get to Ilhabela you must take a ferry boat from the city of Sao Sebastiao. Busses to Sao Sebastiao run from the Tiete terminal in Sao Paulo often, and cost around R$65 one way. Once you arrive in Sao Sebastiao the ferry to Ilhabela runs every hour from midnight to 6pm and every half hour from 6pm to midnight. The 15 minute ferry ride is free for pedestrians and cost around R$30 if you’re traveling with a car.
On the Island travel by car is primarily limited to the West side, where the North and South are connected by one main road running along the coastline. There are a few unpaved roads that connect the West side to the East side but they require a 4×4 vehicle. Without a 4×4 vehicle you can only access most the East side by boat or by foot. Because of this, I chose to spend my time on the beautiful island exploring the West side. At the time of this posting (12/18), I was unable to find Uber services on the Island, but regular taxis were a relatively easy find.
What to see & do
Swim with the turtles at Praia de Portiho
This small strip of sand is located about 4km south of the ferry with parking, a playground, two bars, two piers and transparent waters perfect for diving or snorkeling. On the left (South) side of the beach there are many rock formations where you can be almost sure to find sea turtles visible from the pier above, or by snorkeling around the rocks.
Walk Cachoeira Tres Tombos
Translated from Portuguese this means “three waterfall tumbles.” These three waterfalls, can be found on the southwest part of the island. You can reach Tres Tombos by car or bus, but if you come by bus you will have to walk up the steep paved road that leads you to the entrance, and if you arrive by car you can drive right up to the entrance. I visited these falls twice, and if you have the option to arrive by car, I would recommend it. Entrance is free, unlike the other two falls mentioned later in this post, and the trail is easy. It is a wide path, with frequent stairs, and a handrail available most of the time that it’s needed. I would recommend following the trail to the highest of the three waterfalls, then stopping at the other two falls on your way back down. Take care when playing in the water, the rocks can be very slippery.
Visit Cachoeira da Toca
Cachoeira da Toca was easy to reach and is well maintained. Open from 9-5 daily, it costs R$25 per person to enter and you will find bathroom facilities, a distillery, a small snack bar, and an insect repellent station on site. This attraction consists of three small waterfalls, with swimming areas at each one and a rock slide at the last fall that you can ride as many times as you’d like. The falls alone were a little underwhelming in my opinion, but we enjoyed a picnic lunch there and had a nice time relaxing and watching people on the slide. There are a lot of borrachudos here but if you use the provided oil you should be fine. After you’re done visiting the falls you can sample and buy locally produced cachaça, and even tour their distillery if you’d like.
Climb Cachoeira Paqueta
Also located on the southwest side of the island, this was by far, my favorite waterfall on Ilhabela. But it does not come without a price; the climb to the top is not easy, and I would not recommend it for anyone who is not adventurous and in good shape. If you drive to the entrance you will pay R$15 to park, we stopped a few hundred meters before this and paid R$10 to park (cash only). The first half of the trail leads you to the bottom of the fall, where there is a large swimming area, full of chilly but refreshing water. Once you reach this point you can swim or relax and picnic on the rocks. After visiting the bottom of the fall you can go back down or you can choose to cross over to the right side of the water and climb your way to the top by staying just to the right of the falls. When I say climb, I mean climb. My partner Filipe was wearing flip flops and this caused him a lot of difficulty. Do not attempt this climb without proper shoes (active sandals or sneakers), bug spray, a sense of adventure, and being physically fit. The path is often steep, slippery, and confusing.. but oh so worth it. After the climb you’re rewarded with a beautiful view over the infinity pool formed by cachoeira Paquetá.
Relax on Praia Juliao
This simple beach was my favorite of the ones I visited on the beautiful island. Street parking was relatively easy, beach access is free, and there are large trees providing plenty of shade if you want it. There is a small counter bar at the entrance of the beach serving drinks, as well as a restaurant on the south end where you can lounge in reclining chairs with an umbrella enjoying a cold beer and camarao frito com alho (fried shrimp with garlic). These shrimp are a delicious local favorite, but be warned, they are eaten whole, with the skin on, a concept I’m still getting used to.
Walk the trail to Piscina Natural
I was exposed to this natural pool by a local friend, it can be tricky to get to but it is worth the effort if you’re able. Located near Ponta Da Sela, you can find a wooden pedestrian gate on the West side of the road, and usually a few cars parked on the street just South of the gate. This hike is not for children or people who are not physically fit. The path is confusing, but here is the best explanation I can provide: Go through the wooden pedestrian gate on the west side of the road, walk a narrow path of stairs through low trees to find yourself spit out onto a cobblestone road inside a condominium, follow the road towards the sea where you’ll walk through another small wooded area leading you to where the water meets giant stones. Turn right (north) to climb the stones until you find yourself at a beautiful natural pool. The water is cold and clear and if you’re up for it you can jump and dive off the surrounding rocks into the pool while waves crash into the rocks on the other side.
Dance the night away
As with most places in South America, night life on Ilhabela starts late, and runs into the early morning hours. The downtown is small but lively, especially Wednesday-Saturday. On Wednesday nights the place to be is Estaleiro, hosting the weekly forro party. Forro is a party and style of music that originated in Northern Brasil sometime around the turn of the century. This music style involves many instruments and can be challenging to define, but I was told by an island local that if you can hear the triangle instrument in the music, it’s likely forro. We also found stages hosting free live music on the beach on the weekend as well as a lovely craft beer bar named Blackwood Brewery, who’s owner, Claudio, was beyond welcoming to us.
Ilhabela is a magical place, hosting blue seas, sandy beaches and breathtaking waterfalls, but you should take proper preparations to avoid the borrachudos. These sneaky, mosquito like bugs, bite you during the day quicker than you can notice them. My adventure on Ilhabela started 2.5 weeks ago and I’m still itching on my lower legs from the pesky bugs. Listen to the locals, and use the good repellent, all of the time, on all of your body.
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