Brazil’s Island of the Damned

Ilha Grande Beach

Teresa Cristina de Brito Pinheiro dos Anjos is sitting on her kitchen step watching me tie up my hammock. I have the feeling that she spends a lot of time chatting like this and at the moment she’s particularly enjoying clueing me in on unexpected risks of camping on Ilha Grande.

“It’s lucky that hammock has a sturdy mosquito-net,” she says.

I hazard a guess in broken Portuguese. “Lots of mosquitoes here then…?”

“No, no, the sea breeze keeps them away…it’s the vampire bats you have to worry about.”

I’m halfway through a trek around Brazil’s so-called Big Island. Apparently I’m now deep inside ‘bat country.’ It strikes me as somewhat surprising that nobody bothered to warn me earlier about the danger of death by vampire bat.

“My cousin was bitten a couple of weeks ago,” my new adviser continues. “The course of rabies jabs afterwards was the worse than the bites.”

I can tell she is doing her best to reassure me but I wonder if I will ever feel the same about myself after I’ve been sucked by vampires. Ever afterwards will I be forced to see myself as ‘vampire-bitten’? It’s a form of virginity that I’m reluctant to lose.

But there have been many more sinister things than vampires during the history of what was once called ‘The Island of the Damned.’ The dark period of Ilha Grande’s history began with the arrival of the British and Dutch pirates who slaughter the original Tupi cannibals and used the island as a lair from which to attack Portuguese galleons. Later Ilha Grande became even more notorious as a slave-trading centre, a quarantine island for sick immigrants and a penal colony.

The main town Abraão dates back to the time when it was the lair of the pirate Captain Abraham. Private vehicles are not allowed on Ilha Grande and Abraão has only a police beach-buggy, a fire engine and a garbage truck. The morning rush-hour is frantic though, with motor-schooners shuttling new arrivals to and from the mainland, and dive-boats heading out to reefs and wrecks around the coastline.

Few people have ever walked all the way around Big Island and reliable information is hard to come by. We set out from Abraão loaded with camping equipment and enough provisions to last us a week in the jungle.

The map of Ilha Grande is studded with names that seem to come from a set for Pirates of the Caribbean. Our path will take us past Black Beach, Blue Lagoon, Savage Beach, Adventurer Beach and Sack of Heaven Bay. At times the trail takes us along pristine Robinson Crusoe beaches, unmarked by footprints. At other times it climbs steeply into dense, humid forests where howler monkeys roared, agouti (giant jungle rats) scampered and hummingbirds buzzed between the towering bamboo.

Three days into our trek we are joined by two new travelling companions. Black Dog and The Rasta – a scraggy white mutt who will become more dreadlocked with every mile – resolutely refuse to abandon us. They are extremely contented strays, happy to remain with us purely for companionship. Although we are unable to feed them they never bother to beg when we eat. It’s harder to see wildlife with dogs charging off in attack whenever an iguana breaks cover from the brush or they catch the scent of an agouti but they’re good company and their panting ‘doggedness’ motivates us during the long, hard slogs over the hills to the south coast.

Provetá is the second largest town on Ilha Grande and the only one with any indigenous population at all. Few outsiders ever come to this most south-westerly point of the island and when we arrive the beach is occupied only by fishing boats, vultures and a few local kids splashing in the waves. We follow directions to a sandy homestead where a makeshift sign emphasises the laid-back, ‘labour-saving’ attitude of the Provetenses: ‘CMPNG’ it says.

I fall asleep to the sound of the waves – and raucous chanting from the Assembly of God church – and am woken at dawn by Black Dog stretching under my hammock. When we break camp both dogs romp out of the compound lashing their tails, happy to be on the road for another day. We have a hard morning’s climb ahead of us before Praia do Aventureiro – Adventurer Beach. Here on the blustery southern shore, the Atlantic trade-winds have stunted the trees so that shade is scarce. We are soon sweating and the Rasta is cooling her matted locks into every meager stream she can find.

It’s a humbling experience to bump into 77 year old Dona Cida on her way up the opposite side of the hill. It is a Sunday and the old lady tells us that she is on her way to church in Provetá.

“I could take the boat from Aventureiro,” she admits, patting the dogs, “but I do this every Sunday. It’s my little pilgrimage.”

Our own little pilgrimage is now more than halfway through and we’re coming to a sad point. At Aventureiro beach we’ll have to take a boat for a short trip around the Praia do Sul Biological Reserve. Special permits are needed to cross this protected area and although it is apparently possible to sneak across the park, we decide to respect the rules – and more importantly the habitat – and take a boat a few miles around to the next beach. This means we will have to say goodbye to our new travelling companions. Dona Cida already knew the dogs and we have spoken to two other people who had seen them walking with other trekkers. Black Dog and the Rasta probably know the trails of Ilha Grande better than any other creature on two legs or four and it is sad to see them watching from the jetty as our boat putters out into Adventurer Bay.

After a long walk through almost impenetrable jungle – eyes intent on every waver of our GPS – we arrive at the old ruined political prison at Dois Rios. It was primarily for this sinister institution that Ilha Grande was traditionally known as ‘A Ilha da Maldição’ – The Island of the Damned. Some of the country’s most famous writers, journalists and activists were locked up here until as recently as 1994 when the prison was finally dynamited (half-heartedly it seems).

After a long day on the trail we arrive at pretty little Caxadaço Bay just as the sun is beginning to sink and find a perfect spot in the jungle to tie up our hammocks. A cool, clear river has created a natural Jacuzzi among the rocks and I spend an hour soaking away the aches and strains of the trail and listening to the roar of the howler monkeys.

As darkness descends under the canopy fireflies of all different sizes and colours flash around our camp like phalanxes of fairies. Lying under the vampire-net enjoying the sound-and-light show of the jungle I am sorry to think that I will soon be sailing away from The Island of the Damned.


Raf Kiss ( arranges guided treks and expeditions all over Brazil.

Hidden Pousadas ( can arrange accommodation anywhere in Brazil.

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