Ilhabela  |  Hidden Gem of Sao Paulo, Brazil

When I was living in São Paulo, Brazil. My husband, Daniel, and I used to drive off the São Paulo coast for a weekend getaway. If I have to describe life in São Paulo City, that will be bustling, chaotic, and gray! However, Brazil is truly blessed by God (at least that’s what the locals always tell me.) with every struggle Brazilian are going through, regardless of political or economic reasons. Yet, Brazil stands as one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. Brazilian are very friendly as well. (Ok! I’m not saying ALL are friendly! but for sure you will get to experience Brazilian spirit).

The state of São Paulo has a coastline 370 miles (600 km) long, it possesses some of the most beautiful beaches but not as widely known as Ipanema or Copacabana beach in Rio Janeiro for many foreigners. 

We are fortunate enough to get out of our hectic work life and explore nature. There are many times that I simply couldn’t find a word to describe the beauty presenting before my eyes. 

About Ilhabela

Ilhabela is one of the off-coast islands we visit very often. This island is considered one of the most popular destinations in São Paulo, with its amazing beaches, waterfall, and rainforest.  These are a few fun facts: 

  • Ilhabela is located on the northern coast of the state of São Paulo, about 210 km from the capital city.
  • Ilhabela is the biggest sea island in Brazil; the archipelago has 340 km² and around 150 km of coastline.
  • Ilhabela means a beautiful island in Portuguese.
  • Ilhabela has more than 40 beaches, some deserted, and others equipped with complete infrastructure.
  • Ilhabela has 365 waterfalls within the island.
  • 85% of Ilhabela is UNESCO biosphere reserve. The south and east side of the island has been protected as a National Landmark. An only specific group of eco-staffs is permitted to enter. 

(Source: Ilhabela Official Website) 

How to get there?

Ilhabela is an off-coast island, which means any trip to this island will require taking a ferry from São Sebastião, which is a beach town nearby. São Sebastião is located between the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and can be accessed by car or bus from either of the two cities. 

Ferries leave every 30 minutes most of the day and operate 24 hours, you can enter the ferry by foot, car, motorcycle or bicycle.  Check out the timetable and price chart.

Where to stay?

There are several hotels in Ilhabela. We have chosen to stay at a pousada up on the hill close to Praia do Itaguaçu. We prefer this side of the location as it is leaning toward the end of the busy coastline and tend to be calmer at night. Check out the top 10 best hotel in Ilhabela

Off-road Adventures to Praia de Castelhanos

Diving, hiking, or just enjoying the beach with a caipirinha are all the activities you can do in Ilhabela, but the most popular activities are boating around the island to explore beaches. 

Ilhabela has over 40 beaches. However, Praia de Castelhanos is the one that has more story to my multicultural family. My husband Daniel has been going there since young, and it created great memories. As soon as I moved to Brazil, Ilhabela was one of the first places he brought me. We certainly plan to visit the same island once we have the opportunity to travel back to Brazil with our two little explorers. 

I would say If you visit Ilhabela, you should visit Castellanos, it is considered as the top 5 beaches in Ilhabela. Located on the east side of the island. You can only access there by boat or four-wheel Jeep that can cross the rough terrain of a natural reserve.

Castellanos used to be an exclusive local fisherman’s village, and due to the challenging road condition, it’s often for off-road adventurers. However, it’s becoming a day trip for tourists nowadays as the road has been fixed into a much better condition compared to the photo shown below.

So after the road’s been fixed. The upside is you can either rent a Jeep or join the Jeep adventure tour to experience this fantastic beach; it allows you to discover the island’s forest and hidden natural treasure. But the downside is there are more tourists nowadays. Nonetheless, it is still a peaceful beach worth visiting. 

My Multicultural Experience 

I am a Taiwanese who spend my life growing up in cities around the world like Singapore, Taipei, Boston or NYC. Even when my parents tried to engage my brother and I in nature when we were younger, hikes and trails are often well- structured, with stairs, roads, and hand bars.  

After Daniel convinced me to try on an off-road over to Castellanos, never in my life would have thought that when a Brazilian means “get in nature,” he really means… “Be in nature.” 

We spent hours inside the rainforest, of course, without any infrastructure such as a restroom, restaurants, and shops. 

It was all fun heading to Castellanos. However, the experience of exiting the rainforest was personally quite an unforgettable memory. 

I have always thought I’m quite a nature person until actually experience standing in the rainforest at 6 pm. You can imagine how tensed and uncomfortable I was. It was definitely a “step-outside-the-box” day! 

I remember telling Daniel and offroad accompanies.  “I love nature, but I’m just not sure if I want to handle animals. Please send me back to real life!!!”

As I’m begging for a way out, a Brazilian man handed me over a glass of adult drinks and said, “Relax! We have enough food and water in multiple cars for tonight. Don’t worry.” 

I seriously thought to myself: “you got a good point, but that’s not really what I meant! ” 

This multicultural experience definitely gave me a big cultural shock and drew me a fine line between “someone is trying to appreciate nature” and “someone who can handle the power of nature.” 

Cachoeira do Gato

Among all the waterfalls, our favorite has always been Cachoeira do Gato. 

We usually get to the waterfall from the Castellanos, at around 30-45 minutes of the moderate walking trail. Once you finished a 2km trip, the reward is breathtaking. 

It is the highest waterfall in Ilhabela with approximately 40 meters high, definitely recommend to visit if you have someone who is familiar with the trail as it does have some splits along the way. The trail to Cachoeira do Gato is at the end of the beach from where you climb the mountain, passing several bridges amid in nature. 

Mosquitos “Borrachudos”

Do not forget to wear REPELLENT, because borrachudos or mosquitoes in Ilhabela are unstoppable. I’ve learned it the hard way, mosquitoes will not stop biting you.

Everyone reacts to mosquitoes bite differently. Daniel could get away with OFF! Mosquito repellents. On the other hand, I need Exposis Extrême, which is a professional deep wood repellant, it can prevent 90% of the bites and alleviates the itchiness.

I believe that Ilhabela is one of the best-kept secrets for Sao Paulo. It’s quiet, clean, and beautiful.  This island can get crowded during the long weekends, holidays, and the Carnival. If you can arrange the trip on a weekday may give you a more peaceful experience.

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