Ihla Grande

We woke up Thanksgiving morning in a beautiful place on the coast of Brazil – a great reminder that I have so much to be thankful for.

Even though we’re in an awesome place and genuinely having a wonderful time, holidays spent away from family are always a bit odd – I miss the people, the food, the traditions… so I spent a few minutes in the morning thinking of family and friends back home, sending good vibes and wondering what everyone would be doing to celebrate. I searched the hotel’s breakfast spread for a pumpkin muffin, perhaps a pumpkin waffle, maybe even a pumpkin coffeecake… sadly, the buffet was pumpkin-free and I resigned myself to the standard hotel breakfast fare – fruit, breads, cheeses, juices, etc. We watched the drizzle outside on the beach while sipping coffee and then packed up and checked out. We had places to go.

Our next stop was Ihla Grande, an island off the coast near Paraty:

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Ihla Grande is well known as an eco-tourism destination (it’s basically only big chunk of Atlantic rainforest), but also because the largely undeveloped island has banned private vehicles. Wolf had been there years ago and was eager to see what might have changed, so we booked a bus and a boat to find out. After a couple of hours in the bus we stopped at a little port town and made our way to the dock to see this little beauty pulling up:

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We jumped in along with all the other tourists on their way out to Ihla Grande. The best part about the boat ride was the driver who must have learned to drive by watching old movies where they’re constantly turning the wheel back and forth. I guess he just wanted to take an active role in the whole process :) A bit of drizzle and gray skies weren’t exactly the perfect start to a few days on an island, but the ride was pretty nonetheless and certainly helped clear the head.

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Luckily, our arrival in Ihla Grande deposited us a few hundred feet away from the hostel we had blindly booked the night before. This was lucky mostly for Wolf who probably would have otherwise had the pleasure of dragging our suitcases across the beach. Our hostel was located at one end of a stretch of sand, about half a mile from the main town, Abraão. The setting couldn’t have been better – perched on the water, and across the bay full of boats, a view of the town backed by a jungle-covered peak.

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I know I’m getting old because when we told the guy running the boat where we were staying and he responded that there was an awesome BBQ and a party at our hotel that night, my reaction was one of dread… (spoiler alert – I was right). After checking and seeing our room I was further dismayed – the setting was awesome but the hostel itself left a lot to be desired. Now, I don’t think I’m all that picky when it comes to lodging – I don’t need anything fancy, but I do generally hope for things to be clean and functional. Our second floor private room seemed awesome at first blush, with a hammock hanging outside the door with a view of the bay. Inside was another story. When the girl showing us our room opened the door she seemed confused to see a few personal items sitting on the nightstand – a bottle of bug spray, a hair clip and a couple of items in the bathroom. She asked us to wait, went back and checked the computer to make sure the room was free. She came back looking relieved, took another look into the room, checked the bathroom, and left telling us we were all set. Walking in to check it out myself, I was a bit confused. Granted, she had removed the bug spray and the hair clip, but she didn’t seem too concerned about the used towels in the bathrooms, the used shampoo bottles cluttering the windowsill, the shower that certainly hadn’t been cleaned, the dirty towels hanging on the hammock outside… I didn’t get it. The best part was the door to the bathroom. Forgive my poor photography skills, but here’s a shot of the outside and inside of the door handle:

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For you engineers out there, you may notice a few things: 1) There is no handle on the outside, and 2) the handle on the inside is completely mangled, presumably from all the people who have locked themselves in the bathroom due to the fact that there is no handle on the outside…

So that was a nice touch. We found the missing half of the handle behind the half-used bottles of shampoo and, when we brought it to the front desk, I said “Our bathroom door handle is broken off and doesn’t work – here is the handle”. The response I got was “Ha ha. Ok, don’t worry about it!”. Umm. Confused. I guess in my head, I thought I was communicating that I secretly hoped for a bathroom door that a) closed, and b) wouldn’t leave me locked inside. Apparently that didn’t come across correctly…

I didn’t want the negative hostel experience to influence my opinion of Ihla Grande so we got the heck out of there and went for a stroll. The only way into town is to walk along the beach, and so we did just that. We slowly walked into town, enjoying the thought that we were lucky enough to be spending Thanksgiving together on a tropical island.

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Without cards on the island, or roads for that matter, the vibe is pretty chill and the town is not all that big. Eventually we found a beach bar with Wifi and we skyped with family gathered at my Dad’s house for Thanksgiving. I was so happy to be able to chat with them, all while sitting in the sand, sipping a beer. Wolf was also able to call his parents and get updates from home as well as regale a few tales of our trip. We sat there until sunset, spending our Thanksgiving evening surrounded our new best friends – a couple of friendly stray dogs :)

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After grabbing sweaters, we walked back into town for dinner, settling on the Kebab Lounge – very Thanksgiving sounding, don’t you think? We ordered “Thai BBQ Fish Kebabs” and we were blown away. I don’t know what they put in the marinade but it was AMAZING. And for dessert, a chocolate and peanut crepe-type thing. Also amazing. Hands down, the best meal of our trip so far. Fitting that we had it on Thanksgiving.

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We made it back to the hostel feeling full and happy, and decided to round out the night by watching Back to the Future Part II (we’re really stuck on the classics right now). We didn’t make it very far before we heavy eyelids set in and we called it quits. Just when I had fallen asleep, the BBQ party must have reached a critical mass. Between the music and the yelling, I should have just given up and gone to the party. Instead, I lay awake for a few hours, trying desperately to drown out the noise with a pillow, eventually resorting to a couple of Tylenol PMs.

Both Wolf and I woke up the next morning dragging after what seemed like no sleep at all. To top it off, I must have made a nice Thanksgiving meal for a family of mosquitos because I woke up with some huge welts on my arms and legs… The only thing that saved the day was this view from the breakfast table:

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Isn’t he great? The view was OK, too.

Although we were both feeling a bit grumpy, we wanted to enjoy our only full day on Ihla Grande, and we set out for a hike across the island to Praia Dois Rios. Wolf thought that he’d done this hike years ago and so we set out without a map or much info, assuming we’d figure it out along the way. We stopped in town to grab some picnic supplies and water. After a false start and directions from a local, we found the trailhead marking the start of the 8.3km trail out to the beach and we began our ascent, out of the town and up into the jungle. For about 4km we climbed up and up and up, until finally reaching the crest and starting back down the other side of the island towards our destination.

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Along the way we heard howler monkeys in the trees, howling their little hearts out, and sounding like a cross between a chorus of frogs and a dying animal. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any actual monkeys, but Wolf enjoyed spotting a huge earthworm the size of his size 13 shoe:

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This day may end up being one of my favorite memories of the trip. The trail through the jungle and up and over the island was beautiful and peaceful; during the 16km trip, we only ran into 5 people on the trail. More than that, it was an awesome time for Wolf and me to just chat and enjoy hanging out. We had the chance to talk a lot about our upcoming wedding, worked out some of the logistics we’d each been mulling over separately, and smiled a lot about how lucky we are to be marrying each other :)

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The trail ended in what looked like a partially-inhabited ghost town: mostly abandoned buildings alongside boulevards overgrown with weeds, and then every so often, a home with laundry outside and a satellite dish on the roof.

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A guard standing in a thatched roof hut waved us over and asked us to sign in. I was baffled as to what we were signing in for – to enter the town? We left our names with the guard and headed to check out the abandoned prison, which we learned was shut down and imploded in 1994. The whole place had a weird vibe so we made our way to the beach which was certainly was not weird at all – it was lovely. (Warning – gratuitous bathing suit pictures ahead – apologies in advance for horrible tan lines and bodies which may be unprepared for bikini season).

A bay a couple of miles long, rimmed with white sand and backed by the jungle-covered peaks we had just hiked… it was a perfect. And we basically had it all to ourselves, aside from a handful of folks who came and went. We found a shady spot to stash out things and then jumped in the water – the crystal clear water felt awesome after a long, hot hike. After a little swim we put together our sandwiches on the beach and hung out watching big crabs sneaking in and out of their holes in the sand all around us.

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Eventually we packed up and walked the length of the beach, stopping to check out shells and enjoy the view.

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We dutifully signed out with the guard on our way out and headed back to the trail, followed by a family of cute little monkeys who scaled the power lines above our head on the way out of Dois Rios.

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We climbed back up the peak, and down the other side. Wolf found more creepy-crawly things that fascinated him – like this group of ants and big, flying, ant-like things… And I realized that I don’t really like many things that are creepy or crawly :) We tried a side trail that seemed like a shortcut, until we came across a huge colony of ants – it must have been thousands – who were all migrating towards us on the trail. At that point, I bailed back to the main trail, much to Wolf’s disappointment. We finished the last of our water about ¾ of the way back and by the time we made it back in town we were parched and immediately stopped for huge waters and gatorades, which we enjoyed sitting on the beach and congratulating ourselves on a day well spent. After showers, we rewarded ourselves by going back to the same restaurant for dinner and ordering the exact same meal as the night before. Why mess with a good thing?

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