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Kayaking Ilha Grande, Exploring One Of Brazil's Best Paddling Destinations

Taking a break on a beach surrounded by bamboo forest on Ilha Grande. Photos By Tom Gaffey.

Ilha Grande is hiding in plain sight. This Brazilian isle is the jewel of the up-and-coming Costa Verde region, a lush and mountainous stretch of coastline reminiscent of Hawaii and Costa Rica. As you make the journey by bus and then ferry to reach this UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s almost unfathomable that you are just four hours south of Rio De Janeiro.

Kayaking is the best way to explore Ilha Grande. With no cars and very few roads, paddling is one of the only ways to visit the more than 100 beaches along this Brazilian island’s coast. Many larger boats can’t reach some of the more hidden and secluded beaches, which often makes kayaking the only option. From a family-friendly day paddle to an epic multi-day adventure around this tropical archipelago, Ilha Grande has a paddling adventure for everyone.

Ilha Grande is one of the top holiday spots for Brazilians and Argentinians. It’s also a top destination for backpackers escaping European winter or those in need of some tropical reprieve after hiking in the Andes. So this Archipelago isn’t exactly a secret, but as you wander the dirt roads and purchase fresh fruits, it’s easy to feel like you are one of the first people to discover this authentic island paradise.

On a recent trip to Ilha Grande, I had the good fortune of linking up with Juan Pablo Pautasso, the co-owner of Kayak SUP Ilha Grande, the best and most professional paddling tour and rental company on the island. With Pautasso’s expert navigation and knowledge of the island, I was able to uncover many of the secrets that make Ilha Grande a perfect paddling vacation destination.

Ilha Grande: How To Get There, And Why You Should Visit ASAP

Colorful fishing boat on mooring in Ilha Grande

Ilha Grande is an idyllic jungle paradise located a few miles off mainland Brazil. The 75 square mile main island is reachable in four hours from downtown Rio De Janeiro or its nearby airports. There are direct shuttle options from the airport, as well as companies that will pick you up at your hotel and facilitate the boat crossing.

You can take a ferry or a speed boat, but no car ferry. This is because there are no cars on the island, which has helped Ilha Grande maintain its wild charm. In addition to a lack of cars, there are also no large hotels or sprawling luxury resorts. Instead, there are smaller bed and breakfasts and boutique hotels mixed among backpacker hostels and local homes.

Most of the accommodations, tour operators, and restaurants are located in the main town, Abraão. This is also where the ferry and speed boats drop off. Abraão is also where I found Kayak SUP Ilha Grande, after walking a few minutes along the beach towards the lovely Julia Beach.

Getting around the island is a challenging adventure. You can hike through the dense jungle from beach to beach, take tourist or taxi boats to popular beaches, or join an expensive tour. If you are a paddling lover, you can rent a kayak or SUP board and venture out, or take a half-day, full-day, or even a multi-day tour with Kayak SUP Ilha Grande.

10 Reasons Ilha Grande Is A Top Brazil Paddling Destinations

1. The Island Is A Perfect Blend Of Jungle And Sea

One of the best reasons to take a paddling trip to Ilha Grande is its unique ecosystem. The island is an excellent and rare example of Brazil’s endangered Atlantic rainforest. It is one of the few places on the planet where you can hike through dense rainforest with fruit trees and monkeys, only to cool off moments later in the welcoming waters of the Atlantic.

Pautasso moved from a kayaking mecca in Argentina to start a paddling business in Ilha Grande because of this unique ecosystem. “I always had the dream of living in the jungle and the sea, and the island - it is the perfect combination of both,” he said.

2. Crystal Clear Warm Water

The enchanting waters of Lopez Mendez Beach, Ilha Grande.

One of the biggest draws to Ilha Grande is the water. Ilha Grande has “warm, transparent waters and rich in marine life,” recalled Pautasso. The temperature of the water is perfect for swimming throughout the year, and the visibility is fantastic for snorkeling and even scuba diving.

3. It’s A Great Way To Avoid Crowds

Another amazing reason to pick up a paddle when you visit Ilha Grande is that it is a fantastic way to escape crowds and find the wild allure this island has to offer. Even a short thirty-minute paddle will take you to beaches with hardly any other people. If you join a guided kayak tour, your guide can take you to incredible locations with no tourists.

According to Pautasso, “There are several routes to avoid the crowds since most of the boat tours offered on the island go to the same places and at the same times.” By avoiding these popular boat tour routes, kayakers can enjoy privileged locations with no crowds.

4. Amazing Wildlife Viewing

A great snorkeling break on this full-day kayak tour.

Kayaking around Ilha Grande allows you the opportunity to spot a wide array of wildlife. There are sea turtles, schools of tropical fish, giant starfish, and other marine life all around. Above there are various majestic sea birds as well as colorful tropical birds that live in the rainforest. You may even spot a monkey or two swinging from a vine on land while seated on your kayak.

5. It’s One Of The Best Modes Of Transportation

No cars on Ilha Grande makes for abundant hiking trails.

Another reason Ilha Grande is such a great place to kayak is because it is arguably the best way to explore the island. There are very few pedestrian roads. While there are hiking trails, they are often muddy, steep, and challenging.

Kayaking is a relatively easy way to enjoy beaches and coves that would otherwise be difficult or very expensive to reach. Some of the more than one hundred beaches are only accessible by small vessels like kayaks. “By rowing you can access many beaches that are difficult by boat due to their characteristics,” said Pautasso.

6. It’s Affordable

Ilha Grande is a very affordable island. The lack of cars and infrastructure has helped keep prices down. You can stay in decent air-conditioned accommodations for less than $50, and most activities are a fraction of what they would cost in the Caribbean. Kayak rentals and tours are also very reasonable, especially considering the idyllic waters and landscape, and professional services from companies like Kayak SUP Ilha Grande

7. A Short Drive From Rio De Janeiro

Rio De Janeiro is the cultural pulse of Brazil, and while Rio De Janeiro is a fun place to paddle, it is also a bustling and often overwhelming city. Ilha Grande is an easy four-hour journey from this incredible city and offers a tranquil reprieve from the wild hustle of Rio. This is one of the main reasons people visit this island on a Brazilian vacation. “It is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil and it is also a destination very close to one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the famous Rio de Janeiro,” said Pautasso.

8. Great Paddling Weather Throughout The Year

Stunning mountain views of mainland Brazil from shore.

Thanks to its tropical location and protected waters, it is possible to paddle around the big island of Ilha Grande throughout the year. With that said, some months are better than others. It gets very hot and crowded around carnival season between January and the end of February. There is also quite a bit of rain that can occur anytime between November and February. Pautasso said the best months to visit Ilha Grande for a paddling vacation are between March and July when there are fewer crowds, cooler temperatures, and a lower chance of wind and rain.

9. Ideal For Day Tours And Epic Multi-Day Excursions Alike

Launching our kayak at Julia Beach, Ilha Grande.

You can also do all sorts of paddling around Ilha Grande. You can enjoy island-hopping adventures to one of the many nearby islands, or enjoy a short and safe paddle around the main town in its protected bay. Thrill seekers can embark on a multi-day journey around the island, battle some rougher conditions on the exposed coasts, and sleep in primitive campsites. This island might not be vast, but it offers a great variety of paddling opportunities for nearly every skill level.

10. It’s A Family-Friendly Activity On A Safe Island

Ilha Grande is also a perfect place for a family-friendly paddling vacation. While Brazil doesn’t have the safest reputation, Ilha Grande is considered quite safe. There is not much crime on this small island, and it feels much more like a chill beach community than a scary foreign land.

The waters are also great for kids and novice paddlers. Some areas of the island have rougher seas, but it is easy to take a day paddle in a protected bay that the entire family can safely enjoy.

Essential Paddling Routes Around Ilha Grande

Kayak SUP Ilha Grande is the best spot for tours and rentals in Ilha Grande.

Ilha Grande is a real create-your-own-adventure type of paddling destination. Depending on your skill level, the weather, and your interests you can embark on a range of different kayak trips. Some simple trips involve visiting beaches near the main town of Abraão. This is where most companies are located, and it is a safe and logistical starting point for nearly every excursion. One popular option is a full-day excursion that starts and ends from this main hub by joining a tour like the one I enjoyed.

When describing this essential day trip, Pautasso said, “We travel about 20 kilometers leaving from the main town of the island named Abraão, visiting more than 10 beaches, many of them desolated and surrounded by calm waters.”

For those looking for an unforgettable and epic multi-day paddling excursion, you can also paddle with a tour guide around the entire island. This journey is more than 100 kilometers and requires a few nights of camping along the shore. This is a great option for those on longer trips to the island who want to fully immerse themselves in all this place has to offer.

Things To Bring On Your Kayaking Vacation To Ilha Grande

Views of the stunning hidden bays of Ilha Grande.
  • Cash: The island is pretty old school, and there is currently only one ATM on the island, which may or may not have money in it when you need it. It’s best to bring plenty of cash for your stay.

  • Bug Spray: While ocean breezes help keep bugs at bay on the beach, as soon as you step off the beach you are in mosquito territory. Bring plenty of reliable bug spray to last you your entire visit.

  • Your Appetite: Ilha Grande has some amazing food at reasonable prices (especially for an island). Enjoy great seafood and incredible fresh tropical fruits.

  • Sun Screen: Bring a reliable sunscreen. They sell sunscreen on the island if you need some, but it’s best to use a brand you know and trust to avoid a bad reaction.

  • Snorkel Gear: Companies have snorkel gear for rent, but the quality is sometimes questionable. Bring your mask so you don’t miss out on the great marine life viewing opportunities while kayaking.

  • Waterproof Phone Case: Hardly a moment will go by when you won’t want to snap a picture while kayaking around Ilha Grande. Make sure you have a reliable waterproof phone case so you can easily and safely take photos while paddling.

  • Quick Dry Towel: With so many beaches, it’s important to have a towel. A quick-dry towel makes it possible for you to enjoy a dry towel at each beach.

Final Thoughts On Ilha Grande As A Kayaking Destination

For paddling lovers looking for a vacation that involves tropical beauty and wild adventure, Ilha Grande is an ideal option. This car-free island oozes tranquility and authenticity - from its affordable low-key accommodations to its incredible food and kind hospitality.

Kayaking is not only a great way to see many of this island's best beaches without crowds of people, but it is also one of the best modes of transportation. Best of all, it’s an easy trip from bustling Rio De Janeiro, even though once you step foot on its warm beaches you are guaranteed to feel like you are a world away.

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