Ilhabela, Brazil

All you need is love, family, a bicycle and a beautiful island


You know those moments when you are flying into a city at night and have a window seat? The silent view of the streetlights and cars and the feeling of looking down on somewhere that could be any town or city in the world, you are suspended above it all for just a few moments.

We stood on the hillside, in front of the car with the moon and stars for quiet company. I was leaning on the warm engine and everyone else stood off to my left, silently looking down on the islands lights and the outline of the mountains on the mainland. Each street and house was visible but only made sense as a whole and although we didn’t speak, much like passengers in an aircraft on the descent, the world around us certainly wasn’t quiet. The sounds of the rainforest behind, the changing gears of cars and the singing and drumming coming from where the inhabitants of Ilhabela were practicing their shows for carnival.

A tropical landscape. View from Aqua Branca towards the mountains. 

I have loved the last month, travelling along the coast of Brazil with my husband and a backpack. The excitement and anticipation of a new city or beach town, coach ride or place to stay. It has challenged my perceptions of Brazil (built up over 14 years of visiting this country), challenged my ability to deal with situations that are stressful or out of my control but mostly it has made me realise that as much as I love to explore new places and have new experiences, I am happiest doing so with family or people I love. The moments stick in my mind far more clearly and intensely when shared with people you have a shared past with.

Deserted northern beaches. 


Waterfall pools in Ilhabela state park. 

Ilhabela means beautiful island and is just that. An 8 hour coach ride south of Rio or 3 hours from Sao Paulo, it’s thousand meter peaks were formed over 80 million years ago and are now swathed in lush sub tropical ‘Mata Atlantica’ rainforest with a diverse flora and fauna.

In Scotland, I tend to be drawn to what I consider the ‘working islands’, the ones that don’t shut down and hibernate when the tourists leave. That still have a rich community, an economy not totally dependant on visitors. Ilhabela is this island for me, in Brazil. A huge draw to Brazilian tourists and mainly Paulistas (residents of the city of São Paulo), plus the odd cruise ship docks for a few hours on its route between Santos and Rio but I have met very few Europeans or North Americans here. Ok, admittedly I have never visited in the 6 weeks of the Brazilian summer holidays but every day is summer here and the thirty thousand plus inhabitants continue to work, go to school, play on the beach and live their lives year round.

High up on the Castelehanos road through the mountains

14 years ago, I stood on a ferry boat with my Grandfather, Ray / Gigi (who, if you are a friend or you’ve read any previous posts, will know he was a very influential and important person to me). We stood looking at this huge mass of land rising out of the ocean. It appeared to stretch forever both north and south and from a distance almost appears uninhabited, I was certain I was about to step into Jurassic Park. And here I am again, with my cousins (Peter and Chris who live here) and husband, Paul, for three weeks. Exploring, undertaking some serious relaxing and doing what I love the most; exchanging stories, jokes and laughter with people who have a seriously special place in your heart. Gigi will always be missing from these moments now, but I still hear or see him in the expressions on Peters face or the inquisitiveness about the world my cousin Chris has. And sat on the terrace, with the firefly’s and bats flying by, a cold beer and a warm night, he could be sat with us. Sometimes I am so sure of it. In the UK, my memories of him are changing or fading and I ache to cling onto them. But somehow, on Ilhabela, where he spent many, many holidays since the 1940’s, and many with me throughout his 80’s, he is still here and the memories are so solid. As if he will just walk back onto the terrace with a cold beer and a book at any moment.

Visiting family in Brazil 2003. Left to right (me, Luna, my grandfather Ray / Gigi, Peter and Chris)

This is Ilhabela for me. But for others, who should definitely visit the island if you are ever in Brazil, Ilhabela can be an escape from the Brazil of 2017. One year, when stood on the ferryboat with my suitcase, an Italian gentleman turned to me and said ‘Oh Ilhabela! Brazil of the 1950’s’. And so it is, a slower, safer and more relaxed pace of life but no less vibrant, exciting or adventurous.

Thinking of visiting Ilhabela? An idea of places to go and things to do, coming soon very soon.

Sunset over the mainland from Pereque, Ilhabela
Praia de Castelhanos
We played a lot of Fresco Ball
An if we weren’t swimming, we still had a dip in one of many waterfalls on the island
With my grandfather on Ilhabela, 2006
In memory of Ray (Gigi). Who loved this place. 


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