After Rio I headed to the beautiful island of Ilhabela (which I think literally means beautiful island). This is a very quiet place, busier on weekends when the crowds from Sao Paolo want to escape the dirtiness of the city and sit on a beach.
I caught an overnight bus from Rio with sleeper seats. It makes more sense to do it this way as it saves a night’s accommodation and also means I wasn’t travelling during the day when I could be on a beach instead!
I stayed in Hotel Guanambis which had a beautiful view West towards Sao Sebastiao – the port town where you catch the ferry to the island. It’s on the very steep hill just up from the fish fountain. The hotel is clean, the staff are friendly (they don’t speak English however) and the breakfasts are awesome –best yogurt I’ve ever had! Power-walking up a steep hill a few times a day meant I walked off all the good food.
There’s not an awful lot to do on the island. I did a day trip to one of the more remote beaches called Castelhanos – it’s within a national park and can only be reached by jeep – but the jeep broke down literally 2km from the park so I ended up walking about 7km before another jeep tour saw me and offered me a ride – good job as it had started raining. The beach itself is ok – on a sunny day it would be lovely but on a cloudy wet day it was mediocre, given that there are so many mosquitos and sandflies. Some people rented boards for the day.
There’s some lovely restaurants in town, and it was a 3km walk from where I was staying, easy enough to do. You can also get the bone-shaking bus which is 3.50 Real (about 80p) and takes 10 mins. Despite the surf beaches, waterfalls and laid back atmosphere, unlike Ilha Grande, which is closer to Rio and party central for the great unwashed (and has some fantastic short hikes and cheap eating/drinking), there is a distinct lack of backpackers here and most of the visitors are Brazilian. English is not commonly spoken, but you can get by with basic Spanish.
This was in some ways a period of relaxation for me as I was preparing for Bolivia. I spent my days running by the beach, swimming and tanning in the stunning pool at the hotel. There’s a lot of fast food restaurants but a decent sushi chain. One night I ate at the Irish pub with one of the Chileans in my hotel (not Irish at all so it’s a bloody cheek really – I had something called Galway salmon which was a fillet doused in packet cheese sauce, salty soggy vegetables and rice), however Mozzarella in Vila is amazing – it’s just down from the church, which is worth a mention in itself for the soulful statue of Jesus outside and it’s pretty white and blue exterior. The gelato shop opposite is good for dessert.
There’s a few places you can rent pushbikes – there is a decent bike path up to Vila – however after that it's a game of Russian Roulette as the road gets narrow, steep and precarious and cars whiz past on tight bends, blaring their horns, flashing their lights and not slowing one iota. Quite a few got the finger and some choice words from yours truly as they skimmed past me within inches. At that point I was pushing the bike up and down hills, bashing my legs with the pedal and cursing the fact that I had hired it because after Vila it becomes a liability unless you are an experienced cyclist, which I’m not. I also quite like life. You can actually get a bus up to the lighthouse on the north west of the island which was my ultimate destination. There seemed to be some nice little beaches and cute restaurants north of Vila. It would be a good place to have a car or 4 wheel drive.
I liked running alongside the beach in the evenings just as the sun was going down and then watching the sunset.
I had 3 good days of weather out of 6, and so didn’t get to climb the mountain or see any of the waterfalls - of which there are several and feel like there's a lot I missed out on. Diving is possible –they have a number of shipwrecks around the island dating back from the 1800’s right up until the 1970’s, and there is a board on the bike path to Vila which tells you about them in detail. In the 1800’s the island was part of the trading route between Europe and Brazil, but the choppy waters around the north and south tip claimed several lives – the boats seem to be mainly carrying post and coffee. They weren’t going out the weekend I was there unfortunately and with the weather the vis wasn't great.
This island would be amazing with a large group, however as a solo traveller I found it peaceful, but a bit quiet. You can find some more Ilhabela pictures on my Flickr page.
After six days of doing bugger all in Ilhabela, it was off to Sao Paolo for two nights. I have to say I wasn’t excited about this experience, but booked to stay in the Novotel as I knew a) the wifi would be fast and b) it had a decent restaurant in case going out on my lonesome wasn’t an option given all the horror stories I’d heard about SP being one of the murder capitals of the world. The bus journey over is pretty with stunning rolling hills and jungle. It takes about 4 hours to reach the outskirts of Sao Paolo which is a depressing sight. The buildings are concrete, unimaginative and covered – literally covered – in graffiti. I don’t know how half of it got there as it’s so high they must have had some sort of cherry-picker crane to be able to do it – I kept looking for spotty rebellious teenagers dangling from windows whilst their friends firmly gripped their ankles, spraying their tags upside down! There’s tons of interesting street art in Rio, but for the most part the stuff you see in SP is just plain, ugly, scrawling. It’s a shame as it’s an urban jungle with very few aesthetics and not much to recommend it. A link to my Ilhabela album on Flickr is here.
The hotel I stayed in was built in the fifties and several famous people visited including Hollywood elite, The Queen, Marilyn Monroe and Ginger Rogers, not to mention several esteemed politicians and Brazilian stars, and there are some interesting photos in the lobby.
The next day I walked past the hookers and drug dealers on Avenida Augusta to Avenida Paulista, which is like the Fifth Avenue of SP. It’s a busy street, chockful of traffic and shopping centres. If this had been the last stop on my trip my backpack would have been full of cool clothes to go home with but I have enough to carry as it is. From Paulista I headed to Ibirapuera Park - the equivalent of Central Park if we’re keeping with the NYC theme - a beautiful piece of green slap bang in the middle of SP. Here everyone is out running, cycling, working out, walking their dogs and playing with their kids. It’s a large park but easy to walk around in a couple of hours, fabulous people-watching. There’s two big lakes with loads of birds including swans and pretty bridges. It’s a lovely place to hang out for the day, or if you have a few days, somewhere nice to get your daily dose of exercise.
From here I walked up Avenida Brasil – full of massive mansion homes and media trendy businesses but with a weird absence of any human life so more like an abandoned Stepford Wives movie set where you wonder what is going on behind closed doors - and then cut back up one of the leafy sidestreets – Argentina I think - and a ridiculously steep hill, back to Paulista. Avenida 9 de Julio is a pretty street, parallel to Augusta but a world apart. Augusta sums up the term ‘the other side of the tracks’ with aplomb. 9 de Julio is full of cafes and the beautiful people whilst Augusta is full of hookers, graffiti and decidedly dodgy looking characters, many of whom seemed to be talking to themselves. I ate in a wonderful Italian restaurant, very close to the hotel, called Famiglia Mancini which has a stunning décor, live music, an excellent wine menu and delicious home-made pasta. It seemed to be jam packed full after 9pm, with a buzzy atmosphere. It’s no 23 of restaurants in SP on Tripadvisor.
Like Ilhabela, I think SP is somewhere best enjoyed with excellent company and perhaps a local who can show you the hotspots, but 2 days was more than enough for me by myself. Next stop, Bolivia!