Ilhabela, or Beautiful Island, on Ilha de São Sebastião in the state of São Paulo, certainly lives up to its name. Discovered in 1502 by Américo Vespúcio, the island has a long history of defense against foreign naval powers, pirate's refuge, black market slavery, smuggling base and failed colonial efforts at sugar and coffee plantations.
About 85% of the island’s almost 350,000 square miles is within Ilhabela State Park, with further development not allowed.
Most of the development is on the west coast facing the mainland, and the island’s economy is based on tourism.
There is great 35 km of beaches, a coastal Atlantic rain forest, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, to explore, mountain peaks to climb and over 400 cool waterfalls cascading into the ocean. Add to that legend of pirate treasure, underwater wrecks to explore, great sailing, enough to make Ilhabela's annual Sailing Week a must, and you've got the makings of an attractive vacation destination.
From the top of Pico São Sebastião, the island's highest spot at 4521 ft (1378 m) on the northern coast, you can look over the tops of trees to the water, catch a glimpse of local wildlife, and perhaps see. at the southern end of the island, the Ilhas das Cabras, part of the Santuário Ecológico de Ilhabela, devoted to the preservation of marine wildlife. You can also see the other islands in the archipelago: Vitória, Búzios, Serraria, and Cabras.
The archipelago is about 130 square miles total, with about 84 miles of coastline.
Enjoy this Virtual Tour photos with descriptions in Brazilian.
Ilhabela is located 210 miles south of Rio de Janeiro and 138 miles north of São Paulo. Check flights from your area to either city. You can also browse for hotels and car rentals.
From São Paulo, it’s approximately three hours by car to São Sebastião. From there, there's a 15-20 minute ferry ride to Barra Velha on the island, with bus connections to the hamlet of Vila Ilhabela, also called the Centro. See the Access Map.
Ilhabela is vastly popular with sailors, so there are marinas and guest berths available.
There is a helicopter pad in the east coast, where you might also arrange a tour of the island.
When to Go
Average annual temperature is the 70s F, which makes Ilhabela a year-round favorite.
Summer or high season, and weekends are crowded with people from the mainland looking for a break. Off season or during the week means less crowded conditions, although there are beaches where you can find a private spot for sunbathing or communing with nature.
For diving, the best months are spring through summer, October to March. For sailors, the place to be is Ilhabela during Sailing Week in July when international sailors participate in races and regattas. Since the coast between São Sebastião and Rio de Janeiro is popular cruising water, there are numerous facilities for sailors.
Check today's weather in nearby São Sebastião.
Lodging, Dining and Practical Tips
The west coast of Ilhabela is the most populated.
Here you'll find hotels, restaurants, and people. For less crowded day conditions, try the east coast where many of the white sandy beaches are wilder, isolated and very scenic.
Lodging is expensive on the island, so many visitors prefer to stay in São Sebastião and take the ferry, free to pedestrians, and spend the day on the island.
Seafood, of course, is plentiful, and the Ilhabela prawns are reputed to be the best and sweetest.
Things to Do and See
Ilhabela is an outdoor fan's paradise, particularly for aquatic sports. Water and recreational activities are the main attraction, with sunbathing on any of the marvelous beaches a great way to spend a relaxing day. Don't forget your sunscreen and insect repellant. Although the numbers are decreasing, thanks to a control and eradication program, the tiny Borrachudo bug, somewhat like a mosquito, still can be a nuisance, particularly at dusk.
Please read the next page for things to do and see.
- Beaches, of course! The most easily accessible beaches on the west coast, near Vila, are Praia do Curral, Praia Grande and Praia Feiticeira where beach restaurants will keep you well supplied with food and drink, particularly caipirinhas, Brazil’s national drink. Feiticeira, Sorcerer’s Beach, is reputed to hide pirate treasure.
The most beautiful and unspoiled beaches are on the east side of the island but are more difficult to get to. Rough roads, and in some cases, only rough trails lead to them, and some are accessible only by boat.
Praia dos Castelhanos is completely undeveloped and well worth the trip. The bay was once a pirate hideout. Legend has it that this is where British pirate Thomas Cavendish (1555 - 1592), buried a fabulous treasure stolen from São Vicente village on Christmas, 1591.
- In town, visit the Igreja da Matriz, built in 1908.
- On the way from the ferry, you’ll pass Fazenda Engenho D'água, a privately owned colonial plantation. While it is not open to visitors, you can get a glimpse of what Ilhabela looked like in sugar cane and coffee plantation days.
- Rent a horse to ride the mountain trails or gallop along Castelhano beach.
- Take a mountain bike to the steep, hilly trails. Go up the western slopes, then descend, stopping at any one of the many waterfalls, like Cachoeira do Gato on the way to tiny Praia do Gato.
- Rappel down a slope or along the waterfalls.
- Hike, trek or backpack in the state park to observe the diverse forms of Atlantic rainforest flora and fauna. How many varieties of orchids can you count?
On or under the water:
- Tours by Boat (Schooners or Yacht) will take you around the island with stops at beaches.
- Sail, or learn to sail with lessons from many of the sailing schools or yacht clubs. The São Sebastião channel is a perfect racecourse.
- Dive. The southern end of the island is known as Brazil’s Bermuda Triangle for the number of shipwrecks. No pirate ships or galleons carrying treasure back to Portugal, but there are many others divers find intriguing.
- Surf at Castelhanos and Bonete. The latter beach is easily accessible.
Divers also enjoy the northern beaches of Fame, Poço, Jabaquara, Pacuíba, Serraria, and Portinho, Feiticeira, Prainha, Remanso, Indaiatuba, Anchovies beaches on the southern side of the island.
- The Ilhas das Cabras attract divers to view the underwater ecological sanctuary.
- Windsurfers like Ponta das Canas, Ponta Azeda, Armação, Pinto, Engenho Dágua or Perequê Beach, depending on the wind.
- Fish. Deep-sea fishing for marlin, tuna, or albacore is caught, tag and release.
On the mainland
Take the time to explore São Sebastião’s colonial buildings, many of which are on the historical register. There are numerous beaches to enjoy both south and north of town. Enseada, Cigars, Guaecá, Toque-Toque Grande, Toque-Toque Pequeno, Paúba, Maresias, Boissucanga, Camburi, Barra do Sahy and Juquehy are the most popular.
No matter when you visit Ilhabela, enjoy yourself and post a trip report on the forum.