This Beautiful Brazilian Island Was Once Home to the World’s Most Hardened Criminals
Ready for a vacation on an island with sun, sand, and unspoiled nature? Get yourself to Ilha Grande, Brazil! It’s a tropical paradise, and it has mysteries to boot.
It once housed some of Brazil’s most dangerous criminals and was also a 19th-century leper colony. Sound fun? Just read on to find out more.
Ilha Grande was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you know that its natural beauty and resources are worth protecting. It only takes an hour to get there from the mainland and is free of the hustle and bustle of the bigger vacation tourist spots.
Aside from the beauty and tranquility of the island, it has a fascinating, if dark, history that is worth knowing, if only because it makes the spot much more intriguing. You can tell all of your friends that you vacationed on a leper colony!
Unspoiled, No Traffic
No cars are allowed on the island – imagine how peaceful that can be. You can’t jump in your car and drive into town, and no one else is on the road either.
If you had tried to visit Ilha Grande in the 1990s, you would have been denied entry. At that point, the 75-square-mile island was still closed to tourists. That makes visiting it now even more exciting – knowing that you are one of the earliest tourists to visit this paradise.
Discovered in 1502!
The Portuguese navigator Andre Goncalves discovered Ilha Grande in 1502. It encompasses 75 square miles and is very mountainous. We can imagine the explorer eyeing the magnificent nature and realizing what a treasure he’d found.
Little did the explorer know that in future centuries, this tranquil island would become gain a less-than-stellar reputation. At one time, it was a paper colony, and for many years it served as a prison for some of Brazil’s most notorious criminals.
The Island’s Dark History
Ilha Grande is actually surrounded by hundreds of smaller islands, all about 193 miles from the state capital. Because of its distance from the remainder of the population, it was considered an ideal location for infectious patients.
At first, the island housed a leper colony, as its distance from the mainland ensured that none of the infected residents would have contact with the rest of the population. Later on, the government built the Candido Mendes penal institute, which is still standing today. It closed in 1994.
The Prison, and Its Prisoners
The Candido Mendes penal institute was not populated by the usual sorts of petty criminals. This prison, located far away from the mainland, was reserved for some of the most dangerous criminals in the country.
The prison was notorious for housing these hardened criminals, and the government was pleased to keep them off the mainland of Brazil. Even though they were so confined geographically, these experienced prisoners still managed to create and run some of the most violent drug cartels in Brazil.
Most Tourists Don’t Know the History
As they arrive in Rio de Janeiro and prepare to continue their trip to Ilha Grande, most tourists have no idea of the dark history of the island. What you’d see when you arrive on the island speaks only of tranquility and lush surroundings.
Tourists arrive from the mainland via ferries and fishing boats. Most come for a short or longer stay from what’s known as Rio de Janeiro’s Costa Verde, or Green Coast. They are looking for a break from the noise and traffic of the big city.
A Quiet, Tranquil Stay
While the boat ride over from the mainland sometimes gets rocky, tourists are awed by the sudden quiet of the Ilha Grande. The island’s main city, Villa do Abraãohas less than 2,000 full-time residents, so the quiet is pervasive.
While its isolation and quiet make it a perfect vacation destination, that same isolation led to its being used by unsavory characters in past centuries. Away from the mainland meant being away from law enforcement, which was a plus for criminals.
The Unsavory Residents
In past centuries, the island’s distance from the main pockets of civilization meant being able to operate under the radar of the government’s eye. It didn’t take long for criminals to set their sights on Ilha Grande.
Before the government decided the island was an ideal site for infectious patients and criminals, others had decided it was an ideal site for criminal activities. For example, pirates and smugglers found this the perfect place to carry out their nefarious work from this hidden gem.
Tourists Love the Activities
For most tourists, the attractions of the island include not only the quiet and isolation but the magnificent natural beauty and challenging hiking trails. The beaches are known for their pure white sands, and there are so many beach areas that you can practically be alone if you prefer.
There are over 100 kilometers of hiking trails around the shoreline and through the interior. Serious hikers can spend weeks exploring the island by taking different hiking routes. Some tourists can even hike to remote lodges and spend the night taking in some glorious views.
Touring the Dark Side
There are plenty of tourists who have researched the island and become quite curious about the mysterious goings-on before the site was opened to tourists. They are invited to hike a seven-kilometer trail to the former Cândido Mendes prison.
Alternatively, tourists can visit the settlement where the correctional officers used to live, called Dois Rios. The fact is, at one time, there were so many gang leaders that the authorities wanted to imprison on the island that there were two prisons built to hold them all.
Home to Gang Criminals
This beautiful piece of land was home to some of the most dangerous criminals in Brazil, if not in the world. The government wanted the accused to live away from the mainland to ensure the safety of the population, and built secure prisons to discourage escape attempts.
Today, tourists get a thrill of seeing the abandoned prison, especially visitors interested in history. Likewise, photographers are drawn to the idyllic scenery in the midst of which was a prison for dangerous criminals.
Visiting the Prison Site
Tourists that are truly motivated to see the dark history of the island will make every effort to find out how to reach the prison. In fact, some visitors come specifically to learn more about the shady characters that lived in the jail.
The prison was located in a remote section of the island, so the trek to see it involves some very steep and treacherous hiking. But those who make the hike will be excited to see Brazil’s own Alcatraz prison.
What a Contrast
If you are climbing to see the prison, you’ll have left your gorgeous accommodations somewhere near the beach, packed up your gear, and carefully hiked over seven kilometers up the mountain.
There you will be confronted with what is now a run-down building, where you can still see the prison bars and cells. But just being in the jail where some of the most dangerous drug lords lived and from which they actually ran their cartels can be a chilling experience.
Gang Violence Ignited
Having drug gang leaders living in the same facility for many years, even though they were living far from the local population, led to even worse crime worldwide.
It wasn’t the local population that was in danger; for some of the inmates, they were the targets of violence. The gang leaders who were incarcerated in this prison nurtured hatred between the drug gangs, making the prison a hotbed of violence. The infamous Comando Vemelho (“Red Command”) was born in the prison in the late 1970s.
The Prison Closes
In 1994, the prison closed. Costs had risen, and the government realized that the island could become a source of income as a tourist attraction. So instead of draining the country’s economy to house the prisoners, the island was converted into an idyllic vacation spot.
The next step was to open the island to tourists. Along with that move, decisions were made about what kind of resort this would be. It seems to us that, at that point, it was decided to prohibit cars and keep the island as pristine as possible.
From Prison Island to Tropical Resort
The Brazilian government smartly decided to protect the beauty of the island by making it a protection zone. That means that there is a limit to how much development can take place and how much of the land can be used for tourism.
When tourists approach the island, they tend to comment about the lack of high-rise hotels and commercialism. This is no Miami Beach with its blocks and blocks of sky-scraping luxury hotels. Tourists stay in small guest houses and enjoy the quiet of the unspoiled scenery.
Take a Taxi Boat!
One charming aspect of the island is the transportation you take to get there. No speed boats or large ferries are used, just small taxi boats which transport guests from the mainland.
The island is, in fact, closed to cars, so tourists transport themselves by foot, by bike, or by boat. There are many exquisite beaches on the island, and the easiest way to get from one to the other is to grab a taxi boat and glide on the beautiful water to your next destination.
Look Who Else Lives There
One look at the island will tell you that you are seeing something spectacular. The mountains are very high and are covered by the Atlantic rainforest. Everywhere you look, there are gorgeous flowers, plants, and towering trees.
Ilha Grande is home to many endangered species, and visitors love to go walking to spot them. These rare species include maned sloths and brown howler monkeys, but the most colorful residents are these parrots. Although we’re pretty sure that they will hear the brown howler monkeys first.
As a nature preserve protected by government environmental laws, the wildlife on Ilha Grande is free to roam and live happily. Tourists truly enjoy walking around and viewing the friendly wildlife going about their daily chores and love photographing these beautiful creatures.
Not quite the drug cartel bosses, marmosets and howler monkeys can be a little noisy, but no one has accused them of gang violence.Their residence on the island has changed its reputation from a home for criminals to a home for nature’s beautiful creatures.
Dogs on the Beach
As it happens, dogs love the island. Without the danger of cars and with other animals to hang out with, stray dogs have found the island to be a perfect home.
These dogs tend to lay on the beaches and are always friendly to visitors, especially the ones that have food! Somehow these canines feel the peacefulness of Ilha Grande and take advantage of the quiet life. The island seems to help them stay calm and happy.
The Famous Beach
The most famous beach on Ilha Grande is called Lopes Mendes. It is considered one of the world’s best beaches. The beach is a three-kilometer stretch of sand bordering the gorgeous blue ocean.
The main activity on this beach is surfing, and it is known for its huge waves. That might mean that swimming isn’t always ideal, but there are so many other beaches on Ilha Grande that any visitor will be able to find a perfect one.
So Many Beaches
To reach Lopes Mendes beach, one has to hike through a tropical jungle. When it’s hot, which it is most of the time, that can be a tough walk.
Many hikers go one way by boat and the other way by foot. There are many other beaches around the island, and much has been written about the character of each. Whichever one you choose to lounge on, you’ll be surrounded by peace and quiet. There are no boardwalks or commercial stores nearby.
Surf’s Up, Dude
Going back to the famous Lopes Mendes beach, it is a great site for surviving enthusiasts. The waves are constant and powerful, and the beachfront is wide enough for many surfers to have fun at the same time.
Like the other beaches, don’t expect a surf shop with supplies waiting for you here. You need to bring your own surfboard and any other equipment you might need. No cafes or shops either, so bring a good supply of food for the day.
If you love hiking, Ilha Grande is a must-go destination for you. There are 150 kilometers (93 miles) of hiking trails. These trails connect the island’s villages and beaches to one another.
The hiking is not exactly danger-free, though. The wildlife on Ilha Grande includes lizards and tropical insects, some of which you might want to avoid. A good piece of advice is to ask the locals about how to protect yourself while hiking, and make sure you have trail maps!
The Tourists Keep Coming
At first when Ilha Grande first closed the prison and opened it to tourists, it was a little-known location that didn’t attract many visitors. In fact, there were only a few guest houses available to rent.
These days, there are over 100 guest houses, as well as many campsites. In addition, backpackers take advantage of hostels that cater to people who prefer to stay in the simplest lodgings. It seems that any type of tourist in Ilha Grande can find a place to relax.
Not Just Hiking
If you are into snorkeling and diving, Ilha Grande offers magnificent waters in which to view sea life. Its famous blue waters are protected by government regulations, so you can be sure that the underwater views will remain perfect.
In fact, the island hosts sea turtles, dolphins, and penguins. With such a wide variety of aquatic residents, the government of Brazil wanted to make sure that not only its beaches and mountains but its waters stayed untouched as well for the benefit of tourists.
As tourists quickly discover, there are numerous boating companies anxious to transport visitors all over the island and back to the mainland as well. The tourism industry in Ilha Grande heavily relies on the taxi boat businesses.
You can imagine the fun of hiring a boat for a dinner cruise, a day-long tour of all of the beaches, or a simple hop from one beach to another for a day-long soak in the sun. Without cars to transport visitors, the friendly boat companies are happy to help enhance everyone’s vacation.
So Much More
Ilha Grande island is comparable to a five-star spa resort. With hiking, exploring, swimming, diving, and boating, there is very little that a visitor misses out on, aside from the high-rise hotels and commercial traffic.
And here’s one more attraction to add to the list – lagoons and waterfalls can be discovered all over the island. If a tourist is taking a day to hike, it’s likely they’ll run into a beautiful waterfall and be able to cool off before the next leg of their trek.
The Beautiful Island with The Dark Past
For all its beauty and grandeur, it’s hard to forget that the island has a dark past. It’s worth visiting the old prison and learning about the inmates and their own shady dealings.
It’s pretty amazing to realize that an island that was home to infectious patients and then to hardened criminals has now become one of the most well-known vacation destinations in Brazil, if not the world. Kudos to the government of Brazil for turning the island into a protected environment that attracts visitors every day of the year.