When I was looking for places where I could volunteer close to Sao Paulo, I discovered that there was an island just a couple of hours up the coast from the city. This island is called Ilhabela — literal translation 'beautiful island' — and it certainly deserves its name!
I am the kind of person that tends to do a lot of research before traveling to a new destination. When I confirmed with Pouso Sambaquis that I would in fact be living and working in their Ilhabela guesthouse, I went online to research and learn more about the island.
Palm trees, lush and dense Atlantic rainforest, sandy beaches, turquoise waters, a multitude of waterfalls, man-eating insects... these were the impressions that I amassed during my searches. And all of these things I can confirm now that I have been there — Ilhabela is certainly a heavenly place, but with mosquitos and borrachudos from hell.
Just a few days into my stay, I began to discover that there is a lot more to the island of Ilhabela than what initially meets the eye. Ilhabela has a rich history, a distinct culture, and the locals have many interesting and mysterious stories to tell.
From its stunning beaches to its mysteries, Ilhabela is truly a unique and special Brazilian paradise.
Read on to find out to find out all that Ilhabela has to offer and why this magical island is the perfect place to do a work exchange in Brazil.
Why Ilhabela is the perfect place to do a work exchange in Brazil
1. Rich history
Ilhabela, around 210 km away from the massive city of Sao Paulo, was originally inhabited by the Tupi, an indigenous people who could be found from the Amazon rainforest all the way down to the coast of southern Brazil.
The island was discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500s and they created a few settlements during the 16th century. Their presence led to the decline of the original inhabitants, who were killed by the newcomers or who contracted foreign diseases.
Eventually, Brazil was colonized by Portugal, leading to great pressure being put on the natives and also to the imposition of Portuguese as the main language. However, I was surprised discover that British pirates also came to Ilhabela in search of treasure to loot and take back home with them.
Today the only invasions come from the many tourists who, quite rightly, wish to explore this beautiful place.
2. Paradise beaches with a twist
A week into my stay I decided to go a tour with Maremar to the isolated Castelhanos Beach on the sparsely-populated western side of the island. A bumpy jeep ride through thick jungle took us to our destination, where lots of locals and tourists were sunning themselves on the beach, swimming in the ocean and enjoying food and drinks at the beach kiosks.
I headed to a viewpoint that I could see poking out from between the trees on a steep hillside. From there, the view of the bay and the Gato Waterfall in the distance was absolutely amazing. It was, however, boiling hot and I was keen to get into the shade so I returned to the beach rather swiftly, where I sat down at Quiosque do Alemão.
There, I enjoyed an interesting variation on the caipirinha; this one was made with the leaves of a tangerine tree and was unlike anything I had ever tasted. Quiosque do Alemão turned out to be a place with an interesting past, too. The owner of this quaint beach bar and restaurant is a descendent of the survivors of a shipwreck and of slaves!
Brazil's dark past regarding slavery is indeed evident on this beautiful island. On the way back from Castelhanos we stopped at Praia do Fome (meaning 'Hunger Beach'), which got its name due to the fact that slaves from the African continent were taken here to gain weight before they were sold.
Slaves were sold at market according to their weight; a skinny slave wouldn't be worth much and so here, at a remote location of the island, they were fattened up. Brazil actually had by far the largest slave population in the world; I really recommend visiting the many museums and historical sites relating to this history in order to learn more and understand the country better. The Afro-Brazil museum in Sao Paulo is a great place to start.
3. Archaeological treasures
Going back even further in time thousands of years, we get to the original inhabitants of Ilhabela. These indigenous people left unique evidence of their presence here in the form of sambaquis — pyramid-shaped structures made of shells, bones and stones.
Archaeologists have identified more than ten sambaquis across the island, the most well-known being that of Furnas, a site at which 2000 year-old human remains were recently found. These archaeological sites are still shrouded in a lot of mystery but more and more is being found out about these original island dwellers and their constructions.
If you are interested in history and ancient cultures... you will love Ilhabela.
The same goes for anybody who likes a good old ghost story — Ilhabela is full of them. An evening spent talking with my Worldpackers host on the island revealed a number of mystifying phenomena that left me both curious and a little scared.
I won't go into too much detail here as I do not know whether or not the people who told these stories want their experiences to be written about, but let's just say that the dark and thick jungle that cloaks the island is not a place for the faint-hearted after dark.
I suppose a place with so much history (sambaquis, slaves, colonizers, pirates, shipwrecks...) must have its fair share of strange spirits and enigmatic energies.
Ilhabela is not just a place to go to for sun, sea and sand. The island has many secrets and I can only recommend you go there and find out for yourself! If you do, I suggest you stay (or do a work exchange) at Pouso Sambaquis.
I worked at Pouso Sambaquis for two weeks as a volunteer and was very impressed at the hospitality offered by this guesthouse. The staff go out of their way to make guests feel comfortable, and the managers have extensive knowledge of the island and are happy to help you make the most out of your trip.
With countless opportunities in Ilhabela and throughout Brazil, Worldpackers enables you to truly live like a local and experience the history, environment, treasures, and mysteries of a location.
Brazil is a dream destination, and Ilhabela is undoubtedly one of its more unique gems. Go and experience this very special island paradise with Worldpackers today — I truly can't recommend it more highly!