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Articles Blog

Ilha Grande, Brazil

Karyn Planett

Pleasure or Punishment? 

Well, that depends on when you got here. Pre-1994 or Post-1994. And, here’s a hint why. Several hints, really. Alcatraz. Australia. Devil’s Island. Robben Island. St. Helena Island. Sadly, this list does go on. But, if you know your geography and history well, you’ll know that each of these remote islands (we’re counting Australia as an island not a continent for discussion purposes) was once a prison. You see it’s so much easier to pack away a pack of prisoners to some distant island where there’s no hope of escape than to keep them incarcerated in developed communities where any inmate who gets away could create great mayhem. For Brazil, Ilha Grande (Big Island) was one such prison island for just shy of one long century. 

The Bad, The Good, and The Ugly 

We’ve touched on part of the bad. But long before Brazilian authorities sent prisoners to Ilha Grande, it was a haven for pirates who preyed upon passing vessels sailing off Brazil’s Costa Verde, including Spanish galleons heavy with South American gold on their return voyage to Europe. The next chapter in this dark tale included slave runners though Brazil freed their slaves in 1831 putting an end to this evil practice. Slaves had been brought to Brazil to toil away either on vast coffee plantations or in the mines north of Rio de Janeiro. 

More rough days were on the horizon for the big island. This time as a type of floating quarantine where patients, many of them European immigrants whom the authorities believed were ill with cholera, were offloaded to languish in what were euphemistically called hospitals. Conditions were abysmal. Patients either recovered during their mandatory 40-day stay and allowed to continue on their journey or they faced their final days in wards scattered about the island. Those with financial means were housed in first class wards. Others in second class, even third class.  

Visitors to the island today must use their imagination to recreate these tales of terror because little physical evidence remains from this time. What does linger long after the prison warden’s keys unlocked the Candido Mendes’ (the “Devil’s Cauldron’s”) last steel doors are stories. Many tales were well known but none more famous, or infamous, than the one about a gang of bad Brazilian Mafia boys named Comando Vermehlo. Seems they were powerful, connected, and ruthless. Some of these wayward lads attempted to escape from the island and several even succeeded. But the escape that sealed the island’s fate as a prison happened in 1985. It was then that a chopper swooped in from the blue blue skies to spring one of these inmates. The authorities decided to close the prison then and there. 

The Good

            The island’s beautiful. It’s got 106 beaches. And there are few cars. 

The Ugly 

Some of the local people will argue that the development that’s occurred has changed the island forever. Remember, the entire island measures only about three times the area of Manhattan. Tourism is up, way up, and with it the head count of visitors. It’s said there are more than 400,000 each year now where not that long ago it was only a couple thousand. And the number of guesthouses and lodges has exploded, by island standards, in order to accommodate those arriving daily by ferry. Well, for those lucky travelers as well as for us, this truly is paradise found.

So why are they and we coming here? For the beaches, definitely. Brazil is a nation of sun worshippers. We’re world explorers. But there are the eco-travelers, as well. They’ve come to tramp what’s considers the number one prize winning stretch of Atlantic coastal rain forest in the entire country. That’s why the island is home to howler monkeys and redheaded Tanagra birds. For the record, these monkeys are some of the New World’s largest monkeys. 

Well, the moist heat of the day will give you the green light to enjoy a doce de leite, the South American sweet treat that’s truly addicting. And all too soon it’ll be time to leave behind this bit of paradise that’s still unknown to much of the outside world.