Ilhabela is an archipelago and a municipality in the North Coast of São Paulo. It is considered one of the natural paradises of the São Paulo coast, along with Ubatuba (Ilhabela means literally "beautiful island" in Portuguese). The place is known for its forest-covered mountains, its amazing beaches, its savage trails - and difficult not to mention, also its vicious mosquitos.
In pre-colonial times, the largest island of the archipelago, São Sebastião, was called Maembipe by Native Brazilians, who used the island for trade and prisoner exchange. The island was discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese, and although settlement began shortly thereafter, the village of the island was officially founded only in 1806, with the name of Vila Bela da Princesa ("Beautiful Island of the Princess"). The municipality would finally be named "Ilhabela" in 1945. In 1977, the majority of the archipelago's area was declared a state park and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
To get to Ilhabela it is necessary first to go to São Sebastião (the city on the coast, not the island), where a ferry boat, located at the end of Al. São Sebastião (downtown) departs. There are buses from São Paulo that stop at the ferry boat point, if you are not up to walk 1 km from the São Sebastião intercity bus terminal.
Ferry boats depart every 30 min. between 06:00-00:00, and every 1 hour between 00:00-06:00. The duration of the crossing is 15 min. Pedestrians can get into the boat for free. For cars, the fee is R$ 11 (R$ 16,40 on weekends), and half the price for motorbikes. On high season, a queue of up to 1 hour for vehicles is expected.
Since construction in Ilhabela is mostly restricted to the West coast of the São Sebastião island, there is really just one avenue and getting around, by bus or by car, should be simple. The coast has many slopes, making cycling not a very attractive option.
There are also a couple of non-pavimented roads that give access to remote points of the island, like the Castelhanos beach in the East coast. A 4x4 vehicle or mountain bike, as well as a prepared driver or cyclist, are necessary for some of them.
The rest of Ilhabela can only be reached by boat or by trails in the rainforest.
The beaches of the Northwest coast are easily accessible using the main avenue and the non-pavimented road in the north. Most have calm waters and are adequate for swimming and nautical sports.
Armação, (12 km north of ferry). Suitable for windsurf and kitesurf. Contains a charming church, Capela Imaculada Conceição, and some kiosks and restaurants.edit
Pedra do Sino, (between Siriúba and Poço). One of the most famous beaches of Ilhabela, it gets its name from its rock formations, which produce a bell-like sound when they hit each other. With shallow and calm waters, and white sands surrounded by coconut trees.edit
Ponta Azeda, (accessible from Praia do Pinto). Small and with calm waters.edit
Siriúba, (8 km north of the ferry). Quiet beach surrounded by coconot trees, with calm waters.edit
Barreiros, (7,5 km north of ferry). Beautiful beach with 600 m extensions and calm waters. Before reaching the beach there is a nice view of the São Sebastião channel.edit
Itaquanduba. Small and quiet beach, with calm waters. Mostly frequented by locals.edit
Pequeá. Close to downtown and good for sailing. With bars and restaurants.edit
Engenho d'Água, (5 km of ferry). With narrow sands, it is popular among sailors and families and contains a sailing school. The sugar cane farm Engenho d'Água, from the XVII century, sits in front of the beach.edit
Oscar, (Between Pedras Miúdas and Feiticeiras). With only 50 m, it has a big stone on its middle, that forms a natural swimming pool.edit
Pinto, (Between Pedra do Sino and Armação). Accessible by a gated community, it is one of the most beautiful of the island. Has coconut trees and some kiosks.edit
Portinho, (4 km south of ferry, between Pedras Miúdas and Feiticeiras). With transparent waters and visibility of up to 10 meters, it is good for diving. Has parking lots, kiosks and a chapel constructed in 1938.edit
The beaches of the Southeast Coast are difficult to access and mostly desert. Many have strong waves, being indicated for surfing.
Caveira, (south of Serraria island). Diving point. Only accessible by boat.edit
Enchovas, (50 min. trail from Bonete). One of the most beautiful spots of the island. With thick and yellow sands, rocks and a river.edit
Indaiúba, (near Enchovas/Bonete). With white sands and calm waters. Only accessible by boat.edit
Bonete, (12 km trail from Ponta de Sepituba). Considered by the British Guardian newspaper one of the 10 most beautiful beaches of Brazil. With strong waves.edit
Castelhanos. With 1.5 km, it is the largest beach of Ilhabela. It is accessible by a 22-km trail that requires a 4x4 vehicle or a mountain bike. Another option is to go by the sea, taking a boat at Perequê beach. With strong waves, it is appropriate for surfing, and it is one of the few beaches in the East coast that offers an infrastructure of kiosks.edit
Ilhabela is called "the capital of sailing'" for good reason, as the the calm waters and strong winds between the main island and the continent are perfect for nautical sports such as sailing, kitesurf and windsurf
Rolex International Sailing Week, . The largest sailing competition of Latin America, gathering around 1,500 participants. It happens during the winter (july).edit
The calm waters are naturally also adequate for swimming
Snorkelling is possible at various beaches
Surfing is best at the beaches not facing the continent, with stronger waves
There is a large number of places indicated for scuba diving, including the smaller islands
Cabras island, (2 km south of ferry boat). Relatively close to the ferry, the island is great for scuba driving due to its diverse fauna.edit
Various sunken boats can be found around the islands. The oldest dates from 1840 and is near Praia dos Castelhanos, in the east coast. The most famous is the luxurious transatlantic Príncipe das Astúrias', which sank in 1916, causing the death of 450 people. It is located close to Ponta da Pirabura.
Inside the island, trekking, mountain biking and rally (with a jeep), shall give plenty of adventure for those who seek it. A popular choice for mountain biking and rally is the 22 km trail that goes to the Castelhanos beach
For those who want a more relaxed time, an option are the boat rides to remote beaches, fishing spots and the smaller islands
With 300 species of birds, Ilhabela is an important birdwatching spot, considered as an "Important Bird Site for Priority Conservation" by Birdlife International
Ilhabela is, without doubt, a natural paradise... which can also mean hell for humans. The rainforest in the archipelago is well-known for the borrachudos, a mosquito-like insect whose bites will give you an excruciatingly itchy experience. Use a good quality repellent all the time, in every exposed part of your body including the bottom of your feet, in case you are wearing sandals or flip-flops. One particularly recommended repellent is the Exposis Extrême, that prevents about 90% of the bites and significantly alleviates the pain and itchiness of the other 10%. It is about 40% more expensive than other repellents, but it is definitely worth it, especially for those doing trekking.
Beach pollution problems have unfortunately started to appear in the west coast of Ilhabela, and at some times of the year, some beaches may not be suitable for swimming. The water quality is weekly monitored by the state water agency (CETESB), so if you see a red flag of CETESB in the beach, don't go swimming (information also available online).