If you follow the main dirt track (there are no tarred roads on the island) leading west from Vila do Abraão, you reach the ruins of an old Dutch farmhouse long since reclaimed by the jungle as well as a dismal “lazaretto” used to quarantine cholera patients arriving from Europe in the nineteenth century.
The lazaretto was later converted into a federal penal colony, closing in 1963. It must have been a depressing place to be imprisoned, either as a cholera patient or a prisoner, with its tiny dank cells that never saw any sunlight, ironically just a few metres away from a beautiful mangrove creek and an idyllic, sunlit beach with incredible views out to the mainland.
Looking seaward through the trees from the track leading to the lazaretto are stunning views out across the long curving bay of Abraão whose calm green waters are criss-crossed by simple sailboats, traditional fishing boats (traineiras), elegant high-prowed saveiros and a sprinkling of rocky islands sprouting coconut palms and lush tropical forest. The beach (in reality lots of small beaches interspersed with huge boulders) is known as Praia Preta (Black Beach) because of its distinctive black sand.
The trees that separate the track towards Praia Preta and the sea are visited by a huge variety of birds. There are a couple of dead trees which are a favourite feeding spot for lineated woodpeckers (Picapau-de-banda-branca) and the beachside aroeira trees with their fragrant peppery berries are alive with parakeets and tanagers. I saw plain parakeets - Periquito rico – and maroon bellied parakeets – Tiriba-de-testa-vermelha) - as well as several types of the less spectacular tanagers – the sanyaca tanager (Sanhaçu-cinzento) and olive-green tanagers (Catirumbara).
The forested area to the left of the track leading to Praia Preta is cool and shady even on a hot sunny day and frequented by more elusive birds including the stunning Brazilian tanager (Tiê-sangue) and the flame crested Blue (or swallow tailed) manakin (Tangará). This is one of several areas where I saw several males performing a courtship dance (lek).
On a couple of walks I was delighted to observe a White-tailed trogon (Surucuá-grande-de barriga-amarela) making its way through the forest. This stunning, yellow-fronted bird with a barred indigo and white tail likes to perch high in the tree canopy, its body unmoving but its head swivelling to follow some unsuspecting insect’s last movements before swooping on its prey, its wings a flash of blue, then settling a few metres along the forest canopy to digest its meal. And then starting its hunt for a fresh victim
If you continue along the track upwards from Praia Preta you reach a ruined aqueduct and the local poçao – a natural rock pool fed by a relatively large stream that cascades down the steep mountainside and enters the beach via a mangrove creek at Praia Preta. The water tastes delicious – a slight taste of tannin from organic leaf matter – and the pool is perfect for a cool dip on a hot humid day. Just sitting on the huge boulders next to the poçao, watching the sunlight filter through the tree canopy above and listening to the cascading waterfalls is a pleasant way to spend the time. It is also a great place for butterfly spotting.
To the east side of Abraão, beyond the beachfront bars and moored boats are a series of pretty coves with pristine white-sand beaches – Praia da Julia, Praia da Bica, Praia Comprida and Praia da Cena. There are a few pousadas (guest houses) set into the steep forest and the trails between the beaches, especially that leading to Cena is pretty steep, at least for the uninitiated. The forest rises steeply above the shoreline and is dense and wild, impenetrable unless you are a bird or creature of the forest.
Praia da Julia became a favourite swimming spot. I would swim out far beyond the boats until all I could see of the coastline were miniature whitewashed houses with their brightly coloured shutters and majestic mountains rising up behind them. The unusually shaped rocky summit of Bico do Papagaio (Parrot’s Beak) at almost 1km above sea level dominated the mountainous skyline unless it was wreathed in cloud, which could happen even on a sunny day. The sea was smooth as glass apart from jumping fish, diving gannets (atobars) and the odd turtle surfacing for air.
Lying on my back in that tranquil sea I would gaze upon frigate birds riding the thermals with their distinctive forked wings and scissored tails and atobars gliding through the air before making a steep descent into the sea to catch a fish. Once or twice I was lucky enough to witness an Atobar (booby or gannet) plunge into the water metres from where I was swimming. But the highlight of those wonderful swimming excursions was to hear the haunting call of the Carrapateira – a type of falcon - and to see it flying along that wild wild coast, particularly at the end of the day, perching ever higher along the treetop canopy until I could see it no longer, just hear its plaintive cry ringing out across the bay.