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  • Writer's pictureKate Winstanley

Isolated on Ilha Grande

As I approached my island idyll, I had no idea that I would be a virtual prisoner here for over 3 months. A prisoner in paradise.

Speeding across the 23km ocean strait that separates Ilha Grande from the mainland I was reminded of the island’s reputation for seclusion. It was used to quarantine suspected cholera patients arriving from Europe and in the twentieth century was the location for one of Brazil’s most notorious top-security prisons for high risk political prisoners. Cândido Mendes is where the infamous organised crime syndicate, Comando Vermelho, was founded in the 1970s. 

As our boat approached the island, I marvelled at the towering mountains rising dramatically from the sea, their peaks wreathed in clouds, and could not wait to discover some of the birds and animals that inhabited the verdant green rainforest that covered their steep slopes. I was enchanted by the scattered islands in the bay. Each looked like a perfect treasure island complete with coconut palms, a crown of lush tropical forest and boulder strewn beaches.  Frigates and gannets rode the thermals high above, occasionally plummeting into the green-blue sea. Traditionally crafted wooden fishing boats and simple sailing boats plied their way lazily across the calm waters of the bay of Abraão.

The boat headed into the picturesque harbour town of Abraão with its long curving sandy beach fringed by coconut palms and lush trees with low-lying brightly coloured houses lining the beachfront. In stark contrast to the sleepy feel of the town the pier was alive with purposeful activity. Cargo was being unloaded from boats of various sizes and shapes by weather-beaten locals who piled goods onto hand pulled wagons. I remembered that Ilha Grande is a car-free island so the carreteiros – the men who operated the wagons – played an essential role in transporting goods on the island. 

What adventures lay ahead, I wondered as I sipped a cold beer from a beach bar and surveyed my new island residence, suitcase and backpack containing my precious Canon camera for bird photography by my side. I was about to find out, and hired a carreteiro to take me to my digs, a well-equipped little studio at the top of a steep slope set among palms.

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