Brazil’s 11 Best Islands, From Ilha Grande to Fernando de Noronha
Brazil’s tropical beaches, rainforests, and beating metropolises make it one of the world’s most fantasized-about exotic destinations, and now that visas are easier to obtain, more visitors are finally going. Yet some of its best must-visit areas lie beyond its mainland, off the coastline, in a galaxy of intriguing islands. Brazil even has islets in the middle of the wide rivers of the Amazon rainforest, including one where you’ll find the country’s second-largest festival after Rio’s famous Carnival. From villages harboring dark historical secrets to picture-perfect archipelagos, not all of Brazil’s islands were created the same. Here are eleven of the best islands in Brazil, each with its own personality and its own reasons to visit.
Pictured: Driving instructor off Ilhabela.
With a land mass a little bigger than Switzerland, the Ilha de Marajó is widely considered to be the largest river island in the world. It sits between the banks of the Amazon in South America’s vast tropical rainforest and stretches east until one of its coasts meets with the Atlantic Ocean. The island is an ecologist’s dream: miles upon miles of unspoiled wetlands, picturesque river beaches, and lush mangroves home to scarlet ibis, capybaras, and herds of water buffalo wallowing in the marshes. Lodgings are simple, and most tourists head to the island’s most developed town, Soure, to bed down for the night.
Turquoise waters, palm trees leaning over white beaches, lush exotic plants, and year-round sunshine make Ilha Grande one of Rio’s most scenic weekend getaways. The island lies 11 miles off the southern tip of the Rio de Janeiro state. Strict conservation rules preventing development have kept the island free from eyesore hotels. On the surface, it’s postcard-perfect, with beaches such as Lopes Mendes, regularly ranked among Brazil’s most beautiful. However, it was also once the home to the country’s outcasts, including a leprosy colony and some of Brazil’s most dangerous criminals. Nowadays, the only hint of its past lies in the ruins of the abandoned prison.
One of the dreamiest destinations in Brazil, Fernando de Noronha is one of the 21 islets that make up an archipelago that lies 218 miles off the coast of northeastern Brazil. The bleached sands sparkle against the backdrop of rugged granite peaks, and the surrounding deep blue water provides the home to a wonderland of marine life. Protected by tough conservation laws, the coral reefs below the surface are able to thrive and support a diverse ecosystem of fish, dolphins, turtles, and dozens of sharks. That abundance, coupled with several large shipwrecks, make Fernando de Noronha one of the most exciting diving spots in the world.
Found in the far south of the state of São Paulo, Ilha do Cardoso stands out for its marooned vibe and isolation from life’s hustle. With stunning secluded beaches backed by miles of lush trees from the Atlantic forest, this tropical island dodges the mass tourist rush and retains an air of peace and tranquility. In addition to turtle-spotting and bird-watching in the untouched mangroves, visitors can also take boat trips to see the dolphins that swim and play in the surrounding waters. Those who wish to disappear and disconnect for a few days will find it easy here—its internet signal is weak at best.
The name Ilha do Mel translates to “Honey Island,” an aptly romantic label for this tranquil getaway. Not far from Paraná’s capital city, Curitiba, this peaceful escape receives few visitors, so its atmosphere remains serene. Those who do take the boat trip across the Paranaguá Bay to visit it can explore vast unspoiled forests on foot or by bike only—the island is road- and car-free. Simple boutique hotels are dotted throughout the island and offer charming, secluded place to stay, perfect for couples. While beachgoers make the most of empty shores, for those looking to catch a wave, the areas with rougher seas create excellent surfing conditions.
Beautiful beaches and lush woodlands make São Paulo’s most popular island a great choice for both a relaxing escape and an active getaway that’s still near one of the country’s most vibrant cities. A regular ferry service provides transport to Ilhabela from São Sebastião, a coastal town in the north of the state. Enjoy lazy days on Bonete beach and Castelhanos Bay, where pristine shores are framed by lush vegetation. For adventure, explore forest trails by 4x4, slip into hidden waterfalls surrounded by tropical greenery, or take a kayak to watch turtles skim the surface. Divers can explore Ilhabela’s offshore sites, rich with thriving reefs and intriguing shipwrecks.
Most visitors to Bahia’s spectacular coastline head to the north of Ilha da Tinharé island, to tourist hotspot Morro de São Paulo. However, the most rewarding trip comes from crossing the narrow Inferno River to reach the smaller Ilha de Boipeba, a much less-visited islet. It’s one of the most magical places in Brazil, with more than 12 miles of pale sandy shores lined with swaying palm trees—and not a sprawling resort in sight. Its isolation, intimate accommodation options, and castaway atmosphere are ideal for days of pure solitude and the rare luxury of temporarily dropping off the grid.
Peace and tranquility are not usually the words associated with Rio de Janeiro, yet these are the best ways of describing Paquetá, an isolated islet almost within sight of the busy city center. Located in the heart of Guanabara Bay (Rio is at its mouth), the dumbbell-shaped Paquetá, which is reached with a half-hour ferry from town, is a hideaway of cobbled streets, colorful colonial buildings, and untrammeled picturesque beaches where granite boulders peek through the calm waters. It’s a world apart from Rio’s urban sprawl—except during the Carnival period in late winter, when the island comes alive with street parties and copious amounts of glitter and fancy dress.
Not all of the world’s best islands fit the typical profile of a Caribbean backdrop. The Ilha do Bananal, formed in the Araguaia River in Tocantins in the north of Brazil, is one of the world’s largest and wildest river islands. Wildlife-spotting is the main draw, especially the possibility of seeing the elusive Araguaian river dolphin. Other animals come and go with the seasons: caimans (small crocodilians), giant anteaters, and flutters of pale green butterflies gather to drink near the river beaches. Being untouched, most of the island is a culturally protected area, so the four indigenous tribes that live on Bananal still preserve their culture and traditions without threats of development from outsiders.
Lying 93 miles off the coast of São Paulo, Ilha da Queimada is one of the most isolated islands in the country. With a rocky terrain and impenetrable vegetation, its 106 acres are deserted except for its most famous resident: Bothrops insularis, or the golden lancehead pit viper. The entire global population of this venomous snake exists only on Ilha da Queimada, and the rare reptiles survive by feasting on the migratory birds that pause there during their long migrations. How this snake got here remains unknown, but it’s believed that they were isolated here when geological shifts detached the island from the mainland. The only visitors to this wild and wonderful outpost are the Brazilian navy and researchers with specific permits, since casual tourists are prohibited from entering. Considering its slithering population, that may be just as well, but the surrounding waters teem with deep-sea fishing hobbyists, who make seagoing vacations out of sailing around this primeval bushland.