Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
In Brazil’s ‘other rainforest’, John Malathronas finds—among other things—one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, potentially Brazil’s best beach, and black flies that cannot be killed.
“The first expedition to arrive here on 20th January 1602 was Amerigo Vespucci’s,” says Marcelo, our gregarious and knowledgeable driver, as we inch through the jungle in an open jeep.
Our party—two Brazilian families and me—nod knowingly. We are on the island of Ilhabela, Brazil’s fourth largest, and we’ve just left Vila, the main tourist hotspot, to traverse the rainforest to Castelhanos, one of Brazil’s most legendary beaches.
The narrow dirt road is puckered with stony ridges and sometimes water-clogged by the odd stream that’s capriciously decided to flow our way. Marcelo is navigating at crawling speed, avoiding potholes and sharp rocks with the same concentration a video gamer commits to dodging asteroids.
You see, there are two rainforests in Brazil. While the deforestation of the Amazon attracts attention, stokes up protests and dominates the news, its cousin, the Atlantic rainforest (Mata Atlântica), hardly registers a mention.
That’s because it’s already been annihilated; only about 10 per cent of the dense jungle that used to cover the Atlantic shore is left. The rest has fallen foul of the cultivation of sugarcane and coffee, as well as of encroaching urbanization, for Brazilians love their beaches and cling like seabirds to the coast.
Except that in Ilhabela, these roles are reversed: The island consists of 85 per cent virgin Atlantic Forest and only 15 per cent human settlement. It has the largest remains of Atlantic rainforest on the planet and has been declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Maybe it’s because Ilhabela is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, whose rip tides are notorious; it took the ferry 15 minutes to negotiate just three kilometers.
“Vespucci did well out of this trip,” Marcelo continues. “His description of the New World became such a bestseller that people started describing the whole continent as Amerigo’s.”
And we all rise up in the air as the jeep suddenly lunges forward into a lunar-size crater—a bit bigger and it would merit its own name. No wonder it takes us an hour to cross 22 kilometers of jungle. At one point, we have to disembark and wade ankle-deep through a tawny puddle. “No worries, no leeches,” Marcelo reassures us with a smile.
Despite the impenetrability of Ilhabela, battles have been fought here before, maybe near this very puddle. The native Tupi tribes lived in a perpetual state of war—we have a good description of such a skirmish on the island from Hans Staden, a German gunner who fell into the hands of the Tupi. Staden’s account to the Prince of Hesse, published 50 years after Vespucci’s, also became a bestseller.
We’ve reached Castelhanos, a two-kilometer stretch of beach as stunning as anticipated: Oatmeal-brown sand fringed by the shamrock-green of the jungle facing an expanse of pelagic blue.
What’s surprising about a rainforest for someone used to the safari drives of Africa is the lack of animals. And yet: “This is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet,” Marcelo says. “Ilhabela has more animal species than the whole of Patagonia: Otters, ocelots, monkeys, bats, snakes and a hell of a lot of birds, but they’re scared of us and they know how to hide.”
It takes little time for the jungle’s spell to creep upon us. When we slow down to a crawl, croaking and hissing noises keep us on edge. Hearing but not seeing animals is unnerving.
Marcelo describes various trees with gusto, probably to make up for the lack of animals. “That’s an ypé fighting it out with the lianas. That there with the reddish-brown berries is Araçarana spicewood.” At one point, he stops the car, runs to a tree and cuts off some leaves. “Smell,” he says.” They reek strongly of garlic. “Pau d’alho. Garlicwood. The leaves are used as an antiseptic.”
Towering trees are pressing in claustrophobically—no guesses as to why human eyes have evolved to see more shades of green than any other color. From the yellow tint of lime to the noble hues of malachite and jade, the green landscape is only broken by the bright red and orange of the odd orchid or bromelia.
Then all of a sudden, the trees stop, and blazing sunshine dazzles our eyes. We’ve reached Castelhanos, a two-kilometer stretch of beach as stunning as anticipated: Oatmeal-brown sand fringed by the shamrock-green of the jungle facing an expanse of pelagic blue.
I notice that my travel mates are busy spraying themselves with repellent. “Borrachudos”, they shout, pointing at my legs. I look down and count six bites. “But I sprayed myself with DEET,” I complain. “No, take this” they insist, passing me a bottle of Citronella.
Borrachudos are tiny black flies that roam on Ilhabela’s wild beaches during the summer. When the government tried to eradicate the little bleeders with DDT in the 1950s, they developed resistance to every repellent known to man—except Citronella. It’s intriguing that a natural tea-tree oil lotion works where man-made chemicals fail.
After we swim, we laze around, watching pelicans drop open-mouthed into the sea to fish, while Marcelo starts on another tale. “Every beach in this region claims a buried treasure, because after the colonizers came the pirates. In fact, it was a pirate who described Ilhabela best, the Englishman Anthony Knivet, an Indiana Jones of the 16th century.”
I lose myself in the vastness of Castelhanos, hypnotized by the thundering crash of the waves. I’m glad there’s still some Atlantic rainforest left, so that we can experience its charms even for a passing few hours.
Knivet came to Brazil as a crewman of buccaneer Thomas Cavendish in an epic trip to the southern seas. After two months of pillaging, storms overwhelmed his ships and Knivet ended up washed up on some Ilhabela beach—maybe on Castelhanos itself. He survived for three weeks by eating crabs that surfaced at low tides and chomping on the remains of a beached whale, until he was captured by the Portuguese.
I wince thinking of a naked Knivet lying on Castelhanos without the blessed Citronella.
“Not only did Knivet escape such hardships, but he also managed to reach England and publish his memoirs about a century after Vespucci,” concludes Marcelo with a smile. Brazilians love a happy ending, it seems, even for pirates.
While Marcelo is speaking, the weather is turning. The welcome breeze that greeted us has turned stormy and the rippling waves have become surf-size breakers. We’re debating whether to start back early when we spot a local caiçara woman from a nearby barraca (beach taverna) walk towards us.
“Would you like to share some food?” she asks. We look at each other with surprise, but apparently she means it. She just got a message on the walkie-talkie that a party of Dutch arriving by boat was canceled because of rough seas and the barraca has already catered for 50. They’ll be paid, of course, but it would be a shame to throw all that food away.
We vote to stay.
After tucking into platters of seafood under the friendly scrutiny of the family toucan, I lose myself in the vastness of Castelhanos, hypnotized by the thundering crash of the waves. I’m glad there’s still some Atlantic rainforest left, so that we can experience its charms even for a passing few hours. I find myself struck by the same wondrous awe as Amerigo Vespucci, Hans Staden or Anthony Knivet centuries ago. It’s quite a feeling.
At least these unkillable black flies will ensure that such wilderness remains unsullied.
John Malathronas is a London-based travel writer whose foreign language skills allow him to get under the skin of a destination. He has authored or co-authored 20 books and has bylines in CNN Travel, National Geographic Traveller and the Daily Telegraph.