If you’re looking for a Sao Paulo beach weekend escape, look no further than Ilhabela!! Ilhabela is a little beach paradise just a few hours from Sao Paulo, Brazil that deserves it’s name, which translates to “beautiful island”.
Okay, so I am officially in love. With Brazil that is.
Now don’t get me wrong, the mountains are still what awaken my soul. However, I finally understand why people say Brazilians are some of the happiest people in the world.
They type of happy that radiates from the inside. The face lit up and dance in the street type happy. Waiting at the bus stop, taking a piece of gum out of your purse and offering it to the foreign girl waiting next to me type happy. Inviting the american girls to your families’ house and cutting coconuts off the trees to offer them refreshing coconut water type happy. Bonding with the girl next to you on the bus even though you speak portugués and she speaks spanish- sharing pictures of family and a smile so big your cheekbones are about to pop out type happy.
Opening up your restaurant early just because it’s the american girl’s birthday type thoughtful. Slowing down in your car and trying to see if the frantic foreign girl is lost type thoughtful.
Buying a bus ticket so a random frantic foreign girl who can’t access her money can get back to the airport type generous. Offering free beers to the tourist girl sitting at your beach bar and writing in her journal type generous.
Seriously, Brazilian people are amazing.
The random acts of kindness and rays of pure internal beauty that shine through these people is in such abundance that you realize it is just plain simple. It’s who these people are.
Sao Paulo Beach Escape
I went to Sao Paulo for work and finished on Thursday morning. Having never been to Brazil before, I wanted to take advantage of the trip and the upcoming weekend. So, I googled “sao paolo beaches” and somehow stumbled upon a fantastic weekend escape, Ilhabela. Ilha is portugese for “island” and bela means “beautiful”. Hmmm, sounds right up my alley. Plans made!
The name didn’t dissapoint. For four days I simply relaxed, joking to my friends that I was taking my first 30+ vacation, a getaway to get away. hahah. No parties. Just me, my journal, bumming around, and leisurely seeing the sights as I wanted and when I wanted.
How to get to Ilhabela, Brazil
It all starts with a three and a half hour bus ride from Sao Paulo to the ocean, which costs around 65 reales (20USD). When you arrive to a little town called San Sebastian, you just need to walk a few blocks to the water. There, you hop on a short 20-30 minute ferry, with ferries leaving every 30 minutes. If you’re on foot, you can take the ferry for free!! If you have a car, it’s pretty cheap, under $10USD depending on the size.
Arriving to the island, you can take a cheap couple minute taxi to the center of town, where you can walk and find one of many hostels.
Bus conversations: hidden treasures
I approached my seat on the bus and there was already a lady in the aisle seat, I tapped her shoulder and pointed that I had the window one. The way she looked at me and smiled, getting up so I could scoot in, I had this distinct thought of “I bet she’s a really nice lady.”
For about an hour I shut my eyes and she fiddled with her phone, listening to voice whatsapp messages and looking at pictures. Then, she ruffled through her bag and pulled out a little chocolate bar, offering me half. I broke off a little piece and she looked at me, with a glisten in her eye and big smile on her face, and said the portuguese equivalent of “yummy.” I laughed and showed her I thought it was delicious too.
From then on, we started talking, her in Portuguese and me in Spanish, understanding enough of each other to get the gist. She was on her way back home and had just dropped her daughter off at the Sao Paulo airport. Her daughter now lived in Germany and was married to a German man.
The pride dripping from her voice was so apparent, but I could also see how much she missed having her around. She had two other children who live in San Sebastian and told me all about them. She showed me pictures and we bonded over me saying “so beautiful” or “so handsome” or “so cute.” hahah
She boasted that her daughter in Germany had met her now husband like a fairytale… he was in this tiny tiny town of San Sebastian, vacationing in Brasil and passing through little towns known for good open air markets. They ran into eachother and somehow hit it off, “her a dark skinned little Brasilian and him a tall, white German man with blonde hair and blue eyes”.
And, just like in the movies, they met just a week and a half before he headed back. They kept in touch, he vacationed back to Brazil… and history was made. She repeatedly said how beautiful of a couple they were, repeatedly mentioning her daughter, this dark little woman and him, this tall, blonde and blue eyed man. I know in America we are also still, even though we don’t like to admit it, conditioned towards that tall, white, blonde and blue eyed beauty, but, for so many here in Latin America, it’s really on a whole other level.
She told me about her other two children, one a mechanic who she laughed was married to a woman who hated to get dirty. The other a single mother who worked all days and studied at night to pay her way through university. She was very proud and had such a beautiful smilde, very obviously a genuinely open and warm person.
As I listened to her, it was so interesting to remember that, all over the world, while we can live different lives, we as a human race, are so connected. We face many of the same challenges. We glean with pride over many of the same things. We love, we struggle, and we hope in very similiar ways.
She reminded me so much of my mom, just replicated as a Brazilian 🙂 I showed her pictures of all my family, which she loved. She lived in San Sebastian, where I also needed to get off for the ferry, and it was almost 11:30pm when the bus arrived. She was worried about me getting into the island at midnight and trying to find a hostel. She made a sleeping motion and said I could spend the night at her house and take the ferry in the morning, during daylight.
She said, if I were your mom, I would be worried! I assured her I had a place to stay on the island, and assured her I’d take a taxi and not walk alone to my hostel. She said, oooooh good, and hugged me with such a warm motherly hug.
It was really nice, and then she got off the bus, and waved to me from outside the window as the bus drove away. I wish I would have taken a picture with her, it’s little moments like this that really represent why I love traveling.
Ilhabela: The best Sao Paolo Beach Weekend Escape!!
The next four days were utterly relaxing. The humidity surprised me though and there was no chance of putting on lotion after a shower, because there was literally no way it would rub in.
Summer in South America is January – March, so those are the hottest months with larger crowds. That said, it’s hot and humid all year round so you’ve got persistently good beach weather. Spring is quite nice, during September – December, as there is less rain.
Lotion, impossible. Makeup was also a no-go. My hair was huge. But I felt glowing somehow, with the sun, the lack of product, and the naturalness of it all.
Things to do in Ilhabela
Praia do Julião – a green beach on the south end of island
The first day I took a boat to a more isolated beach on the south end of the island, where the water was a beautiful green, reflecting the vegetation rich and extremely lush surroundings. I chose this beach because I wanted an “escape” day, to just simple “be”. And this little island is small and secluded.
I simply laid on the beach and later walked to some natural pools hidden in the tropical forest. Around 100-200 people live in this sector, I can’t even imagine!
Most make a living watching the beach, having a tiny restaurant or ‘watching’ the weekend houses of the people who live in Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo is the business center of Brasil and is only 3-4 hours travel from this island, so many people who live in the city and have money, have weekend houses on Ihalabela. They pay locals to take care of the house while they aren’t there.
I was talking to one of the locals who works as a lifeguard on the beach, and went with him walking 10ish minutes past some houses and into the field, soon arriving at this gorgeous river, that also had little pools of water for swimming. It was incredible!! I felt so disconnected from the world while, at the same time, so in touch with the world.
Heading back to the center area, where my hostel was, in the night I walked along the beach, where there are many little open air bar restaurants. I found one for the evening, sat with my journal, feet in the sand, ordered a beer, chatted with the waiter / owner and watched the sunset.
Just. Plain. Lovely. I ordered a 600cc beer, which, due to the heat, they serve in a big coozy with a little little drinking glass. Does it get better than that?!
The next day I bummed around the center of the town and looked at the shops, of course buying a brazilian bikini! What I loved is that women of every shape and size wore whatever bikinis they wanted, with pride! It was empowering.
That night I went out for dinner to an open air restaurant on the beach, everything there is open air. I had an amazingly delicious grilled fish with the traditional black beans (feijuada) and salad on the side.
Walk from center to the North end of the island
Or, you can take a city bus to the end and walk back towards downtown. This way, you can check out each beach along the way! It feels amazing to bum along the beaches, stopping when you want to dip your feet in or lay on the sand, and enjoy the ocean air with no agenda.
If you have time, take the bus all the way to Praia do Jabaquara, which is the northernmost beach. It is surrounded by a tropical forest and has freshwater rivers intersecting and forming little pools along the beach.
Take a jeep or boat to Bonete
From downtown, you hop in a jeep and head into the the greenery, passing many waterfalls and amazing panoramics on the way. We went in the jeep a couple hours through the wet forest until getting out and walking a good hour or so to arrive at the waterfall. There, we had about an hour to swim in the pool underneath it and feel the constant spashes of the rushing water. It was marvelous!
Below the waterfall was pure lush green forest in sight, that, and clouds. So beautiful. Experiences like this really are just so humbling.
After eventually getting back into the jeep, we stopped at a crystal blue beach for lunch, beers, and beach time. Ooooh, pure heaven it was!
Baía de Castelhanos
If you came in a vehicle (4×4) or rent one, or take a tour, you can head towards the Ilhabela state park. This route passes many waterfalls with more of the tropical, wet forest views.
If you’re there in February…. remember Carnaval!
I got lucky enough to be there for the first night of Carnaval activities. Carnaval is on a Tuesday but many activities start Friday night. In general, the big Carnaval party is in Rio de Janiero, but all Brazilian towns have some sort of celebration, jsimply varying on how big.
On the island it was much smaller, naturally, but of course I went to check it out!! That night I walked from my hostel to the center of the town, to see the colors, the dancing, and the Samba!
Various “schools” of samba work to get their performances, costumes, themes and perfect choreography, to show off during Carnaval. The main road in town was closed and the schools basically had a “dance off,” with the top three being named. During these times, the crowds lined the streets, watched the dancing and cheered.
It was awesome to watch the dancing, the costumes, and the crowds. The public was also dressed up in elaborate costumes, and so many men dressed up as women hahaha. Everyone was in some sort of costume and just dancing in the streets.
The surprising thing to me, though, was that there really wasn’t any stands selling food or alcohol or anything. Just open music and dancing. The American in me felt dumbfounded by the “lost opportunity” haha. But, for the lack of formalized stands, there were many intelligest people with their coolers and grills, selling beers by the can or kabobs of meat/veggies/etc. It was a really fun experience.
Sadly, heading back to Sao Paolo from my beach weekend
On the day I needed to leave, I hurried to the ferry and then to the bus station, to take a bus back to Sao Paulo, in time for my flight back to Santiago. Upon trying to buy my ticket, I realized the last of my cash had fallen out of my wallet!! Also, the credit card machine wasn’t working. Yikes!!! Hauling my suitcase, I hurried all over that little area, looking for ATMs but none were working.
I was sweating (it was so hot) and I was mentally freaking out. A car slowed along my side and two people start to talk to me. At first I didn’t understand why and I ignored them, but then I realized that they were trying to help me!! They asked if I was lost and if I needed help finding my way. Gosh, these people are so thoughful! I said thanks and that I was heading to the bus station, and, although I knew where it was, thanked them as they carefully explained the turns “one block there, then left, then two blocks and right…”
Realizing there was no way to get money, I headed back and desperately explained the situation to the lady. She was so nice and we tried a couple solutions. One of me transferring money, but the online site wasn’t working. Then, I asked if I could just get on the bus and on a stop along the way, get out and pay with my credit card. Surely, on one of the stops, the credit card machine would work! I was frantic and little tears were dripping down my face from pure anxiousness.
Then, some guy comes out of nowhere with his wife and little daughter and pays my ticket. I started crying, and thanked him from the bottom of my heart. The ticket was about $20, and that is no small amount here where the minimum wage hovers around $300. They paid my ticket and said you’re welcome. I could see the little girl, who was probably 5 or 6, looking at me, confused, but realizing her dad just did something nice. She had such an interesting look on her face, processing the situation, and it really hit me how those little moments impact us as children, in how we grow up, think, treat others, and co-live as adults.
It is those moments of us treating strangers with respect, giving the benefit of the doubt, gifting smiles and hellos, living in a way that adds value to the workings of this world.
These are the moments that can, and do, change this world. Having good energy, vibes, and actions means that they ripple out further and further through each interacion we have, because one positive from me to you, results in your positive from you to another, and on and on and on.
A Sao Paulo beach weekend getway, with it’s four days just to me, for self reflection, centering, and genuine appreciation, was just what the doctor ordered. And in a place so precious, with people so alive, so genuine, so internally vibrant, it couldn’t have been better.
Maybe its the climate that keeps them outside breathing fresh air; maybe is the green vegetation surrounding them; maybe its the loud energetic music constantly playing in the streets – that kind of music that just sounds happy and makes your legs literally want to dance…
Whatever it is, I left with an appreciation for Brazil, its people, and a reminder to keep my internal light lit, in order to live my days in a way that spread light to those around me.