Exploring Ilha do Mel, Part One
Ilha do Mel.
We arrived in Paranagua, looked around, and decided we didn’t like it. The town was dirty, rundown, and depressing. Could this really be the gateway to one of Brazil’s most beautiful and remote islands? We sat down by the dock to find out. Finally, a little wooden ferry puttered up to put us out of our misery.
Since it was the middle of the week, our fellow passengers were mostly locals, loaded down with a week’s worth of supplies. I delighted in watching a family of four load their provisions on board: cookies, cheetos, potato chips. Apparently the only thing missing from Paradise were trans fats and corn syrup. When all the supplies and luggage were properly stowed, our ferry took off, leaving the shabby outline of Paranagua’s harbor front in our wake.
The ferry chugged along past a handful of uninhabited islands bristling with mangrove forests. As we approached our destination we were joined by great black frigatebirds swooping and diving for the evening meal. The outline of the island appeared. To the left lay a long thin strip of sand lining a low lying forest, and to the right, mangroves giving way to a thickly wooded mountain peak. As we got closer, we recognized signs of civilization: fishing boats with trawlers, brightly colored one story houses, and a handful of people. We pulled up to the dock at Brasilia, the larger of the island’s two settlements. Everyone pitched in to help the family of four unload their many boxes of loot. Most of the passengers disembarked, but a handful of us remained to make the 20 minute trip over to Encantadas.
When we landed we set right about finding a place to sleep. Though there were some interesting options along the waterfront, we took one of the sandy paths towards the interior in search of a better deal. Along the way, we passed signs for Recanto do Frances. A mix of nostalgia and long suppressed francophilia must have overcome us, because before we knew it we were standing on the porch of the French posada, chatting with the owners Serge and Helène and cooing over Uisky, their cantankerous but lovable blind dog. Helène informed us that they were currently running a special promotion: two nights for 150 reais. The cherry on top? A dish of profiteroles was included in the special. If we weren’t hooked before we certainly were then. We unloaded our belongings in “Toulouse”, a simple but comfortable double room with a little tiled table, two chairs, an empty cooler (the original mini-bar) and a small private bathroom.
The sun was low so we quickly got out to explore the beach. We followed yet another sandy footpath towards a clearing and beheld a wide expanse of rugged beach and breaking waves. To the right, a surprisingly well maintained lifeguard stand, and to the left, a rocky peninsula with a thin ribbon of dirt weaving up and over a ridge into the unknown. We would later learn that this path marked the beginning of the sole overland crossing to Nova Brasilia. Overhead, two hang-gliders floated on gusts of wind.
We watched the sunset from atop the ridge and then strolled along the water collecting sand dollars all the way home.
The next morning, over a breakfast of ham and cheese on pão frances, papaya, and doce de leite crêpes (the house specialty), we watched as hummingbirds, black-backed tanagers (a name which does not do justice to their multicolored plumage), and Brazilian tanagers jockeyed for position at the bird feeders in the posada’s garden. When it was clear that the team of fiery Brazilian tanagers had dominated the seed station, the Swede and I set out to conquer the 4 km overland trek to Brasilia.
At first the path was clearly marked, well trodden like a cow path. We climbed over the first hill and landed on yet another gorgeous beach that scalloped around from where we stood to another rocky peninsula ahead. There the path disappeared. We weren’t sure if we were meant to cut through the forest, as a few tracks would suggest, or to climb around the rocks by the water. After digging into the forest, we realized it would be too difficult without hiking boots and a machete, so we veered back towards the coast. Even there, havianas proved poor foot protection from the abrasive rock. After a good half hour of clambering over boulders and squeezing our bodies between tight crevices, we emerged onto yet another empanada shaped beach.
We sought shade towards the interior, where we found ramshackled cottages and camp sites still dusty from their dormant season. We came to a clearing, this time with some bonafide hallmarks of civilization, namely a post office and a general store. The smell of baked goods lured us into a little food stand where we loaded up on doughnut like pastries filled with generous dollops of doce de leite.
After refueling, we got back on the path heading north and followed hand painted signs for the Faro (lighthouse). When we once again reached the coast the faro loomed above us, crowning the tip of Nova Brasilia.
Though the lighthouse was locked, the view from the base was still a spectacular panorama of the entire island. We saw just how much land we had covered that day, and how much more lay in store for us to explore.
Along the path back towards the island interior we passed a family of hefty iguanas, soaking up the late afternoon rays.
Our options for returning to Encantadas were limited. Either we scramble back over the rocks as night fell, without a flashlight, or we take a short ferry ride back. The possibility of spending the night on exposed boulders was unappealing to say the least. So we chickened out and took the ferry. Any guilt over our choice vanished when we saw a pod of dolphins cruising around the bay, presumably snapping up dinner. I suddenly had a craving for seafood.
Back in Encantadas, I pieced together my best portuguese to ask a local where a good restaurant was for dinner. We were directed to Fim da Trilha, a posada and restaurant a short walk from the ferry dock. We arrived at a quiet, low lit terrace and awkwardly asked to sit down while two Brazilian couples stared at us. Apparently the sight of two sunburnt gringos was captivating dinner entertainment. We sat down and ordered two caipirinhas, garlic and herbed shrimp and shrimp stroganoff. It doesn’t look like much, but that shrimp stroganoff was insanely good: creamy, sweet, salty, and deeply comforting. I still remember it as one of the best dishes of the entire trip. With a belly full of camarãos, we merrily waddled back to our posada.
Practical Info: Ilha do Mel is accessible only by boat (seriously, there isn’t even enough flat open space to land a plane). For locals and tourists alike, this means taking an Abaline ferry from the colonial port town of Paranagua (2 hr ride), or from the smaller and closer Puntal do Sol (30 minute ride). There are no cars allowed, so when you arrive be prepared to lug your bags to your destination, or hire a guy with a wheel barrow to lug it for you.
Recanto do Frances, located in the heart of Encantadas, is a well priced, clean, and comfortable French posada that serves crêpes in the morning. Highly recommended!
Fim da Trilha, also in Encantadas, is a posada and restaurant specializing in seafood. If you go, order the shrimp stroganoff. You won’t be disappointed.