Neverland isn’t as far as you think. That place where you never, never have to worry about grown-up things again sits just below the equator: third degree to the south and east until the stars fade. There you’ll find the island of Fernando de Noronha, where “dreams are born and time is never planned.” That’s how Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie described Neverland, but he could have just as easily been describing Brazil’s most famous island.
I half-expected to see mermaids rise up from the azure waters. After all, there were dolphins playing along the boat’s bow as it glided up to Praia do Sancho, voted one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil. This gorgeous crescent of sand is surrounded by imposing cliffs, and the only access is via the sea or the mountain trail. If you enter via the cliffs, the trail begins with a steep ladder that literally drops between a rock and a hard place. Or if you have fairy dust on hand, you can fly in Peter Pan-style. Being short on fairy dust I took the boat, but it was no less magical. There was plenty of time to snorkel and spy on a silvery school of fish before soaking up sun alongside lizards. It is easy to never grow up when your only worry is your next adventure.
And adventure is easy to find in Neverland. It’s best discovered outside, among the trees or the beach or the stars, or all three if you can find it. Fernando de Noronha is well known throughout Brazil for its incredible natural beauty and diversity, and is the only inhabited land of the 21 islands in the volcanic archipelago. It is also home to various marine research projects such as Projeto Tamar, which rehabilitates sea turtles. The diving and surfing are world class—enough to draw thousands of tourists each year trying to catch the perfect wave. Unfortunately I’m not a surfer or a diver, but I did explore some fantastic trails, both in the woods and on the beaches. Though I didn’t see any pirates (they fled long ago) or giant crocodiles, I found some Lost Boys on the Praia da Conceição, where every day at sundown they play beach volleyball. With their feet. This unique sport, called footvolley, or futevolêi in Portuguese, is another indication of the Brazilian passion for all things football (soccer) related. Why play beach volleyball with your hands when your feet are just as capable? So every evening I watched them jeer and cheer each other in the game as the last light fell upon the water. And yes, it was magical.
The resident Lost Boys (and Girls) on the island total about 3,000, and each one I encountered said they were more than happy to call Neverland home, despite the high cost of living, the limited fresh water supply and the lack of a hospital. Although the island is a paradise of sun and sand, it is not a paradise of modern infrastructure. There is one paved road on the entire island that runs about seven kilometers (just under four and half miles) and the rest are dirt roads that turn to slick muddy paths during the rainy season. We stayed at the end of one of those unpaved roads just steps from Praia da Conceição, which turned out to be a perfect location for us: just far enough from the main village and very close to the beach.
But since our place was at the end of a hilly, rocky path outside the main village, taxi drivers weren’t keen on taking us and any activities that included transportation had to be picked up in the main village at the top of the hill. But who can complain about a little uphill walk when it has stunning ocean views? The minor inconvenience of not being in a car door-to-door turned out to be an adventure on its own. We ran into a herd of cows on one walk and got nearly caught in a downpour during another, until Paulinho (Little Paul), the owner of a nearby pousada, gave us a ride to dinner. Adventure can be found anywhere if you are willing to open your eyes to it.
We can probably thank Amerigo Vespucci for the discovery of Fernando de Noronha, as he is believed to be the first European to find the archipelago during a voyage sponsored by Portugal in 1503. The largest island (and the only one that became inhabited) was awarded to a Portuguese nobleman who financed the discovery voyage, but he likely never set foot in paradise. The nobleman, Fernão de Loronha, was a prominent Lisbon merchant and eventually the island would bear a derivative of his name, Fernando de Noronha. Over the next two hundred-plus years, Portugal, England, France and Holland would wrestle for control of this tiny paradise before it finally returned to Portuguese rule.
Just as in the fairy tale, Fernando de Noronha harbored more than just Lost Boys. The island was also home to pirates and prisoners, not all of whom made it out alive. It wasn’t until the 1770’s that paradise became a prison. Fernando de Noronha became a penal colony and nearly the entire island’s forest was cut down for construction. Getting rid of all the trees also served two other purposes: it removed hiding places for prisoners and destroyed their chances of building a raft. As you can imagine, the consequences of ravaging a delicate ecosystem in the the ocean were severe, however, these days Brazil takes the restoration and preservation of the island quite seriously. Only a fixed number of visitors are allowed each day, all of whom have to pay a daily tax just to be on Noronha, and an additional fee to access the protected park areas, which is half the island. So, conserving nature doesn’t come cheap, but I’d rather limit the traffic now to ensure the island’s future sustainment.
What first intrigued me about Fernando de Noronha wasn’t its ecosystem or beaches. It was the more recent history of this small island. In World War II it served as a place for prisoners, political and otherwise, but it also served as a base for American troops. Indeed, the first land we touched on the island—the runway—was constructed decades ago by my fellow veterans. In exchange for basing military personnel on Noronha, President Roosevelt agreed to finance Brazil’s national steel-making company. Although I knew that Brazil was the only nation from South America to send troops to fight in World War II, I was surprised to learn that we also used their land to base our own personnel. The United States Navy held control of the airport in Fernando de Noronha from 1944 until the war’s end, but it was also used as a tracking station for guided missiles from 1957-1962.
These days the pirates, prisoners and soldiers are all gone, leaving tourists like me to explore this enchanting island with only curiosity to guide me.