The first recorded inhabitants of the island of Itamaracá (the name literally means ‘stone that sings’ in the local Indian Tupi language), were shipwrecked Portuguese sailors in 1493 and 1498. A small community developed, and the first simple chapel was constructed in the old town of Vila Velha in 1526. About 100 houses were built, and the sugar industry provided the first employment in 1534. Around this time occasional pirates and French sailors visited, seeking the valuable hardwood Pau Brasil - from which Brazil actually gets its name… not the nuts.
The Dutch invaded in 1631, and stayed until 1654, building the original fort on the site of the current Fort Orange in the process of taking control of large parts of the coast of NE Brazil. After power was ceded back to the Portuguese in 1655, this simple sand, clay and brick structure did not survive and was later replaced by a large limestone block construction, the remains of which can still be seen today. Itamaracá was one of the original 15 captaincies of Brazil under Portuguese rule, which continued until 1825, when Brazil was finally granted independence from Portugal.
Itamaracá continued to be based around agriculture, sugar cane farming, coconut production, and fishing for many years, until the introduction of two prisons in the early part of the 20th century. The simple idea, as was followed worldwide, was that few people could swim in those days, so the rest of the population on the mainland was safe as the only access to the island was by boat. Eventually visitors started to arrive by boat to discover the natural beauty and enjoy the beaches. Many years later a road bridge was constructed, tourism started to arrive and by the 1970’s beach houses on the ocean side of the island were being built. In the 80’s and 90’s beach home ownership was at its peak with the wealthy from nearby Recife looking for weekend getaways and holiday homes.
Twenty five years ago one of the prisons was still an ‘open’ prison, so the inmates were free to leave so long as they returned at night. Many did not always return, and while others did, some were laden down with ill-gotten gains from the empty holiday homes on the island. Almost overnight, unsurprisingly, people started to decide they no longer wanted to visit the island. Bribery, corruption and the lack of police allowed this to continue until ten years ago, when the relaxed regime was ceased, and policing improved. Now a new facility is being built 2 hours away on the mainland, and the prisons will be closed down and the inmates moved when it is ready.
However over that period of time, zero inward investment was made, so the island avoided all the multi-storey apartment construction, infrastructure improvements, speed cameras, traffic lights, crowds, etc, that can plague some beach resorts. The island has retained its simple rustic appeal as the tourists are now returning – and increasingly more people are taking up residency - to enjoy, once again, the simple life, natural beauty, and the beaches on Itamaracá.