Steve Nelson
January 22, 2011

Rio de Janeiro has many surprises hidden away but perhaps one of its most impressive secrets is either completely hidden or visible from just about every part of the city. The Parque Nacional Floresta de Tijuca is the forest covering the mountains that dominate Rio, with the city centre, the Zona Sul of Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches, and Barra de Tijuca all sitting between the slopes of those mountains and the waters of the Atlantic or Guanabara Bay.

As an escape from the city within the city, Tijuca Forest is perfect. Access is easy whether driving yourself, being part of a tour group, or taking the metro to Saens Pena and catching a bus or minivan up the hill to Alto da Boa Vista. The climb up the winding roads through Usina, behind the Jardim Botanico or past the Itanhanga Golf Club in Barra de Tijuca, takes you into the cooler mountain air almost immediately, as the humid city air becomes clean enough for mosses to grow on damp tree trunks.

The whole area was originally cleared of trees, cut down for timber by the colonialists in order to build the developing city of Rio de Janeiro, and later to make space for coffee plantations. The idea of replanting it is reputed to have come from Dom Pedro II, with a Major Archer charged with the task in order to save Rio’s water supply. Major Archer passed on the replanting task to 6 men who had not quite been freed from slavery, and worked from 1874 to 1888 before abolition meant they were joined by others. They planted 100,000 seedlings between them. The park was later turned into a recreation area with bridges, fountains, lakes and leisure areas for turn of the century cariocas.

It is a safer place now than in previous years as Rio begins to take its tourist industry seriously, with park guards on the gates and at the bottom of the trails to the peaks. Weekends have more visitors, and are by definition safer times to be walking quiet trails. Anyone can visit for some jungle ambience, although perhaps not everyone would be able to make it to the tops of the peaks. Those in decent shape should not have much trouble though, even in wet conditions. The paths are straightforward to follow, and even have signposts (which still appear to be an unnecessary luxury item for many Brazilian trails and treks) once you have left the road at its highest point, an hour or so walk up from the park gates and the bus stop.

From urban jungle to wild jungle in half a morning. The trail splits, one to Bico do Papagaio (Parrot’s Beak) and on to Pico de Tijuca (Tijuca Peak), both of which can be ‘conquered’ in a comfortable day. Pico de Tijuca is the highest peak in Rio at 1,012m/3,340ft, so has the best panoramic views. It is also high enough to deter many people from reaching the summit, so the trails can be nice and quiet even on a weekend. An and a half after leaving the warden, you can be leaving the trees, circling the peak and climbing up the steps hewn from the rock, with a (not completely trustworthy) steel railing for support. This part needs particular care when wet as the rock can be slippery. The views sweeping down the valley to the city are worth many minutes rest, and they only improve from here up. The small peak on a clear day gives you a wonderful 360 degree vista of almost every part of Rio.

The whole city spreads out before you with the two airports on either side of the Rio-Niteroi Bridge leading across Guanabara Bay to Niteroi and the MAC Museum of Contemporary Art. You can even see the mountains around Petropolis and Teresopolis, including the Dedo de Deus, pointing its Finger of God at the sky. The views of the now-closed Maracana Stadium may be the best way to see inside it before it reopens for the 2014 World Cup. The Engenhao Stadium, which is being used for Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama matches in the meantime, can also be seen a little further down the Linha Amarela road to Barra de Tijuca. The hills open out behind Bico do Papagaio to allow you a clear view of the areas around Barra de Tijuca and Lago Marapendi, which were empty flood plains until only about 20 years ago, now filling with buildings as the city creeps outwards. The view stretches along Praia de Barra de Tijuca all the way along Rio’s longest beach to Recreio dos Bandeirantes and the mountains that shelter the best surf beaches of Prainha and Grumari as the city finally runs out of room.

Your are still close enough to make out the features on Pedra da Gavea though, with the Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers) Mountains dwarfing the tall buildings of Ipanema and taking you around to Copacabana and Sugar Loaf Mountain. The views are genuinely awe-inspiring, totally panoramic. The only thing that appears to be missing is Cristo. You can see the back of his head though, if you look carefully enough.

The best way to see him properly is to combine your trip to the Tijuca Forest with a visit to Corcovado as well. The views from the statue of Christ the Redeemer there are right on top of the city, a different aspect to those of Pico de Tijuca and at least as impressive. A clear day from the peaks of Tijuca and Corcovado should leave you with memories, photos and videos of Rio de Janeiro that you will find hard to beat on any day in any other city in the world.

You can visit Steve’s blog at Around Brazil: Lapa, Rio de Janeiro

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