The peaks and troughs of Rio de Janeiro
A walking holiday wasn’t the plan when I arranged a last minute summer trip to Rio de Janeiro – but Rio had other ideas.
For a start, its iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue, on the 2,310 ft. summit of Mt. Corcovado, is right in the middle of a beautiful subtropical forest in a section of the Tijuca National Park and has an exciting walking trail.
For another thing, its other famous peak, Sugar Loaf Mountain, is reached via two cable cars to two summits. The first, Mount Urca, is only 720ft high and almost begs you to walk, for the spectacular views and the little monkeys that pop up on the trail in the hope that you are carrying bananas.
Then there’s the promenade of Copacabana Beach which is two and a half miles long and takes you on to Ipanema beach. You can’t stop walking when you’re in Rio.
I had only packed a pair of trainers but my first stop was Mt Urca. It was a beautiful day so I walked and enjoyed the views and met one or two friendly monkeys – marmosets – who quickly lost interest in me when they saw I had no bananas.
When I got to the top of Mt Urca, where there is a helicopter landing pad, restaurants and tourist stalls, I was told by the staff that I couldn’t get up to Sugarloaf because I should have bought a ticket for both cable car trips at ground level.
They only let you buy on top of Urca in high season, I was told, so I had to console myself with the thought that the views from Urca are said to be around as good as those from Sugarloaf.
To get to Sugarloaf, I took the Metro to Botafogo station with the intention of walking to the Red Beach – Praia Vermelha – where you get the first cable car. However, some UNICEF workers who were fundraising outside the station advised me not to walk as it was not safe. I had to get the bus.
Personal safety is something you have to take seriously in Rio as its favelas are notorious slums and there are neighbourhoods you simply can’t afford to stray in to. So I took the bus but, I have to say, the streets I looked out on en route looked pretty ordinary to me.
Urca was a good little warm-up for Mt Corcovado. Nearly everybody visiting Rio, regardless of religion or even lack of religion, does the Christ the Redeemer landmark. But the waiting times and the cost of the funicular railway to the top seemed quite ridiculous. The other option, a mini-van service, didn’t seem very attractive.
No, to escape the crowds and make more of a pilgrimage of it, we – my son Daniel and I – decided to walk it and I am so glad we did. It has left an indelible memory with me of the beauty of Rio.
With the helpful advice of locals, we got the bus to Parque Lage, a tranquil and historic city park, where rangers control the access to the trail. You have to sign in your names and the time you start on the trail but there is no fee.
The hike is about two hours and it is only for the able-bodied as there is a small stretch where a rope line has been installed so that walkers can haul themselves up a particularly rocky terrain. The monkeys – capuchins – were bigger here and not so visible as the marmosets. They stayed high in the trees looking down on us. You can also often see toucans, hawks and skunks although we were not that lucky.
It is basically a jungle trail without views until you get to the top where you have the most fantastic view of all! Once at the top you pay the entrance fee into the monument – about £5 – and congratulate yourself on the money you saved by not being transported there.
It’s crowded with people on the summit so you have to squeeze in for the best views. On the day we went, most of the tourists seemed more interested in selfies of themselves, with arms outstretched like the redeemer, rather than any other more thoughtful kind of experience.
I was visiting Rio in August, their winter, but it felt like summer and I consider myself lucky to have been able to fly from Lisbon in Portugal on a British passport. No visa requirements and the Portuguese airline TAP made the 4,700 mile journey in to a relaxing ten-hour trip.
As I was on my own on arrival, prior to meeting up with my son, I was careful in my choice of hotel going for a modest Ibis which was part of the huge Nova America shopping complex in the north zone of the city. Not far from the Maracana football stadium but a bit off the main tourist trail. I thought I might see more of Rio this way.
I know the Ibis brand well from motoring in Europe. It’s almost exactly the same all over the world and I was sure of a good night’s sleep and probably a reasonable breakfast. Finding my way around Rio de Janeiro international airport was hard so I gave up on a bus or train journey and hailed a taxi. Although I know a little Portuguese, the driver and I could barely communicate but he went in to action when I told him my hotel was on Martin Luther King Avenue.
Off we went on a journey through the infrastructure of Rio. Every time I gave the driver a questioning stare he smiled and said: “Martin Luther Kingie, no problem.’’ I was wrecked with anxiety by the time the welcoming lights of the Ibis came in to view.
The hotel was a good choice, right next to a Metro station and inside the huge shopping mall which had high security fencing and access. I found out why when I took the Metro next day and gazed out on the shanty towns around it.
The breakfasts were good with a first class selection of tropical fruits. I spent the first half of the week in the Ibis and the second half in the Ibis Budget next door. Total cost £250. The taxi ride from the airport was about £20. On my return I took a bus for just a few pounds.
The restaurants and hotels on the main street at Copacabana beach had a slight air of decadence and a hint of great expense to me but the lively side streets had plenty to offer. We took lunch in a restaurant offering dourada – golden bream – as a lunch special. The dourada caught in these parts are king-size and the fish was served as a large steak in a mild curry sauce. Very enjoyable and about £20 for the two of us with beers.
The beach itself is just one huge fun strip and two of the most enjoyable pastimes seemed to be drinking coconut water from huge fresh coconuts and playing footvolley. By midday there is one long line all the way along the beach, near the water’s edge, of groups of men, women, boys and girls, playing footvolley.
At night, the entertainers hit the beach. There are live bands, crooners, funfairs, shows, all kinds of activities. Next time I go to Rio, it will be with my wife and I will book a hotel in the Copacabana area.