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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rio from the mountain tops

I’d been told it was a magic place, a viewpoint in Rio second in impact only to heart-stopping Corcovado. I had tried several times to find it, but not even tour guides could ever get me there. Now I was with taxi driver Paulo. He spoke a smattering of English, was decidedly simpatico (friendly), and clearly knew his way around.

It augured well. It was my determination this time to see Rio from the heights, or as many of them as I could scale. This is the city of the morro, or hill. And the hills of Rio are all dramatic, divisional protrusions, soaring to improbable heights, like so many giant thumbs thrust straight out of the ground.

As sheer and rocky as they are, many of their summits can be readily achieved – by road, walking trail, or, in the case of Sugarloaf, by cable car. They all offer spectacular views of this amazing city setting: the crescent-shaped beaches of Flamengo, Copacabana and Ipanema, the indented Botofago Bay, the broad still waters of Lake Rodrigas de Freitas, the clustered city buildings that reside between the morros, and the adobe brick favelas, or slums, that clamour up their sides.

And all of this is pressed between the serious big waters of island-studded Guanabara Bay, and the serious big hills of the forest-covered Tijuca-Carioca Massif straight behind. Wow! Not surprisingly, Rio’s two most popular tourist destinations are elevated viewpoints. These are Corcovado and Sugarloaf. The former affords what must surely be the world’s most fantastic city panorama. Its talon-shaped peak thrust its way through the already soaring Tijuca-Carioca range. Crowning its top is the mighty 30m-tall Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer.

Improbable as it seems from down below, you can reach Corcovado’s summit by car or by “cog train”.

The centerpiece of your view is Sugarloaf. It soars an amazing 396m straight out of the shoreline of Guanabara Bay and guards mightily the entrance to Botofogo Bay. Seeing it from way up here, you feel impelled to conquer it.

The cable car that allows this does so in two stages, stopping at the only slightly less imposing Morro da Urca on the way.

Sugarloaf’s highlight is the view. Curving away to the south, in an arc of brilliant blue and white, is Copacabana. To the north is Flamengo, and then the city centre further on. On the far side of the bay is the skyline of Rio’s sister city, Niteroi. It is linked to Central by the world’s longest single-span bridge.

I happened to be staying in Copacabana. From my sixth floor window I had a great view of the forest-clad morro that marks the beach’s northern limit. At its top stands a fort – “Forte do Leme”.

The Leme morro is an environmental protection area, comprising 11ha of virgin Atlantic forest. The fort was originally built in 1779, and only deactivated in 1965. Several of its giant cannons are still aimed at the entrance to Guanabara Bay.

It goes without saying that you get a breathtaking view from up here: of Sugarloaf to the immediate north, and to the south Copacabana, Ipanema and the giant twin morros known as Dois Irmaos (two brothers) beyond.

Oh yes, and of the gargantuan flat-topped Pedra Gavea behind.

One more little trek would intervene before I set out on my major quests. The track up to the “alto” at Parque Catacumba is akin to a genuine mountain trail – broken steps, slippery patches with branches to grab hold of as you climb. The park covers the southern side of Morro dos Cabritos, which rises abruptly from the shores of Ipanema’s Lake Rodrigo de Freitas.

Two taxi rides with Paulo completed my assignment. The first took me up to Pedra Bonita, which is adjacent to Pedra Gavea. It is from here that hang gliders make their death-defying leap, landing on a beach some 400m straight below. The mighty Dois Irmaos form the best part of the backdrop as they float demurely down.

Buoyed by this success, we set off next day to find Vista Chinesa. To do so, we drove up past Corcovado all the way to the bairro of Boa Vista. Slightly south of here we saw the signpost: “Vista Chinesa”.

I have to admit, I never really imagined the spot to have anything to do with China. But it does. A large oriental pavilion stands in tribute to Rio’s Chinese population, and their efforts in building roads and planting tea.

They were honoured very well, for this indeed is a magical place. The view is uninterrupted. The dense Tijuca forest is slowly being encroached upon by a smattering of buildings. These begin to cluster, but only succeed in keeping the great forest at bay down by the coast. Sugarloaf looks impossibly imposing from up here. And you can’t believe you’ve actually reached its top.

On the way back down we visited yet another lookout. This was at Parque Dois Irmaos. It occupies the lower reaches of those mighty twin guardians, and offers the definitive view of Ipanema’s gently curving beach.

“Are there any other places?” I asked Paulo as I clicked merrily away, and then ran out of film.

“Sure, plenty! You want to go again tomorrow?”


# The Rio Othon Palace, Avenida Atlantica 1020, Copacabana; othon hotels

# Copacabana Palace Hotel, Avenida Atlantica 1702, Copacabana; copaca banapalace

# Center Hotel, Avenida Branco 33; asia rooms

WHEN TO VISIT Rio’s climate is pleasant all year round, but to see the city at its best, avoid the cooler months from June to August.

BRING ALONG Sun block, sun hat, comfortable walking shoes, repellent. Special requirements can be purchased quite cheaply in the city.


# Brazil is especially good value at the moment. You might want to take advantage of the bargains in the shops.

# Check that your taxi driver can speak at least a smattering of English before going on long drives, and negotiate the fee first.

VISA Required for Brazil. RESEARCH Lonely Planet has a current edition on Rio, with great maps and information on the morros.


Anonymous said...

DAnger place. não presta muy perigoso.