As I climb Tijuca Peak for a commanding view of this “Marvelous City,” it is an easy walk up, and a great way to gain height above this gorgeous place. The beautiful beaches, bays, harbors, and forested mountains that jut up from the city, lay at your feet like a royal carpet.
Rio’s Tijuca National Park is the world’s largest and only urban national park in the world, encompassing six square miles. You can rock climb, hike, bird watch, cycle, and even hang glide from the mountain tops all within the limits of the city.
My guide while in Rio is Gabriel Morand, a biologist who enriches tourists’ experiences through the local, long-standing Town Tours.
This vast national park area was completely stripped of trees back in the late 1880s in order to make way for coffee plantations. But visionary Emperor Don Pedro II saw the destruction, put an end to it and created a park reserve in its place. Gabriel explains that in between this dense forest of spectacular peaks and the sugar white sand beaches, the city of Rio grew.
As we descend the mountain, Gabriel points out the Samauma tree called the “queen of the forest.” Radiating from its trunk are wide, narrow wings much like cedar buttresses. Indigenous Amazonian tribes would beat on the trunks with big sticks to communicate to other jungle tribes via the loud, reverberating sound. He also shows me a one and a half foot long Teju lizard scurrying into the jungle, lacy orchids, purple bromeliads high on the trees, and swinging Capuchin monkeys.
A more typical way to get above Rio for a picture postcard view is to take a train ride though the cool forest to the Christ Redeemer statue (Cristo Redentor) on Corcovado Mountain. Christ towers over 1,000 feet high, with a span of eighty-four feet from one carved hand to the next. Although this iconic symbol of Rio has been welcoming visitors to the city with his outstretched arms for over eighty years, it was recently chosen as one of the new Seven Wonders of the Natural World.
Even more exciting is the cable car ride to Sugar Loaf (Pao de Acucar) mountain, which sits poised on the edge of the Bay of Botafogo. This cable car system was the third in the world to be installed, back in 1912 when equipment had to be rock-climbed up to the summit. We time it right, and are able to witness the most amazing sunset as the sky behind the Christ appears to be ablaze with fire. As night descends, Christ glows whiter and whiter, illuminating the night sky like a beacon, along with Rio’s shimmering lights.
Not far from the Cristo Redentor complex is a hillside neighborhood called Santa Teresa, an artisan district with cobbled streets, workshops and galleries. Located here is the highest hotel in Rio, the sophisticated and elegant 5-star Hotel Santa Teresa (www.santateresahotel.com). This historic home turned boutique inn was once the homestead of a wealthy coffee plantation owner, who centuries ago helped create the former forest devastation to make way for coffee trees. This leap of faith to transform the plantation mansion into “one of the most beautiful hotels in all of South America” (Conde Nast), resulted in a neighborhood-wide transformation. The forty-four room hotel boasts Brazilian art and design in its decor, inspired by African and indigenous roots. Tropical gardens surround a natural slate swimming pool, a spa and a superb French restaurant with a Brazilian flair. Upon its opening, shops moved into the neighborhood, as well as other boutique hotels and great restaurants, making Santa Teresa another neighborhood success story, and just the place to end my “Above Rio” tour.
From the hotel’s patio, I can look out over the mountains of Tijuca, the former plantation-turned-national park, and all the summits that rise above Rio. As the 2016 Olympic Games approach and the city undergoes a face lift, I believe Rio will continue to rise, even after the Olympics and dazzle the world - like only Rio can do. www.rcvb.com.br