Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro. Photograph from @alexandrawuzyk on Instagram
Travel Destinations

Corcovado and the lovely peaks that Brazilians long to sing

A climbing enthusiast spends a week in Rio de Janeiro trekking its famous mountains and observes life—and its many melodies—from above.
Gideon Lasco | Jan 29 2019

The sea and the sun, the beautiful beach with beautiful people—the bossa nova lyrics can almost write themselves in Rio de Janeiro’s eternal summer. Beyond the seaside districts of Ipanema and Copacabana, however, there are mountains just as charming the beaches under their shadow—and local musicians wrote songs celebrating them. In “Corcovado,” Tom Jobim sings lovingly of the city’s famous mountain, upon whose pinnacle stands the Christ the Redeemer:

Da janela vê-se o Corcovado /

O Redentor, que lind

(Through the window I see Corcovado / Redentor, how lovely)

In “Pão de Açúcar” by Os Cariocas, another landmark—the Sugarloaf Mountain—is highlighted:

Diz a foto que o morro do pão-de-acúcar /

É um eterno Carnaval

(The photo says it’s the Sugarloaf Hill / It’s an eternal Carnival)

I could have admired those mountains from a distance, while sipping on my favoritesuco de açai. (Caipirinha, a cocktail made of cachaça and lime, is a close second). Or I could have just as easily relaxed on the beach. Yet the mountains are calling, and I must go…

A view of Sugarloaf Mountain from the cable car, after a rewarding climb up its east face.

My first hike was the Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar), one of the most iconic mountains in that part of the world. Actually, you can take a cable car to reach the peak. But the hiking trail allows you to avoid the crowd and enjoy views of the Guanabara Bay and the monolithic landscape of the mountain itself. While Sugarloaf is just 396 meters, the hike starts from sea level and involves some technical rock climbing. Not to mention some scrambling up the rock outcrops that characterizes pretty much the entire mountain.

Rock climbing up Sugarloaf mountain.

At the summit, hikers are joined by the tourists who took the cable car. You can sip beer or buy souvenirs while enjoying the view of the city. This time around, since it was part of the tour itinerary, I took the cable car down to Urca Hill, and then took the trail back to Urca.

The following day I went up to Morro Dois Irmaos (“two brothers’ hill”) the 544-meter two-headed peak that towers above the beaches of Leblon and Ipanema. This time I went alone, taking a cab to the Vidigal favela, then a moto-taxi (essentially, a Brazilian habal-habal) to the trailhead, and just following the well-marked trail. I arrived early enough to catch the last light of the fireflies. And I had the trail to myself!

Dos Irmaos mountain as viewed from Ipanema.

There were many highlights in my trek. I saw a troop of marmosets animatedly playing with each other along the trail. Though it was cloudy I managed to catch a view of Rocinha, which, with over 70,000 people, is the largest favela in Brazil. I also saw the beaches of Zona Sul. As a traveler, I seek beauty in the places I visit but I cannot help but notice the inequality of a favela and a posh village when they are side-by-side, under the presence of Cristó Redentor. But then, it was already safe for me to go to Vidigal on my own, which hints at improvements in peace and security. I can only hope this will benefit more Brazilians.

My next hike was Corcovado itself, which rises at a respectable 842 meters. If Sugarloaf Mountain has a cable car, Corcovado has a train that goes to the top. Once again, I opted for the trail that starts from Parque Lage, winding up through a dense jungle. Part of the Tijuca mountain range, Corcovado offers trails that go farther. But I preferred to spend my afternoons in the beach so I opted to go straight to the summit.

The Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado mountain.

As with my previous hike, it was quite cloudy at the top. Thankfully, the clouds didn’t dampen my joy over having climbed my third Rio de Janeiro mountain! It was enough that I caught a glimpse of the historic Maracana stadium. I was quick to report to my father, a football fan with whom I watched a Neymar goal in Barcelona’s Camp Nou. Back in Corcovado, a mass was going on in the small chapel behind the pedestal of the 30-meter high Christ the Redeemer statue made of soapstone. For my part, I opted to just say a prayer facing the sea, thanking God for having created such a beautiful world.

Finally, on my last full day in Rio I went to Pedra da Gávea in Barra de Tijuca, which is south of the city. The name means “Rock of the Topsail,” christened by the Portuguese sailors who saw the mountain taking such a form. Rising to 844 meters, it was a more serious hike than the others, with a forest covering its monolithic character, save for the summit which reveals the granite face that inspired its name.

Pedra de Gavea offers an enchanting mix of tropical forests and monolithic peaks.

The forest, with it overgrown sections and tropical trees. were as beautiful as any in the Philippines. It reminded me somewhat of Mount Makiling, in my hometown of Los Baños. The highlight of the hike was the Carrasqueira, a steep section that must be negotiated before reaching the summit. Although it can be hiked without ropes, it’s quite risky to do so and I opted to climb with proper rock climbing gear. The rocky summit with its wonderful views was more-than-enough of a reward.

Pedra de Gavea offers an enchanting mix of tropical forests and monolithic peaks.

As I only had a week in Rio, I had to end my hiking adventures with four mountains. Perhaps in my next trip I can go further afield: Pico de Tijuca (1,024) is also a possible day hike. Within a few hours from Rio lie higher mountain ranges: from the picturesque Serra dos Órgãos (highest point 2,263 meters) to the lofty Mantiqueira Mountains (highest point 2,798 meters). In my experience, you always end up realizing that there’s so much more to explore in the place you’re visiting. Brazil, the fifth-largest country in the world, is certainly no exception.

 

PRACTICALITIES

Getting there. Rio de Janeiro is one of the farthest cities from Manila but you can find great airfare deals if flying out of Hong Kong. Also consider a Brazil (or South America) side trip if you’re already in the United States. Although Rio is still a 9-hour fight from New York, it’s relatively closer and cheaper than flying out of Manila. No visa is required for Filipinos to enter Brazil.

Doing the hikes. You can easily do the hikes by yourself, although guides are recommended for Sugarloaf Mountain and Pedra de Gavea because of the technical parts. In any case, tours are readily available in the tourist districts (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon) and online.

When to go. Brazil is a year-round destination. It is tropical like the Philippines—minus the typhoons! But it gets quite cool during the winter months of July to September, and very hot (over 40 C) during the summer months of December to February, so prepare accordingly.

 

For more information, go to visit.rio/en.