City of God: How to explore Rio de Janeiro's off-beat wild trail

Rio de Janeiro spans bustling neighbourhoods, golden shores and forested peaks – but now one special trail unites them all...

7 mins

“Watch out for snakes,” exclaimed Thiago.

“How?” I thought.

They could be anywhere. The path was one-foot-at-a-time wide and hidden like an old fold among the dark-green carpet of scrub that rose in front of us. The sun was sinking behind Rio de Janeiro’s ridges, its colours thickening as day cooled to dusk, and the jararaca vipers would be wriggling out soon.

Thankfully, we reached the Mesa do Imperador rocks – heaped giant, grey pebbles, scaly with lichen and low ferns – without a bite. The path disappeared into scuffs on the granite and we clambered and pulled our way up, reaching the top after a few minutes and dripping with sweat. Thiago gave me a final pull-up to the summit, his firm hand under my elbow.

“Worth the climb?” he asked, panting through his broad grin.

Cable car to the highs of Sugarloaf Mountain (Alex Robinson)

Cable car to the highs of Sugarloaf Mountain (Alex Robinson)

I didn’t reply. I was transfixed. Rio de Janeiro, a city of 12.6 million lay miniaturised at our feet. Yet the houses, apartment blocks and rushing roads were silent, drowned out by distance and the twitter of birds. The natural landscape that dwarfed Rio seemed to belong to a time when forest and mountain were enemies of mankind, impenetrable in their vastness and filled with wild things and mystery. High crags and hulking boulder-mountains, cushioned by forest and brightened by the purples of flowering quaresma trees, spread all around me. Above, the bent back of the Corcovado mountain was crowned by its Christ the Redeemer statue while the Pedra da Gávea – a table-top monolith almost a kilometre high – sheered down to the sea below. Folds of ridges, broken only by the blue of Guanabara Bay, faded into the distance; and squeezed in between all this was Rio itself: skyscraper apartment blocks stacked like sugar cubes, threads of road knotting the horizon, aeroplanes and helicopters buzzing overhead like tiny whirring insects.

Rio was made by Mother Nature as much as Man. It is a city of neighbourhoods that were separated from each other by forests, mountains and bays until the 20th century. Modern transport and the pressures of space have squeezed them together, but having been isolated for so long, they retain their unique personalities: the old colonial centre, with its Baroque Portuguese churches; the sprawling favela slums that scatter the hills above; exclusive beach neighbourhoods; Miami-modelled suburbs; and sleepy fishing communities. Each of these neighbourhoods boasts its own captivating views – think Table Mountain, Victoria Peak and Arthur’s Seat in the same city, then throw in scores of panoramas equally as magnificent and magnify the metropolitan area many times over. That’s Rio – a city three times the area of Cape Town and nearly double the population of Hong Kong. Now: imagine one trail running through it all.

The Transcarioca Trail was only finished last year and connects Rio with those magnificent views. It would take ten days to walk all of its 180km from Barra de Guaratiba to Morro da Urca, but there’s no need to. The route is formed of discrete sections, so you can dip in and out for short walks or day hikes and get to know the city’s areas along the way. I was here to do just that, exploring cultural nooks, densely forested parks and the little-visited southern coast, to unearth a doorstep wilderness every bit as compelling as Rio’s colourful history.

Copacabana's timeless sands (Alex Robinson)

Copacabana's timeless sands (Alex Robinson)

São Francisco da Penitência church (Alex Robinson)

São Francisco da Penitência church (Alex Robinson)

Latin lessons

Sugarloaf Mountain crouches over a perfect wine-glass bay in Rio’s heart. It was at its foot in 1567 that Portugal defeated France and claimed the right to found a city. Yet Portuguese Rio has been almost completely ignored by visitors ever since, who flock instead to the beach. The area is crammed with secrets and was revamped for the 2016 Olympics, so before climbing Sugarloaf and my first section of the Transcarioca, I set off to explore the neighbourhood.

I began at the Baroque church of São Francisco da Penitência. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Latin America but is almost unknown to travellers – so much so that the guard on the door was having a snooze when I arrived. I had to wake him to buy a ticket. The streets outside were teeming yet the church was cool and peaceful – silent but for the low mantra of a widow quietly reciting a rosary. The nave shimmered like an Aladdin’s cave and the walls were swathed with gilt filigrees of flower shapes and spiral-carved columns. Solemn statues processed to an altarpiece that glowed with lambent light as warm as a low sun. On the ceiling, St Francis ascended to an impossibly blue heaven, arms outstretched.

I left the church and plunged into the maze of central Rio’s streets, losing myself in its energy: the sea of rushing African-Brazilian faces, the shouts of vendors, the smell of coffee wafting from tiny boteco street cafes. I chanced on a shop selling gaudy carnival costumes and stumbled into another filled with Brazilian voodoo paraphernalia – carved wooden sticks swirling with snakes, herbs for ritual bathing and effigies of orixá saint-deities. There wasn’t a tourist in sight.

Christ the Redeemer (Alex Robinson)

Christ the Redeemer (Alex Robinson)

I lunched in air-conditioned comfort in an old art deco café lined with mirrors and busy with penguin-suited waiters before heading to architect Santiago Calatrava’s Museum of Tomorrow. This starship-white sliver of concrete and glass juts into the blue of Guanabara Bay and cherishes ideas over the usual relics and artefacts. Its interactive exhibits starkly warn of the impact we are having on the planet: plastic pollution, overpopulation, species depletion, the loss of the wild. It left me yearning for nature.

The next morning I rose early to hike up the Sugarloaf on the first section of the Transcarioca. It’s really two hills, with the ‘loaf’making up the taller portion and the Morro da Urca (which the path ascends) the lower bulk. The trailhead began at Praia Vermelha, a sheltered cove busy with pensioners performing their morning stretches. The light was golden and soft, filtered through low sea mist. Beyond, the trail yachts swayed in the water in front of a distant rushing avenue and the serrated skyline of central Rio. All was peaceful here, as anglers cast their lines from the skirts of the Morro da Urca and gulls glided on rising thermals. Then, abruptly, the path cut up over the mountain and I was in the forest. Tiny marmoset monkeys chirruped in the trees, a guan with a deep-red wattle cooed and floated from one branch to another as silently as falling dust. Epiphytic plants, moss and orchids were everywhere.

After a few slow hours I reached the top, which was all bright sun and business after the shady calm of the forest. Corcovado’s Christ stood in front of me, the 6km swathe of Cabana beach to my left, a yellow ribbon fringing a deep-green sea. The Pedra da Gávea loomed behind like the forehead of a pensive giant. I spent the best part of the day lost in the views, lunching at the snack bars and taking the cable car one stop higher to the Sugarloaf itself, as the sun sank behind the hills.

Surf's up at Barra de Guaratiba (Alex Robinson)

Surf's up at Barra de Guaratiba (Alex Robinson)

Scrambling to the lookout at Mesa do Imperador (Alex Robinson)

Scrambling to the lookout at Mesa do Imperador (Alex Robinson)

His name was Alex, he was a writer…

The next day I moved to Copacabana, from where I would later walk a section of the Transcarioca to the Mesa do Imperador rocks and where Thiago would instil in me a fear of invisible snakes. But in the meantime I spent the day exploring this famous beach neighbourhood.

It was the French who were responsible for Copacabana’s early fame. In 1887, the world-famous Parisian actress Sarah Bernhardt – who had been personally invited to Brazil by emperor Dom Pedro II – shocked prudish Rio by visiting what was then a remote Atlantic beach, slipping on a bathing costume and plunging into the ocean. Rio was shocked. At the time, public decency laws prohibited swimming in the sea outside strictly managed hours, and even then, only when wearing conservative dress. But Bernhardt would establish a trend and, after she left, Rio began its love affair with the sands of Copacabana.

By the 1920s, the neighbourhood had become the most stylish escape south of the equator. And while ‘the girl’ may have been from Ipanema, bossa nova – that swaying chill-out sound forever associated with Brazil – was born in Copacabana. So, after an afternoon on the beach, I went to hear its sounds played live at the Bip Bip bar, where the old stars performed in the early ’60s. It’s as informal now as it was then – a room a few metres wide and just a stroll from the sea, its handful of tables spilling onto the dragon’s tooth paving. The beer was ice-cold, locals far outweighed tourists and everyone talked to each other, as Brazilians do.

As the band struck up, I got chatting with Luis, a physics professor born in the favelas and fluent in four languages. We were soon joined by a jovial 70-year-old who remembered Helô Pinheiro, the real ‘girl from Ipanema’, playing beach-volleyball in front of the bar. By the tail end of the evening we’d been joined by two young Swiss backpackers, one local poet and Barbara, a fashion designer from neighbouring Ipanema. And still the band swayed on…

The surfing coast of Barra de Guaratiba (Alex Robinson)

The surfing coast of Barra de Guaratiba (Alex Robinson)

Size matters

I woke to a murky dawn and a mild hangover, blown away by strong coffee and the anticipation of my longest stretch of the Transcarioca yet. The

guide, Marcelo, picked me up in reception and we were soon driving out of Copacabana and through the mock-Miami stretches of Barra da Tijuca, where gated apartment blocks jostled next to the beach. The dual carriageway became a single-lane road that wound through dense trees before dropping down a rocky headland at Barra de Guaratiba – a village as small as a Scottish hamlet but still within Rio’s reaches. It was windy and raining as we parked in the harbour and climbed on a steep path towards the tree line. A fishing boat foundered on the beach and men, huddled around steaming coffee in scruffy cafés, stared at us as we passed.

“You’re crazy to be out in this freezing weather,” their faces said. “It must be below 20°C.” A warm storm for an Englishman.

In the forest, the rain was falling in ropes, battering the broad leaves of the heliconias and pounding the red earth. Fresh waterfalls dropped onto the path next to us, and for two hours we scrambled up muddy banks and rounded rocky peninsulas where strong waves battered the beach and huge flocks of frigate birds swooped and banked, playing in the wind and sending out whooping calls across the ocean.

Then the rain thinned and the day warmed. Soon the forest was steaming, sending clouds off its flanks into a calming sky. As we walked along a vast white-sand beach, the sun sent shafts of light through the clouds and opened a blue hole in the grey. By the time we reached the next cape, the weather was almost clear.

Marmosets linger in the trees of Sugarloaf (Alex Robinson)

Marmosets linger in the trees of Sugarloaf (Alex Robinson)

The iconic crescent-shaped shore of Copacabana Beach (Alex Robinson)

The iconic crescent-shaped shore of Copacabana Beach (Alex Robinson)

We climbed to a viewpoint and saw another Rio. Beach after beach stretched at my feet – Prainha, Macumba, Bandeirantes, Tijuca. Each was twice as wide as Wembley Stadium; together, they were half as long as London. Little islands lay offshore, fringed with flecking foam. I could see surfers arriving, pulling their boards from still-dripping VW Beetles and rushing towards the swelling waves. Some 40km away, beyond the beaches, the sky was still a steel grey colour. Against it, etched in black, was the silhouette of the Pedra da Gávea – the one constant in my Rio wanderings. I could just make out pink, green and electric-blue hang-gliders drifting its flanks like falling petals. Then I looked inland and saw a vast forest as dark as kale and still wispy with evaporating cloud.

“The Transcarioca runs up there,” said Marcelo, “into the Pedra Branca reserve, the largest urban forest in the world. There are ocelot, spider monkeys, Guarani villages, alligator swamps…”

For a moment, I had a glimpse of the overwhelming size of Rio. The Transcarioca had opened up its hidden corners – diverse communities, fascinating neighbourhoods and tracts of unspoilt nature – but I had only scratched the surface. I hadn’t seen Ipanema, Rio’s caiman-filled salt-water lagoons or the steps of Pedra do Sal, where samba was born.

I knew that beyond the forest Marcelo pointed to lay a wilderness as big as Sussex, running all the way into the hills of Rio de Janeiro state. Beyond that, the country stretched endlessly – you could drop Australia into Brazil and have room left over for the UK – and nearly half of it is wild. I imagined all the forests, beaches and rivers and was filled with longing: to walk more of the Transcarioca, to dive further into Rio, and to lose myself amid the vastness of Brazil itself. Maybe next time.

Copacabana arguably owes its fame to a 19th-century French actress (Alex Robinson)

Copacabana arguably owes its fame to a 19th-century French actress (Alex Robinson)

Rio Highlights

1: Corcovado

Take the funicular railway to the Christ the Redeemer statue for fabulous views.

2: Tijuca National Park

One of the largest urban forests in the world, re-planted in a pioneering conservational project in the 19th century. The Transcarioca cuts right through it.

3: Ipanema beach

Come early morning to see the beautiful people, and in the afternoon hike the Dois Irmaos mountains that overlook the beach with Rio Ecoesporte.

4: Rio’s nightlife

Make your night in the centre a Friday or Saturday, when the samba clubs of central Lapa have live music (the best is Rio Scenarium) and impromptu bars spill out onto the streets.

5: Carnival

Walk by day, revel by night. The world’s biggest, most colourful Mardi Gras festival has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

6: Hang-gliding

Drop from the top of one of Rio’s monoliths on a tandem flight and land right on the beach.

7: Ilha Grande

Go beyond the city – Rio de Janeiro is a state as well – and this gorgeous, roadfree, beach-fringed island is one of the highlights. It’s 90 minutes’ drive south of the capital, on the Emerald Coast.

8: Iguaçu Falls

New budget flights with Avianca fly direct from Rio, meaning you can hop down to the world’s wildest waterfalls in just over an hour for pennies.

Museum of Tomorrow (Alex Robinson)

Museum of Tomorrow (Alex Robinson)

The Trip

Journey Latin America (0208 600 1881) are one of many companies running trips to Rio and the Emerald Coast. Its nine-day tour includes transfers, B&B accommodation and some activities, but international flights are excluded.


Rio’s smaller hotels range from simple guesthouses and boutique stays to more luxurious rooms with sea views.

Windsor Group is Rio’s home-grown answer to the Hilton – but with local charm. It has hotels across Rio, with the central Windsor Asturias (+55 21 2195 1500) a stone’s throw from Lapa’s nightlife and the Sao Francisco church. Elsewhere, its freshly renovated Miramar by Windsor (+55 21 2195 6200) has some of the best-value luxury rooms in town and is situated right on Copacabana beach, with great views from the upper floors.

For Guaratiba, you will need to stay in the southern beach suburb of Barra, where the spanking-new LSH (+55 21 3609 1100) has balconied rooms flooded with light and is right on the sand.

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