I’m lying out on Botafogo Beach as I write. From this viewpoint, eyes approximately eight inches above the sand, in one direction I can see twelve peaks of hills.
One is the famous Pão de Açúcar (“Sugarloaf”) with its cable car station perched precariously atop. Others further in the distance are nameless as far as my limited brain is concerned. Together they curve around the waters of Guanabara Bay, which in front of this beach is dotted with stationary sailing boats and one stubborn individual trying to wind sail between them on a day with no wind.
If I am willing to exert energy and roll all the way over onto my other side, I can see Cristo Redentor (“Christ the Redeemer”) towering over the city from yet another peak.
Right now the statue is a grey cross framed by a slightly lighter grey cloud. It’s at night when his presence is especially spectacular. He radiates a brilliant silver against the night sky, sometimes appearing like a second moon when clouds obscure his shape but not his glow. This is not true on nights when Brazil plays in the World Cup. Then, Christ is illuminated in green light instead, because even Jesus is a fan of Neymar.
360 degrees of stunning scenery and I’m not even sitting on the cool beach! This beach’s polluted water keeps crowds away, unlike the much larger beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema which are probably flooded with humans right now. Ipanema’s views are breathtaking. I’ve already been smacked and unceremoniously dragged to the shore by many a wave that crashed down while I was distracted by the view of the vigilant Dois Irmãos (“Two Brothers”) hills and the favela, Vidigal, that climbs up their slopes.
If these are the sights visible to the head hovering above sand level, imagine what it’s like from above. There’s a scene in Disney’s Peter Pan when the Darling children have just flown across London and into the stars and they get their first aerial glimpse of Neverland. In my memory of it, this view includes the mermaid lagoon flanked by at least one green, pyramid-shaped mountain. In the past week I hiked twice to the top of Dois Irmãos and, looking down, I was pretty sure I’d found Neverland. Except that Rio is more impressive than Neverland.
In addition to the steep hill that flanks Rio’s own Lagoa (“lagoon/pond”), the bay winds its way through countless more sharp hills before opening out into the Atlantic.
The rocky peaks of the taller mountains get lost in the clouds.
Then there’s the city itself, twisting and turning through valleys and clambering up onto the hillsides. The only sound that successfully pushes its way through the air waves up to that height is the funk and samba music from Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela.
If I’d had a phone I would have called just about anyone from home to have a chance to say: “Hey. I’m on top of the world. How are you?”
The hike itself is a really fun one. From the foot of the mountain and entrance of Vidigal, you can take a van or moto taxi up or you can walk up in about 30-40 minutes. You’ll walk by several mounds of garbage, but you’ll walk by a far greater number of local businesses screening the football match of the moment. On my second time around I tried to guide our group up the narrow corridors of endless steps the way a friend took me the first time. That failed pretty quickly when I realized I couldn’t tell one set of stairs from another. Fortunately, a friendly stranger told us we could follow the main road the whole way to one trail entrance at the community’s new football pitch. Much simpler. From there, it took us about one hour (including many stops for epic photo opps) of squeezing between tickle-y bushes and clambering over rocks and slippery, muddy ascents. If you make it the whole way without losing your balance, you deserve a beer at the end. If, like me, you wipe out, you’ll want a beer at the end. The great news is that on the way down you can bear left at a fork (by climbing over a low bent tree branch) to take a different route down to Vidigal’s streets near Bar da Tapioca, a nice spot for that beer!
The chocolate-banana milkshakes there make for a scrumptious alternative (or addition), while the tapioca (a starchy substance that makes delicious sandwiches) itself is a must. From the bar, you can follow the stairs down through narrow alleyways past the architectural wonders of adaptable favela housing. I’d recommend this hike highly, but also suggest that hikers learn a bit about Vidigal and favela tourism first!