While Rio de Janeiro is growing rapidly—the metropolitan area now clocks in at some 6.3 million inhabitants—it has preserved, at its heart, one of the largest and loveliest urban greenspaces in the world. This gentle swath of Atlantic rainforest, one of the last remaining tracts in the state, is well worth exploring, particularly if you won’t get a chance to visit rural Brazil on your trip.
This isn’t primary rainforest; until 1861, the Tijuca Range (Macico da Tijuca) were carpeted with massive sugar and coffee plantations. Droughts and soil exhaustion prompted the ecologically minded Portuguese King Don Pedro II to order it replanted, with precious and diverse rainforest. The project took thirteen difficult years, and tough slave labor, under Brazilian engineer M. Gomes Archer, but the result, as you will soon see, is awe-inspiring.
High above the city’s posh South Zone and Copacabana Beach, the park offers fantastic views, lush landscapes, short hiking trails, and more than thirty wonderful waterfalls. It’s a fantastic escape from the heat of the city into the cool Atlantic rainforest. While the park is accessible using public transportation, most travelers opt for our Tijuca Rain Forest Jeep Tour, which includes transportation and a naturalist guide.
1) Climb a Mountain
Rio’s skyline is defined not by skyscrapers, but by massive granite domes, most famously Corcovado (710m/2330ft), topped by the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Tijuca National Park offers climbing access to several less famous (but just as gneiss) stone mountains, such as Pedra da Gávea (842m/2763ft) and Pedra Bonita (696m/2283ft), with exquisite city views; Bico do Papagaio (989m/3245ft), surrounded with rainforest; and Pico da Tijuca (1022m/3353ft), Rio’s highest peak, a steep but non-technical adventure open to almost everyone.
2) Spread Your Wings
Rio is one of the world’s top spots for urban hang gliding and paragliding. Tour operators patrol the beaches looking for eager first-timers—take your pick. No matter how you choose to fly, you’ll begin at Rampa Pedra Bonita high atop Tijuca, with those incredible views, not to mention the park’s the fastest access (ten minutes or so) to Copacabana Beach. Tandem flights can be done after a few hours of instruction, or opt for a full course, which usually requires at least a week commitment.
3) Find Feathered Friends
While hikers of all stripes will enjoy the park’s many trails, birders will especially appreciate this rare remnant of the Atlantic rainforest. With more than 500 species of birds, including 100 endemic to Rio de Janeiro State, you may be rewarded with some of the flashiest neotropical denizens. Keep an eye open for the three-toed jacamar, saffron toucanet, tijuca atra (grey-winged cotinga) tijuca condita (cinnamon-vented piha), and the endemic scaled antbird, star-throated antwren, and red-necked tanager. You’re also likely to see black capuchin and howler monkeys. The best part? You’re only 20km (12mi) from the city, a natural habitat for all sorts of night owls.
4) Go Underground
In addition to the sun-lit natural splendor of waterfalls and granite peaks, Tijuca National Park has several limestone caves that can be explored. The most popular cave to visit is Gruta Luiz Fernandez, with opportunities for spelunking, repelling, or simply exploring. Gruta Paul and Virginia are other popular destinations, at the end of a pleasant hike. Gruta de Morcego is the third largest cave in Brazil.
5) Make a Pilgrimage
A must-do whlie in Tijuca National Park in Rio is, of course, a tour of Christ Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” and a symbol of Rio. Take the railway or cable car to the top for awe-inspiring views over the city and bay.
Those looking for less prominent places of pilgrimage within the rainforest could visit Mayrink Chapel, famed for its paintings by Candido Portinari. If you prefer a more mysterious destination, ascend Pedra da Gavea, which has a human face “carved,” (or, more likely, weathered) onto the cliff face. The inscription beneath it, purported to be an ancient Phoenician dialect, refers to the son of Phoenician King Badzir, who ruled around 850 BC. Though perhaps an elaborate hoax concocted in the early 1800s, it’s just another excellent excuse to take a break from the beaches and big-city attractions and ascend into Rio’s magnificent rainforest getaway.