Hiking the trails of Rio

Hi all,

There is no question that Rio is a great city in which to party. After all, it’s home to the largest Carnival celebration in the world. It’s also a great place to relax, with its many famous beaches.

But sometimes you need to get in a bit of exercise, and one great way to do that is to hike one of the morro trails of Rio. Morros are those imposing granite mounds that poke up everywhere around Rio (and indeed, all over this part of Brazil). A couple of great things about morros: 1) You do the hard part (going UP) first, then the easier part after, as opposed to hiking down into a canyon, and 2) at the top you are generally rewarded with some pretty awesome views. Rio isn’t called The Marvelous City without reason.

In this post I’ll tell share with you a few of my favorite hikes. They are of varying difficulty, but all can be done without special equipment (although I’d take a length of rope to Pedra da Gavea). Do take water and something to snack on, as you won’t usually find any vendors along the way. Also, it’s best to avoid these trails 24 to 48 hours after a rain, as they can be quite slippery.

Got all that? So here we go!

1) Morro da Urca. Everybody knows about Sugarloaf Mountain, which made a guest appearance in the James Bond movie Moonraker. But what’s that smaller morro next to Sugarloaf? That is Morro da Urca. (Urca is the name of the bairro or city sector where Sugarloaf sits.) This is a fun, not-too-difficult hike.

To start, just take a taxi or bus to the Sugarloaf Complex, which is a large circle. The ticket office lies to your right; the trail head lies to your left, and is marked by an unobtrusive sign saying Pista Claudio do Coutinho. The pista itself is a paved lane. After you’ve walked for maybe 15 minutes you will see the trail breaking off to the left. The first part is pretty steep, but after that it’s not terribly difficult.

Arriving at the top of Morro da Urca you find that you have wonderful views – and you didn’t even have to pay for the cablecar ride! While you can’t hike to the top of Sugarloaf itself (you’ll have to fork out a few reais to take the second leg of the cablecar), the views from Morro da Urca are 360 degrees and really great, including nice views of Guanabara Bay and the Rio-Niteroi bridge.

I’ve heard that you can ride the cablecar back down for free. When I tried it, I was told that it wasn’t going back down any more that day (although there were still 20 minutes or so until the posted closing time) and so had to walk back down the trail. But you could always give it a try.

2) Pedra Bonita. This is a cool hike because it’s kind of a two-for-one deal. Pedra Bonita is where the hang gliders launch in Rio. So after your hike, you can descend a bit and then check out the gliders – maybe even soar yourself!

Atop Pedra Bonita with Pedra da Gavea behind in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Atop Pedra Bonita with Pedra da Gavea behind

Arriving is a bit of a pain, since you have to either take a bus down from Tijuca or up from Barra, and service is sometimes erratic, especially on weekends. (Hey, it’s Rio.) But after that, the hike isn’t too tough. The trail head is marked by a stone guard station.

At the top you find a large open space, so you can have some privacy if you want to linger. This is also a splendid vantage point from which to check out Pedra da Gavea – perhaps your next conquest?

Afterwards, you’ll descend back down the same way. Once you arrive at the guard house, if you turn right and go along the road a bit, you will arrive at the hang glider launch site. You can actually sit right under the launch platform, giving you some some awesome views as folks take that big step! (If you’d like to go yourself, the going rate these days is around 250 reais.)

3) Dois Irmãos. This is my favorite climb in Rio, and many of my friend agree with me. While the hike up takes no more than an hour – 40 minutes if you are in really good shape – you can turn this into a nice day event, perfect for a sunny Sunday.

John atop Dois IrmaosTo start, arrive at the bus stop in Vidigal. (There’s only one stop in Vidigal.) Although Vidigal is a favela – oops! “community” – I’ve been there several times and never had a bad experience. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone having a problem there. Still, leave your watch and credit car at home or in the hotel. By the way, there is a kiosk there at the bus stop where you can buy water and snacks.

The trail head is near the top of Vidigal. You could walk to it, but then you’d probably be pretty tired by the time you got to the trail. So you can either pile into a kombi van (about 2.50 reais per person) or pay a motor taxi to take you (about 5 reais). Ask to be taken to the quadra de futbol, the outdoor court on which football is played. There is another trail head, but it’s harder to explain how to get there, and it also isn’t very pleasant, passing behind homes and generally being littered with trash. But don’t worry if you are put out at the other trail head, as the two paths meet after maybe 10 minutes.

The trail is divided pretty cleanly into thirds of 12-15 minutes each . You can grab a breather after each leg. The first leg is the steepest, but it gets easier thereafter. At each rest stop you can take some great pictures. But the best of course are from the summit. From here you can see virtually all of Zona Sul (the South Zone), plus parts of Centro, and looking the other way, Barra and off towards Recreio. There can be cloud cover, but it’s often transitory, so wait a few minutes if clouds first block the view and things likely will clear. This view is why the climb is so popular. It may be the best view of Rio, period. I think so anyway.

Descending takes roughly the same amount of time. Be careful because there are a couple stretches toward the middle which are actually trickier when descending. Careful with your footing and don’t get in a hurry.

Once back at the trail head, you can stop for a beer or soda and a tapioca, which is a crepe made of cassava flour. There’s a little place near the arvorão (literally, big tree). Or if you want something more, there are a number of small restaurants lower down in the favela – oops! “community” – and on weekends they often serve up fresh churrasco (barbecue). There is always plenty of cold beer to slake your thirst. Hey, you earned it!

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4) Pedra da Gavea. My friend Damon maintains that Pedra da Gavea is the only true climb in Rio, that the other trails are mere walks. Whether you agree or not, it’s certainly true that Pedra da Gavea is much more challenging. Don’t attempt it if you aren’t in good shape. I also recommend going either with a professional guide, or at least with someone who had climbed it a couple of times.

Note that there is one stretch at the top over bare rock which is tough to ascend and tougher still to descend under control. So it’s not a bad idea to carry 15 meters of rope with you. Just to stop you if your slide back down gets out of control.

To begin, head to Barra de Tijuca and get off at the first bus stop. It’s a little tough to explain how to get to the trail head – another good reason to go with someone experienced. This climb takes a couple of hours and is not easy. I wouldn’t try it after a night out in Lapa! But it’s very rewarding. At the top is a wide expanse. Some folks even camp overnight, although it’s not officially allowed. Note that a group of tourists was robbed atop Pedra da Gavea in early 2014 (??), so don’t take anything of value or more money than you’ll need.

5) Parque Lage to Christ the Redeemer. Parque Lage is one of my favorite places to go in Rio. Surprisingly, it’s not much touted by the guide books, although I think it’s far superior to the nearby and better known Botanical Gardens. Ah well, that just means fewer tourists to contend with.

At the top of the park is a waterfall. Going up the left side of the falls is a trail which goes all the way up to the Statue of Christ. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never actually hiked this trail. I am told that it takes 2.5-3 hours to ascend. Also, people debate whether it is safe. Some say that thieves sometimes wait there, while others have reported there is no problem. So if you want to do this hike, you might want to find a guide who knows the trail and can advise you.

If you should decide to hike it, you’ll arrive at the top of Corcovado, the morro on which the statue of Christ perches. You will be rewarded with great views of The Marvelous City, and also can feel pleased that you didn’t have to pay for either the cogwheel train (which is a pretty cool ride, actually) or a taxi (which are rip-offs).

IMG_2277If the idea of seeing Rio from above appeals to you, but you aren’t sure if you want to hike a morro, then you might instead pay a visit to the hilltop community of Santa Teresa, which I’ve written about before. You can take a taxi or bus up into Santa Teresa, or walk up into it from Centro or Lapa. While it’s n easier go than the hikes noted above, you should wear sturdy tennis shoes. Flip flops will not cut it.

Santa Teresa is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. It’s usually pretty calm on the weekdays, and on weekends it’s a popular place for locals – especially in the summer, since Santa Teresa receives wonderful breezes from Guanabara Bay. Be sure to take a camera, and definitely you should visit Parque das Ruinas (Park of the Ruins).

That’s just a quick recap of a few of my favorite hikes. Ask a local or Uncle Google to learn more. If you’d prefer to hike with a group, visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/trilhasdoriodejaneiro/. Internations (www.Internations.org) also frequently organizes hikes.

To find the buses which pass these destinations, consult http://brsrio.com.br/or http://www.vadeonibus.com.br/. And here’s another good Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/trilhasgratuitasrj/.

Update as of June 1, 2015: A new trail has opened in Rio’s Zona Sul in the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela community which sits atop a morro between Ipanema and Copacabana. You can read about it here: http://riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/rio-travel/new-hiking-trail-opened-in-rios-pavao-pavaozinho-community/. It appears that a guide may be required.

Happy trails to you, until we meet again!


Chilling out (literally!) in the south of Brazil

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One response to “Hiking the trails of Rio”

  1. Jamie says:

    Whoaaaaahhh Rio De Janeiro is super super super beautiful. You’re so lucky to have been there.

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