Brazil (Rio de Janeiro State)
Parque Nacional da Tijuca and Alta da Boa Vista
When the Portuguese arrived, the area which is now the city of Rio was covered by dense green tropical forest. As the city grew the trees were felled and the timber used in construction or for charcoal. However, if you look up from the streets of Zona Sul today, the mountains running southwest from the Corcovado are still covered with exuberant forest, the periphery of the Parque Nacional da Tijuca (daily 7am–9pm; free) which covers an area of approximately 120 square kilometres, and is maintained by Brazil’s State Institute of Forestry (IBDF).
In the seventeenth century the forests of Tijuca were cut down for their valuable hardwood and the trees replaced by sugar cane and, later, coffee plantations and small-scale agriculture. In the early nineteenth century the city authorities became alarmed by a shortage of pure water and by landslides from the Tijuca slopes. Eventually it was decided that a concerted effort was needed to restore Rio’s watershed and, in 1857, a reafforestation project was initiated: by 1870 over 100,000 trees had been planted and the forest was reborn. Most of the seeds and cuttings that were planted were native to the region, and today the park serves as a remarkable example of the potential for the regeneration of the Atlantic forest.

Following on from the success of the forest, the IBDF has gradually been reintroducing fauna. The forest is once again the home of insects and reptiles, ocelots, howler monkeys, agoutis, three-toed sloths and other animals. Most successful of all has been the return of birdlife, making Tijuca a paradise for birdwatchers. Overstretched park rangers have had a difficult time in recent years preventing residents of the eight neighbouring favelas from hunting wildlife to eat or to sell.

Routes into the park

The park offers lots of walks and some excellent views of Rio, and though areas of it have been burnt by forest fires it remains an appealing place to get away from the city for a few hours. Buses don’t enter the park, so a car is useful if you plan to do an extensive tour: you can go in via Cosme Velho bairro, near the Entrada dos Caboclos, and follow Estrada Heitor da Silva Costa. (Areas of the park are used as terrenos, places where candomblé and umbanda ritual ceremonies are performed: caboclos is the collective name for the spirits involved in these cults.) An alternative entrance is at Rua Leão Pacheco, which runs up the side of the Jardim Botânico (off Rua Jardim Botânico) and leads to the Entrada dos Macacos and on to the Vista Chinesa, above the Museu Histórico da Cidade in Gávea. From here there’s a marvellous view of Guanabara Bay and the Zona Sul. Both of these entrances lead to different roads that run through the park, but they converge eventually in the bairro of Alta da Boa Vista. If you’re intent upon walking, you should be warned that even the shorter trip from the Entrada dos Macacos will mean a hot, dehydrating climb for more than 20km.

If you don’t have your own transport, it’s much easier to aim for the area to the north of the park known as the Floresta de Tijuca. Take a bus to Alto da Boa Vista (#221 from Praça XV de Novembro; #233 or #234 from the Rodoviária; #133 from Rua Jardim Botânico) and get off at Praça Alfonso Viseu near the Entrada da Floresta, with its distinctive stone columns. A few hundred metres after the entrance (where you can buy a map, though the main paths are well signposted) is a 35-metre-high waterfall and, further on, the Capela do Mairynk, built in 1860, but virtually completely rebuilt in the 1940s. The chapel’s most interesting feature is the three altar panels painted by Cândido Portinari, one of Brazil’s greatest twentieth-century artists. In fact, the originals now form part of the much depleted collection of the Museu de Arte Moderna and those in the chapel are reproductions. The lush forest is full of secluded grottos and waterfalls, but do use the map as it’s possible to wander off the beaten track. If you have the energy for an all-day climb, you can go all the way to the Pico do Papagaio (975m) or Pico da Tijuca (1021m) – peaks in the far north of the forest, above the popular picnic spot known as Bom Retiro. The whole park is a good place for a picnic; come well supplied with drinks and snacks as vendors are few and far between.

Alternatively, you can join an organized tour of the park. Most of those offered by hotels and travel agents involve nothing more strenuous than a short walk along a paved road, but more personal – and infinitely more rewarding – are the tours run by Rio Hiking (tel 021/245-4036 or mobile 9721-0594, www.riohiking.com.br), which take small groups of people on half- or full-day hikes along the park’s many trails. Operating at weekends and on some weekdays too, the tours are led by Denise Werneck and her son Gabriel, both of whom speak excellent English and are extremely knowledgeable about the park’s biodiversity. Rio Hiking also run occasional three-day walking trips to Ilha Grande and Itatiaia National Park.

Finally, for a bird’s-eye view of the forest, take off with an experienced pilot on a tandem hang-glider flight from the Pedra Bonita ramp on the western edge of the park, 520m above the beach at São Conrado. Flights last between ten and thirty minutes, flying alongside the mountains and over the forest and ocean before landing on the beach at São Conrado. Flights are daily (usually 10am–3pm) when weather permits and cost $80 including pick-up and drop-off from your hotel. Reservations on tel 021/268-0565, 259-5532, or mobile 9985-7540.