Thus far, thick traffic and having to watch my back had made me wary of the city but after a leisurely walk up the Sugar Loaf I took in the view and suddenly understood the spell that visitors as well as Cariocas (Rio de Janeiro’s residents) fall under. Even more so, I could now clearly see why the city’s earliest colonizers chose this spot to settle down
In front of me stretched the enchanting Guanabara Bay of tropical blue waters filled with sailing yachts and lined with beaches. Framing it was the dramatic backdrop of the forest-clad mountains of Tijuca National Park, topped by Brazil’s famous Cristo Redentor.
What’s there not to fall in love with?
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
It’s not without reason that Rio de Janeiro is loved by many and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its landscapes.
As UNESCO describes it: “The site consists of an exceptional urban setting encompassing the key natural elements that have shaped and inspired the development of the city: from the highest points of the Tijuca National Park’s mountains down to the sea. They also include the Botanical Gardens, established in 1808, Corcovado Mountain with its celebrated statue of Christ, and the hills around Guanabara Bay, including the extensive designed landscapes along Copacabana Bay which have contributed to the outdoor living culture of this spectacular city.”
I was staying with Ruama, one of the many Cariocas who had lived abroad but who hád to return to her place of birth because “There simply is no other home than Rio de Janeiro!” I met many Cariocas and all were more than happy to share their city with foreigners. “You háve to see the Maracanã Stadium. “You can’t leave the city without having visited the Christ statue”. “You haven’t seen Ipanema beach?”
Hiking up the Sugar Loaf Mountain, or not?
One day I met Christina. “You haven’t been to Pão de Açucar (Sugar Loaf) yet?! No, how can that be?! Okay, let’s go. Today.” She lives in Copacabana and after a long, leisurely stroll along Copacabana beach we arrived at the picturesque turquoise water cove of Praia Vermelha, where the trail up the Sugar Loaf starts.
We took our time to follow the trail that meandered through a beautiful forest to the first viewpoint at 220 meters. Because there is so much shade this trail was very doable during the hot afternoon we had chosen for it. The trail is home to chipmunks, a lot of birds (apparently there are 70 species of them) and cute little monkeys called marmosets. It is incredible how quickly you can escape Rio de Janeiro’s smog-filled streets (unless you’re stuck in a traffic jam) to visit a park and inhale pure air.
The trail stopped at a platform and from there I took in the view of those fantastic landscapes. After the tranquil trail I was now surrounded by clicking cameras and kids running around. Here the first cable car ended and it was clear that was the common way to go up.
There was a second cable car going up still further. I turned around to follow the cable. “Can you go all the way up to that granite top?” I asked.
“In fact, that is the ‘real’ Sugar Loaf,” Christina told me. “We are now on the section called Urca Hill.”
“Oh, so we’re not on the Sugar Loaf but Urca Hill?” I now was confused. To me it seemed everybody refers to the island as Sugar Loaf (litt: Pão de Açucar).
Sugar Loaf vs Urca Hill
I had been intrigued by the name, as the island doesn’t look anything like what I know in the Netherlands to be a ‘sugar loaf’ (sweet bread with cinnamon and chunks of sugar). From Christina I learned that the name is not related to the elongated part of the island, which in fact is Urca Hill, but to the cone-shaped rock at the far end of it, which resembles the traditional conical form in which refined sugar was produced and sold until the production of granulated and cube sugars took over.
It was time to take that cable car. However, the place – and the cable car – was packed. I didn’t know so many people could cram themselves into one place. It was claustrophobic and that was enough reason to leave it for what it was. I had seen the granite rock from quite up close, seen the views and was ready to go down.
By the way, only later I learned you can climb that granite rock by following a side trail going up Urca Hill. There are guides who provide climbing equipment as well. To me that sounds like a great alternative to a crowded cable car. Oh well, who knows, one day I’ll be back…
- The trail is open every day but closes at 6pm. The cable car goes down until in the evening (free of charge after 6pm).
- Bring sturdy walking shoes or sandals, a hat and sunscreen – the latter especially when you also stay on the beach. You can buy drinking water at the entrance of the trail and there is a restaurant on the platform.
It took time for us to feel at ease in Rio. In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to have gone with a guide that first visit. To let the guide worry about how to get where, safely, and meanwhile hear lots of stories about the city and culture. Click on the links below to learn more.
- For more stories on Brazil, see here or find them on our Landcruisingadventure website.
- For tips on other mind-blowing places in Brazil, check out Insight Guides; find their Brazil guidebook here. Or use the excellent Unibanco Brazil Travel guidebooks.