For an unforgettable view over Rio de Janeiro, tourists flock to Pão de Açúcar, a beautiful mountain peak situated in Southeast Brazil. Adjacent to Guanabara Bay, the area is historically rich and was first encountered by Portuguese explorers in 1502. The odd thing is, they thought they had discovered the mouth of a river — and given they landed during the month of January, dubbed it River of January, or Rio de Janeiro.
The thing is, there’s no river, merely a huge bay.
Praia Vermelha, or Red Beach, is the name given to the striking shoreline at the mouth of Guanabara Bay. Given the iconic views of Sugarloaf Mountain, Praia Vermelha has been described as an ideal backdrop for an intimate beach afternoon. I found it hauntingly beautiful even under cloudy skies. Unfortunately, the bordering bay has been subject to recent major debate over its polluted waters.
Pão de Açúcar is accessed via a two-step cable car ride. The first goes to Morro da Urca, the shorter of the two peaks. The next takes you to the very top. The cable cars are sturdy, fun, and offer great views of the city. However, one has the option of hiking to Morro da Urca (i.e. the first leg), which is a quick jaunt you can complete in under an hour.
Getting there: Tell any cab driver that you are going to Pão de Açúcar; if you’re like me and need help pronouncing it, click here. You will be dropped off in a big parking lot with large signs indicating where to purchase tickets. If you visit in high season (December – March), it’s advantageous to purchase tickets in advance for 71.00 reals ($17 USD). Or you can wing it: I visited in January, solo, in drizzly weather, and there was no line.
Finding the trail: Walk away from the cable car station and along Praia Vermelha, keeping it and the water on your right. You will reach the walking trail, Pista Cláudio Coutinho, which is clearly marked. After approximately 5-10 minutes of walking, continue with the trail as it jags left and up to Morro da Urca.
Enjoying the way: Take a moment to appreciate the fact you are walking through precious Atlantic Forest, which, according to the Nature Conservancy, boasts more than 2,000+ species of animals: birds, monkeys and lizards included. Unfortunately, today more than 85% of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil has been cleared. The path is beautiful yet fragile, so take good care of it.
Keeping your ticket: You will need it for each time you enter and exit a cable car, so hold onto it! The cable cars depart every 20 minutes, or when they reach full capacity.
Upping the ante: It is possible to climb to the top, if you’re an experienced climber. Search for a local outfit to show you the ropes. There are varying resources describing the routes used, and most range in difficulty from US 5.4 to US 5.14a.
Regardless of whether you hike or take the cable car to Morro da Urca, you need to buy a round-trip ticket beforehand.