Hiking the Hidden Gem in Rio de Janeiro
When you consider holidays in Rio de Janeiro you almost immediately picture yourself sunbathing on the beaches or visiting world famous attractions like Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf. Things that should obviously be in every visitor's agenda. What few people know is that Rio also offers many other options that would literally take your breath away. The best example is Pedra Bonita.
Translating, "pedra bonita" means "beautiful stone". There you can see Rio from a very different angle compared to other viewpoints. The mountain belongs to the Tijuca Forest, the biggest urban forest in the world, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer is located. The whole forest occupies an area of 12.4 square miles (32 km2), offering various options of viewpoints, caves and waterfalls. It is mostly visited by cariocas though (nickname given to those born in Rio).
To access the Pedra Bonita you will need a car or taxi to take you to the beginning of the hiking trail. The access is via Estrada das Canoas in the neighborhood of Sao Conrado. This is in the south region, in between Leblon and Barra da Tijuca.
Maybe you are the type of person who would rather just rest while on vacation, but I hope this next piece of information helps changing your mind: the Pedra Bonita is one of the easiest hiking trails in Rio, as you can drive up until half of the hill. From the parking lot, it's only 40-60 minutes until the top. Not bad to compensate for the extra pounds you will certainly get after dining at a traditional Brazilian barbecue restaurant.
8 tips to help you in this adventure
I lived in Rio for almost 10 years and only went up the Pedra Bonita after I moved to the USA. During all that time I ended up being influenced by people who were only repeating what they had heard around but never experienced. Things like that "the place was not safe" and that "the hike was too difficult" had always created a negative impact on me until one day I decided checking with friends who had indeed been there. The feedback got me excited. So, to avoid that these and other myths also impact your decision, here are some tips:
- Arrive early: my husband and I arrived at around 9:30 am on a weekend and the closest parking lot was already full. As such, we had to park in the next lot down which is less than half a mile away, but when we arrived at the beginning of the trail we were already a little tired. It was January, a hot summer. Parking lots are safe, but paid, so bring cash. Do not park along the curb on the main road, as you will be fined and your car will get towed.
- On the way up, already during the hike, take a small detour to the hand gliding and paragliding ramp and follow up close those preparing to jump. Even if you're not interested in the action it's worth to admire the view. They have some benches in the shade which are a perfect rest area. You may now be asking yourself why would anyone rest in the middle of a 40-minute trail, and you will understand it very well once you get up there, specially if your journey takes place between October and March, like mine. The humidity in Rio is intense. Together with the heat, you feel more tired than usual. Use caution when exercising under such conditions.
- Bring a GPS: Although I lived in Rio, I was not familiar with this area and no longer had a car. So I rented one and used my phone with Google Maps, which worked fine. After some time you realize you just need to follow all the paragliding trucks, as there are several doing the same route.
- If you choose to go by taxi, bring your hotel phone number. You may need to call them and ask for their assistance calling a taxi company to pick you up. I would only advise you to call directly if you speak Portuguese, as operators will not speak any other language. As there are no taxi stops nearby many people just hang out there waiting for an empty one to drive by. I'd rather prepare in advance. Maybe you can even make prearrangements with a driver. Alternatively, download a taxi app from which you can request a car directly. The best and most common ones in Rio are 99Taxis and Easy Taxi. But make sure you set-up your pick-up point and destination before you leave the hotel. The concierge will help you with the exact address. Uber is also very successful in Brazil, but the service can be interrupted sometimes due to protests by taxi drivers (the cities always favor them).
- Opt to go uphill during the day, when there will be plenty of people doing the same. The hiking trail is safe and when we went, in the morning, there were so many people over there, from kids to adults and even some active seniors, everybody excited and happy, that you feel really safe. I don't recall any case of theft in recent years.
- Check the forecast: the view from up there is amazing, but if the weather is not favorable, the top may be covered with fog. In that case, you may only see above the clouds or, worst of all, you won't see anything, as the fog may cover the entire view. Sometimes this happens only in the morning, clearing up after 10-11 am.
- Wear adequate shoes: I saw a lot of people who seemed to be going uphill straight from the ocean. I'd do exactly the opposite. When you reach the top and look downhill you will feel compelled to swim as soon as you go back. In addition, despite the trail being considered easy, it's not a good idea to wear sandals or flip-flops as many people had. You will be in plain nature, sometimes on non-paved land.
- Don't confuse Pedra Bonita with Pedra da Gavea. They face each other and from Pedra Bonita you have a beautiful view of Pedra da Gavea, but the hike to Pedra da Gavea is way more challenging and may even require ropes in the final moments, so I'd only suggest it if you go with a guide or someone who has done it before.
I've been to over 200 cities in more than 20 countries and Rio de Janeiro is certainly one of the most charming. Seeing such beauty from this angle is a very unique experience, and I regret not having done this before or taking friends and family up there when they came over for visits.
And if you're really adventurous, you may choose the prettiest route downhill... Paragliding! The flight can take up to 20 minutes depending on the conditions. This is still in my "to do" list, but if it's something that would interest you, make sure to choose an instructor certified by the Brazilian Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association and recommended by the local club in Sao Conrado. The lists with the contact information for hand gliding and paragliding instructors are online. I have many friends who did it and guarantee the experience was among the most memorable in their lives.