On a Natural High in Rio
"OK, so Huw, are you ready to run?" "Yes, absolutely... Yes!" I lied through clenched teeth. "Right, let’s go, 3... 2... 1... Run!"
And so we did run, together, for five short but critical strides down the wooden ramp. My heart pounding, fists pumping, faster, faster; head up, never look down. And then suddenly, like a dream, we were in the air. The wind whisked us silently off the mountain and we floated in our hang glider over the tiny broccoli clusters of treetops far below. I gasped in shock as tears flooded my eyes. I tensed every sinew for the inevitable disaster but the glider soared in broad arcs, with hardly a sound. Well, apart from my whoops of glee once I’d remembered to breathe again.
I’m not normally one for white-knuckle adventure. I spent four months travelling around New Zealand, but preferred a bracing walk while my wife got her kicks jet boating and black-water rafting (cave tubing). But I hit 50 this year, I was back in Rio after a twenty-year absence, and this seemed like a good time and place to give hang gliding a go. I’d led Journey Latin America groups up to Sugar Loaf Mountain and the statue of Christ on numerous occasions, so now, I fancied something different.
And if you have never done it before, Rio must be one of the most spectacular places in the world to go hang gliding. From a wooden ramp perched 520 metres up Pedra Bonita inthe Tijuca forest, a national park, clusters of multicoloured hang gliders and paragliders float down over the coastal rainforest and then land on the soft sands of Praia Pepino (a beach in São Conrado, a western suburb). By the time Paulo, my instructor, and I came to a gentle touchdown, I was bursting with adrenalin to get right back up there again.
At about £80 a ride, which lasts anything from about 15-30 minutes, the adventure won’t be within everyone’s budget. But for an unforgettable experience, which must be as close as it gets to flying, you won’t regret it. If exploring Rio on foot is more your cup of tea, I did find time to fit in some splendid guided walks. In particular, the hike up Pico da Tijuca; at 1,022 metres, the highest peak in the Tijuca National Park. Reputedly the biggest urban national park in the world, Tijuca is a huge expanse of secondary rainforest, which stretches around Rio, covering nearly 4,000 hectares/9,900 acres. There are hundreds of trails, with walks ranging from easy short strolls to more challenging hikes.
The Tijuca peak hike is rated as a medium challenge, taking about 1-1½ hours from the car park at Bom Retiro. My walking companions were Claudio, a fit 62-year-old from Rio, his 23-year-old daughter Carolina, and their friend Pedro, 55-year old from La Serena in Chile. Most of the walk followed a clearly marked path, shaded by tall trees clustered with bromeliads, still relatively mild in the early morning. As we rose higher up the mountainside we crossed a few streams running over ancient granite slabs; the clear water looked tempting to drink but we decided not to risk it and cooled off by splashing it over our faces. By the time we reached the tree limit, however, the sun was high overhead and burning hot; buzzing cicadas the only audible wildlife.
To scale the final peak we had to climb a dozen or so steps cut into the bare rock, with the help of a chain attached to iron spikes. Apparently the steps were made in the 19th century for the visit of a famous Austrian climber, who according to Claudio was affronted by this insult to his expertise. Personally, I was just grateful for the help, with sheer drops either side to the tree canopy hundreds of metres below. Our efforts were rewarded with the most magnificent view over the whole city, way above landmarks like Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain, and stretching beyond the airport on Ilha do Gouvernador to the fingerlike peaks in the Serra dos Orgãos. We could just make out the crowded beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema, whilst up here we had only met a handful of fellow walkers, mostly Brazilians from Rio working up an appetite for their Sunday lunchtime feijoada (black bean and pork stew).
Meanwhile, directly below, seemingly the same size as the wheeling black vultures, colourful triangles of hang-gliders circled down over São Conrado: visions of the next adventure yet to come.
How to get there
British Airways fly direct from Heathrow starting from £705pp return. You can also now combine Brazil with Peru by flying direct to Rio with British Airways and returning from Lima with Iberia via Madrid starting from £675pp.
By Huw Hennessy, Journaltist & former Journey Latin America Tour Leader.
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