Walk on the Wild Side
Rio has attractions that go far beyond its famous landmarks and the carnival, and these include some engaging and entertaining wildlife.
Tufted-eared marmosets, Guianan Squirrels, and agoutis are the usual suspects in the city, whilst egrets, cormorants and brown boobies grace the beaches. Magnificent frigatebirds and black vultures cruise over the sea and the city.
There is just enough time in a two-day visit to take a tour of the city and look for these birds and animals in the Botanical Gardens, Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açucar), Tijuca Forest, around the Statue of Christ and in a park called Campo de Santana. With longer to spare, and a car, the Itatiaia National Park, halfway between Rio and São Paulo is a must.
The Botanical Gardens is a quiet haven in an otherwise bustling city and provides a wonderful introduction to the richness of the South American flora. Most of the plants are labelled with their botanical names and country of origin. You can stroll around in an hour, but I would recommend much more. With long enough in the gardens, you should see marmosets feeding in the trees, scrounging food, and even running along telegraph wires! These marmosets are more tolerant of the close proximity of man than their close relatives, the endangered golden lion tamarins which live in the nearby rainforests along the Atlantic coast of Brazil.
If you miss the marmosets here, try the peak of the Sugarloaf Mountain. Guianan squirrels vie with the marmosets for titbits. They are much smaller than the grey squirrels in Britain and North America, and somewhat less bold. The birds are approachable and often spectacular. There are hummingbirds, several tanagers, and if you are very lucky, even channel-billed toucans.
A funicular railway passes through luxuriant rainforest en route to the Statue of Christ on Corcovado, a mountain 709 metres above the city. The statue is an awesome 30 metres high and weighs a staggering 1,000 tonnes. The view when you stand under it and look across the city to the beaches and distant hills is one of the most spectacular anywhere in the world. Even on an overcast day, you should be lucky with the occasional ray of sunshine falling on the distant Sugarloaf Mountain. It is difficult to believe that the Tijuca forest through which you pass on the way to the top is actually planted.
Campo de Santana is a park near the city centre, just south of Avenue Presidente Vargas, which features on even the least detailed maps of the city. The park is about 500 metres across, and is a marvellous place to watch very tame agoutis. In many parts of Brazil all you will see of an agouti is a fleeting glimpse as one crosses the road or skulks at the forest edge. A lack of knowledge of Portuguese proved very helpful here. I misunderstood the signs scattered around the park saying ‘Não pise no gramma’, and standing on the grass to get better photos of the agoutis therefore seemed much less of a misdemeanour.
Dr Peter Gasson, Botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.