Rio de Janiero is a city that holds a unique place in Latin America, if not the world. Nowhere else in this region will you be able to find a large, bustling city, complete with endless stretches of beaches, all nestled among dense jungle and rugged peaks.
From almost any vantage point, the city’s natural landscape is striking. Even from a spot in the sand can you easily enjoy the sea views framed by Rio’s dramatic mountainous backdrop.
So pleasant is bathing in the toasty warm sun, and relaxing on the famous beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema, that you might be tempted just to stay there. There are certainly much worse ways to spend your time.
Kick back too much, though, and you risk missing out on the whole other side of the city. With so many rugged peaks, virgin jungle, islands and bays knocking around, Rio offers huge potential for exploration and adventure.
Put down your rum cocktail, lift yourself up off the beach and go check out some more active pursuits.
So, while not wanting to kill your buzz, we’d encourage you to put down your rum cocktail, lift yourself up off the beach and go check out some of the multitude of more active pursuits.
Here are a few of our favorite plans to help get you started:
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Hike through the Favela and Beyond
Rio’s slum districts, or favelas, were once infamous no-go areas for tourists, thanks to the ridiculously high crime rates and strong presence of young guys with large guns.
Mercifully, for locals and foreigners alike, this has changed a lot over recent years. The strongest criminal elements have been pushed out and the favelas along the beach front are nowadays considered largely safe for foreigners.
New tourist-friendly bars, restaurants, hostels and shops have begun to flourish and parts of these slums have even started to become rather trendy (albeit in a slightly edgy kind of way).
All this means that whole new areas of the city have opened up and are available to explore. Located as they are on Rio’s higher ground, quite a few of the favelas have excellent views over the city, its beaches and the iconic mountainscape behind.
Security improvements mean whole new areas of the city have opened up and are available to explore.
If you want to check this out for yourself, we suggest you head up into the hills of Babilônia, a pacified settlement situated just behind Leme rock.
To start the hike, get to the bottom of Rua General Ribeiro da Costa, from where you can take the steep access road up into Babilônia and out the other side. To save your leg strength, you might want to grab a ride with one of the numerous motorbike taxis which ferry passengers up the road to the favela’s edge. If not, you can just walk up the hill, which should take you about 10 (pretty breathless) minutes.
After climbing this first slope, you’ll then take the path off the main road and into the more informal settlements of the favela. The trek starts just past the wooden decking of Estrelas da Babilonia, a small bar frequented by international guests living or staying nearby.
From the bar, the trek up to the top of the hill takes around 45 minutes to an hour, winding past some pretty grim-looking houses and basic settlements and up into the densely forested area above.
Once you approach the summit, the woods give way to rocky clearings with amazing views over Sugar Loaf Mountain and several of Rio’s other famous landmarks. The vista is more than compensation for the exertion required to get you up here.
One particular attraction of this trek is that you’re likely to be all alone at the top. Unlike the more well-trodden routes, on this trek you’ll be able to enjoy the uninterrupted panorama, without hordes of selfie-stick wielding tourists in the way.
If all that climbing sounds like too much hard work and aquatic pursuits are more your thing, try instead going on a little exploration mission of one or more of the islets which lie off the shore.
While these small rocky formations aren’t too far removed from the coast, they are still far enough away to make them beyond the reach of all but the most hardened swimmer. A better, and less risky, way to access them is with the aid of a Stand Up Paddle (SUP) board or kayak.
To embark on this type of adventure, first travel to Praia Vermelha, a red sand beach located within a small bay overlooked by Sugar Loaf Mountain. (Incidentally, this is also the spot from which you can catch the cable car up to Sugar Loaf, if that is of interest.)
From here, you can rent your board or kayak from right on the beach and set out across the bay. It’s probably about 2km out to the nearest island which, at a leisurely pace, should take you about an hour to complete each way.
As you head out from the beach, make sure to take a look backwards and admire the view.
As you head out from the beach, make sure to take a look backwards and admire the view. As you’ll see, the statute of Christ the Redeemer slowly emerges from behind the mountains once you get a couple of hundred meters out to sea.
A little more paddling and you’ll arrive at a 40m long deserted islet, located just out of the bay on the right hand side. Park up here and, with a little difficulty, you should be able to clamber up and onto the rocks. You’ll find another good lookout point at the island’s small summit, which is about 15m above sea level.
After a bit of a rest, get onto the water again and start making your way back to the mainland. On arrival into Praia Vermelha, you’ll definitely need to recharge your depleted energy supplies. What better way to do so than with an iced-cold coconut water, available right there on the beach?
Hang Out with Monkeys…and Jesus
Travel a bit further inland and you’ll arrive at Parque Lage, a public park which has a historic manor house in the middle.
The house is worth a two-minute breeze through on your way into the park: its outdoor pools, old-school feel and curving archways were thought decent enough to feature in a Snoop Dogg video (see minute 2.40) so might hold some interest for you too.
Stride past the house and you’ll start discovering a few other attractions. The main one being the dense, native rainforest which makes up the body of Parque Lage.
This habitat is home to a serious amount of monkeys.
This habitat is home to a serious amount of monkeys. Trying to find one of these little guys takes patience, and you’ll have to wander around the paths in silence for a bit before you find one. You can improve your chances of getting up close to these animals if you go prepared.
Armed with a ton of bananas, and listening out for rustles in the trees, you should be able to tempt a few of them down. Once the first one or two have taken the food you’ve put out, you’ll quickly find that the trees come alive with the sound of others swinging towards you.
Once you and your furry friends have had your fill, you can continue on your way deeper into the park. The handy thing about this being that by moving into the jungle habitat, you’re almost progressing along the path which takes you up to Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue.
It’s a bit of a steep climb this one – the trail takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to complete and the gradient is pretty unforgiving in places. The humidity can make things more challenging still, though mercifully you’re saved from the direct sunlight by the uninterrupted tree cover throughout the route.
At the top, you’ll find yet more amazing views, along with quite a few more tourists than in Babilônia, for example. Flee the crowds by running your way back down one of the trails you navigated on the way up.
Frankly, the hike is much more fun on the way down, as you can really pick up some pace (taking care only to avoid the occasional protruding root on your path). Stop only to do some Tarzan-like swings off the dangling vines as you go.
Stop only to do some Tarzan-like swings off the dangling vines as you go.
If you’d prefer, you can always get the organised transport (cable car and minibuses) from the statute which take you back down to the bottom. But where’s the fun in that?
Get on Your Bike
Our final suggested activity is perhaps one which you should try to do shortly after arriving, as it’s a great way to get your bearings and get to know the place a little bit.
So, head down towards the beach front, hire a bicycle and start to work your way along the several kilometres of cycle path which line the promenade. From the looks of things, this is a particular popular activity with the locals – no doubt, on your outing you’ll share the path with hundreds of other runners, roller skaters, skateboards, and cyclists.
For a brief while, this well maintained cycle path went all along the beach from Leme, through Ipaneman and Copacabana, up over the coastal path and down into the wealthy São Conrado neighbourhood. The views out over the ocean were first class.
Unfortunately, some of the route was shut down after a section of the elevated cycle path, hastily constructed in time for the Olympics, collapsed in April 2016. It will be a while before this section reopens.
Nevertheless, there are still huge stretches of cycle path (the ones firmly located on solid ground) which remain open. These run the whole length of the beach so taking a little ride along here in the sunshine is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two.
If you feel like you’ve still got some energy, you can break up the ride by stopping at the exercise work stations and outdoor gyms placed about every 500m along the path.
Afterwards, you can also veer off to the right of Ipanema beach and, within a few blocks, reach the more tranquil environment of the Rodrigo de Freitas lake. Finish off the trip here by cycling once around the lake, and then taking a relaxing break at one of several wooden jetties built right out over the water.
After so much activity, you’ll likely want to unwind before hitting the town in the evening. The best outdoor spot for doing this is at the Pedra do Arpoador, a rocky outcrop by Ipanema, which is famous for its sunset views.
Grab yourself a seat here around 6.30, buy a Caipirinha from one of the street vendors and watch the sun descend behind the mountains on the horizon. Not a bad way to top off an active day in this great city.