Rio de Janeiro is one of the world’s most geographically privileged cities, home to beautiful beaches, staggering rocky peaks, and year round tropical climate, the cariocas have much to be proud of. At the center of the city lies Parque Nacional Floresta da Tijuca, the world’s largest urban jungle. Rio was built around its 39 square KM’s of Mata Atlantica, or Atlantic Rainforest filled with waterfalls, rivers, lakes, mountains, caves, and amazing vistas. The reason most tourists make it to these wondrous parts is for an escape from the city to one of Brazil’s biggest tourist attractions the Cristo Redentor.
Many choose to travel to the Christ by car or transfer service, passively observing the scenery from behind glass, however it really is a shame to miss out on the natural surroundings and astonishing variety of monkeys, sloths, iguanas, butterflies, and bird life. Thankfully, Bruno and Marcelo at Bike in Rio have come up with an interactive way to experience the park close up and on two wheels. The two Rio natives are the brains (and legs) behind Bike in Rio, the agency that pioneered the Rio Jungle Bike Tour.
The day begins with an early pickup from the apartment in the Copacabana. Even the pickup is done with the typical carioca style as Bruno and Marcelo roll up in a ’98 Volkswagon Kombi. Fun fact: Brazil was the last country in the world to produce the vehicle made famous by hippies in the 60’s, and Bruno got one of the models from the last year of production. The kombike, as the vee-dub is affectionately known, has the bikes strapped to the top as it also serves as support vehicle during the day.
After heading up through the upper class Horta neighborhood the VW chugs along a steep incline until we reach the Vista Chinesa, the point where we will begin the journey on two wheels. Vista Chinesa earns its name due to the Chinese style pagoda that sits above a precious view of Rio’s sprawling landscape with the Cristo Redeemer overlooking from a distant perch. The reason for the oriental architecture of the structure is due to the coolies, or laborers who migrated from Macau the former Portuguese colony, in the mid 19th century to be used in the cultivation of tea. The immigrants proved to be more valuable in construction than in agriculture, and were employed to build the road that was carved through the periphery of the park. Later in 1903 Architect Luis Rei, in homage to the Chinese laborers, realized the structure from concrete to resemble a bamboo pagoda. Since the early 20th century the location has become a postcard image for many travelers who stop to admire its view that looks onto Ipanema, Pão de Açucar, and the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.
After a photo opportunity, Marcelo let us know that the bikes and gear have all been readied and now we are set to begin with the first climb of the day. The bikes are all hard tail mountain bikes with front suspension and various frame sizes so everyone can have a bike that is fit for them. We are all given helmets and gloves as Marcelo ensures that each bike is properly adjusted to its riders height. Finally it is time to begin climbing the same ascent that will be part of the 2016 Olympics cycling men’s and women’s road course. Feeling the burn, we continue on the asphalt road that cuts through the tropical vegetation amidst the summer heat with Bruno following at a safe distance driving the Kombike. After several kilometers on our first climb we reach the Emperor’s table, a carved stone table where Emperor Dom Pedro II once brought his court for picnics in the mid 19th century.
Here Marcelo recounts for us the interesting story of how the park came to be. Strangely, the lush vegetation of Tijuca forest was not always so vibrant, following the 18th century introduction of coffee plantations to Rio the forest was almost completely decimated as deforestation cleared the way for the lucrative coffee cultivation to take over. The deforestation had disastrous results as the root system was extremely important for the city’s water supply, once this ecosystem was altered it caused massive water shortage.
Due to the alarming scarcity, in 1844 the Imperial government decided to take measures to correct the problem by acquiring strategically located properties and beginning an emergency reforestation program. Then in 1861 this program was intensified largely due to the appointment of Manuel Archer as the forest administrator by emperor Dom Pedro II. Archer, the former Major of the Military Police, began his work planting with just six slaves, but was later granted 22 salaried employees committed to the arboriculture effort. Just 13 years later, Miguel Archer and his team had planted some one hundred thousand trees, thus restoring the natural aquifer created by the vegetation.
Archer also included in the park’s landscape the introduction of several exotic species of plant life, including the jack fruit tree. The jaqueiras, though helped to alleviate problems of water, also proved to be a further problem. The jack fruit trees that grow up to 20 meters tall were originally brought from India, and while they thrived in the conditions outside Rio, the large leaves blocked sunlight from passing to lower growing plant life. Additionally, the fluorescent green jack fruit weighing up to ten kilograms, have two damaging effects once they have fallen. First the obvious damage produced when something of 22 pounds falls from 20 meters has produced property damage and even death. But secondly, the rapid germination of their seed causes the jack fruit trees to take over, stealing water and other valuable nutrients from other endemic species. This has even lead to much controversy by patriotic preservationists who view the tree as a foreign threat to the Tijuca Park. In any case, after thoughts of exploding jack fruit passed through my head, I was glad to be wearing a good crash hat for multiple reasons.
After a good introduction to the history and ecology of the park, we finished the first ascent for the day and passed through a winding section of relaxed ups and downs. We could see capuchin and howler monkeys swinging through the branches above us, as we pedaled to the pastel pink Mayrink Chapel. The chapel is situated just meters from the Cascatinha Taunay, a cascade more than 30 meters high, making it the tallest in Tijuca National Park. After a good couple of hours climb, it was time to refuel, so we stopped in a recreation area for grub and grog. Bruno pulled out picnic basket with sandwiches, trail mix, bananas, chocolate cake, fresh fruit juice, and cookies. It was almost more food than we could eat, almost.
With the tanks filled and batteries recharged, we parted once again with the Pedra de Gávea towering over us as enormous, electric-blue butterflies fluttered along the road. The scenery continues to unfold all around us as we are treated to splendid vistas of the serene Solidão lagoon, and stop at the Waterfall of the Souls to cool off. After refreshing in the cool waters, we left the bikes below as Marcelo escorted us up a dirt foot path for a mini-excursion, for a bit of spelunking. After a short walk we reach the entrance to chasm and begin to scramble and squirm our way through the crevasses of a small grotto, the air temperature drops and the wafting, smell of damp earth is abundant. Although just a short detour, this is something that would be nearly impossible to discover without a knowledgeable guide, and out of the question in van transfer service.
Coming around a turn we discover a single-track course leaving the road and cutting through the jungle, another side excursion which would be impossible to explore using any modality besides the bicycle. This section was the definite highlight of the day for me, and probably for everyone along on the tour as well. The single-track was only a couple of kilometers at the most, and though the most technical portion of the day, it was perfectly suitable for riders of all levels. We pedaled through the dank jungle floor bisected by thick rutted root systems with scattered vegetation, causing us to go slipping and sliding around the curves.
As we crossed over wooden bridges and insloped turns, the sensation of pure elation was impossible to ignore. As I approached one turn, the huge rootstock that crossed the path forced me to slow nearly to a stop, and as I slowly descended into a gully, a neon green snake nearly two meters in length was startled and it quickly and effortlessly slithered up a boulder more than two meters tall and vanished. The intense color of the snake, which I later discovered was a green racer, was impressive on its own, but the grace and ease that it scaled the enormous rock face left me speechless. I normally am a little nervous by snakes but on that occasion it was a truly impressive sight, however I definitely breathed a little easier later when Marcelo had told me that it was harmless to humans.
At the end of the single track we reached yet another amazing view over Rio, although from a different vantage point further North overlooking the mythical football stadium the Maracanã. From here we had one final stretch until we would reach Christ the Redeemer. Several tour busses and van transfer services passed by at this point and I couldn’t help but consider how for all who had chosen that option, the Christ was probably the highlight of the day for them. On the contrary exploring the Tijuca National Park on bicycle allowed us so many highlights during an action packed day, that the Cristo was just the cherry on the cake.
After one final push we reach the base of Morro Corcovado, or Hunchback Mountain, where the Christ stands omnipotently atop with arms stretched outwards. The Cristo Redentor, a symbol of Catholic faith and one of the new wonders of world is the culmination of a pilgrimage for many who flock to the monument both for religious and irreverent motives. Whatever reason for seeking out the emblematic symbol of Brazil, the Christ attracts more than 2 million tourists each year, on average of more than 5,000 per day! For those who beckon to the colossal symbol of Brazilian culture rewards are sweeping 360 degree views of Rio and its surroundings, however with such an amount of visitors it is necessary to maintain travel expectations in line with reality.
Christ the Redeemer
The idea of the creation of such a monument had origins in Imperial rule, where it was proposed to honor Princess Isabel, however the idea was abandoned in 1889 when Brazil became a republic and a secularization of state was imposed. Following the first World War, a Catholic group known as the Circulo Carioca returned to the idea of building the Christ following what they described as a wide-scale loss of godlessness. The concept for the Christ came from Heitor Da Silva Costa who created a design of Christ bearing a cross in one arm and holding a globe in the other hand. Da Silva decided that the statue would be best situated on the Corcovado Mountain, making it the first to “emerge from the obscurity” as the sun would shine on it in the morning and set behind it each evening. Da Silva’s depiction was lambasted by many who referred to the original design as ‘Christ with a ball’.
Carlos Oswald expanded on Da Silva’s idea, creating a Christ with outstretched arms representing himself the crucifixion. It was decided that the monument should be made large enough to be viewed from the city center, kilometers away, and in order to accomplish this it was necessary to build it out of the strongest materials of the time, concrete and iron. At this point the monument would undergo a globalized collaborative effort, as French engineer Albert Caquot advised on the project, Polish-French sculptor Paul Landowski created in the art deco influences, and Romanian sculptor Gheorghe Leonida sculpted the face of the Christ. Well into the project Da Silva was not happy with the results, claiming that it was headed “towards an inevitable artistic failure” when he was inspired to craft the outer layer from soapstone, taken from a quarry in Ouro Preto. As a result the majority of the statue was completed in Rio, while only the hands and head were sent intact to Brazil from Europe.
The monument reaches heights of 38 meters tall, rising more than 9 stories to the shoulders and a head of nearly 4 meters tall sitting atop. At its widest point from finger tip to finger tip it measures about 28 meters and the entire structure weighs 1,145 tons. In the creation of the exterior of the body, small 3 cm soapstone panels were assembled with help from many women volunteers who often wrote personalized messages to their lovers on the back of the stones. The construction of the Christ began in 1922 and was finished in 1931 after an investment of more than $250 million US dollars, which was almost entirely funded privately by residents of Rio.
Due to its position standing more than 700 meters above the city, and the tropical storms common to the region, each year the statue sustains multiple lightning strikes. One such sacrilegious surge in 2008 caused damage to its exterior blasting apart the stonework on the fingers and leaving a burn mark on the rear of the Christ’s head. Since that time major restorations have taken place, including the addition of lightning rods in the shape of a crown of thorns to ground the statue in hopes of avoiding further damage.
Today the monument to modern engineering is a symbol of pride for all of Rio. While Religious implications of the Christ are obvious, it is important to remember that Jesus himself cared for all people regardless of their backgrounds. The depiction of Christ with arms wide open embracing all can be viewed from the upper class neighborhoods of Leblon, but more importantly it is also visible from the poverty-stricken favelas. The depiction of Christ is democratic image and is a symbol not just of religion, but also a cultural symbol for all of Brazil.
Pernas Mortas, Corações Felizes
After visiting the Christ and grappling with the masses for the opportunity to take the infamous extended arms photo, it was nearly the end to a great day. On the bikes there was one final descent down the cobblestoned road to the neighborhood of Cosme Velho, former home to famed Romanticist writer Machado de Assis. After feeling the reverberation of your own heart as the bike clip-clopped over the stones with the rhythm of a jet powered donkey we reached a stopping point. It was now time to load the bikes and equipment back in the kombike. As Bruno drove us all back to Copacabana it was impossible not to smile in thinking about what an unforgettable day we had spent cycling through the Tijuca National Park. I felt very grateful for having the opportunity to get to know the amazing Tijuca urban jungle on two wheels, thanks to Bruno and Marcelo I ended the day with legs dead-tired, but a happy heart! Obrigado a vocês!
Tour Type: One way, mostly shared asphalt road with some single track
Distance: 28 KM’s
Maximum Altitude: 700 meters/2,100 feet above sea level
Inclusions: Guide, driver, support vehicle, mountain bike, gloves, helmet, water, and lunch.