Jam-packed highways, crowded favelas [slums], and beaches crammed with tanned bodies– hardly the image of an eco-friendly environment. Ah, but Rio de Janeiro defies all expectations. This chaotic city is brimming with verdant green spaces and networked with myriad pedestrian paths.
Just minutes from Rio’s urban sprawl, Leslie, my guide from Crux Ecoaventura, pointed out three tiny brown saguis monkeys chasing each other along a canopy of branches. Pausing from this strenuous hike up the 720-foot-high Morro da Urca, a granite mound adjacent to the much taller and iconic Sugarloaf monolith, I gazed at a slice of downtown Rio visible through a window in the forest. The city’s cacophony faded, replaced by the sounds of waves pounding the rocks below and the chirps of tanagers and other birds.
In this jungle-like sweep of trees tangled with buttress roots, and jackfruit dangling like giant brown eggs, I had plenty to distract me from the exertion of hauling myself up the steep, sun-dappled slope using roots as steps.
At 7 a.m., everyone in Rio is still sleeping off a night of carousing. Everyone, that is, except me and the other joggers (and cyclists) who flock to a 4-mile pedestrian lane paralleling almost the entire length of the fine sands making up Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches. (Even better, on Sundays the city shuts down the adjacent lane to all vehicles.) I passed a handful of vendors setting up their kiosks that sell agua de coco (coconut water) straight from the fruit. Along the sidewalks of Copacabana, I noticed the trademark abstract mosaics designed by my favorite landscape architect, Brazilian native, Roberto Burle Marx.
My infatuation with Burle Marx, who had the ability to paint landscapes with plants, led me to bayside Flamengo Park, a spacious oasis built on reclaimed land. Sailboats bobbed in the currents of the Guanabara as I jogged along the waterfront path bordered by carpets of grasses and clumps of diverse foliage, such as the massive cannonball trees named for their bulbous fruits, and spiny-trunked white floss silk trees. With views of a cloud-ringed Sugarloaf Mountain, Flamengo is particularly attractive on Sundays when, like at the beaches, the roadways are closed to cars.
Rare and threatened plants, such as the brazilwood and rubbery barked pau mulato trees, have a home at the more than 200-year-old Botanic Garden, another green stop on my tour. Hummingbirds hovered over tempting blossoms, and water splashed from the Fountain of the Muses. Strolling along the lush paths during the weekday, I felt like I had the place almost to myself. Gigantic Amazonian water lilies floated in a pond across the way from a woman meditating in a lotus position. Along another path, Caminho de Floresta Atlantica, I gaped at the dense woods that once covered this area, long before the Portuguese arrived.
Rio makes it easy to rent a bicycle. A bike-sharing program, along with conveniently-located bike shops and kiosks, provide plenty of opportunities to get into the saddle and pedal the four-something-mile, tree-studded path that rings Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a man-made lagoon just a few blocks from Ipanema Beach. The smattering of parks, outdoor cafes, food kiosks, and wide piers with benches make this lagoon a vast leisure space where Cariocas get close to nature amid a sea of concrete. With the reintroduction of mangroves, it’s no wonder so many birds– I spied a great egret and a green-backed heron– visit. As I looped the lake, in the distance I spotted the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer perched atop Corcovado Mountain in Tijuca National Park. What could be a better testament to Rio’s eco-conscious soul than this park, reforested in the 19th century to become one of the largest urban woodlands in existence?
Photos by Jeanine Barone