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published on December 14, 2006

Gávea Rock: Urban Ecotourism Hike in Rio de Janeiro

by Bill Hinchberger

The author atop Gávea Rock
Rio de Janeiro - Flanked by the hardscrabble streets of Rio de Janeiro, the Pedra da Gávea juts out from the shore with majesty unrivaled even by the city’s postcard peaks Sugarloaf and Corcovado. More remarkably, the granite block is surrounded by a tangle of mysterious legends perhaps unrivaled by any mountain anywhere: some mystics swear that it contains the tomb of a Phoenician king; others argue that it hides a portal leading directly to Machu Picchu, the once “lost city” of the Incas - now a very much “found” Peruvian tourist attraction. (Imagine the chance to be beamed out Enterprise-style from the Atlantic to the Andes!)

* Check out the Rio de Janeiro Urban Hiking Package offered by WLH Travel, a company that shares our concern for sustainable and responsible tourism.

For enthusiasts of urban ecotourism, Gávea Rock is simply the “can’t miss” hike in Rio de Janeiro. Gávea Rock is only now beginning to catch on with foreigners, though it has long been popular with athletically-inclined Rio natives – folks lucky enough to live in one of those rare cities where “urban ecotourism” is not a cruel oxymoron.

Gávea Rock sits at the southwest tip of Tijuca National Forest. Measuring 32 square kilometers (20 square miles). Tijuca is the world’s largest urban forest – albeit one entirely of second growth. Its expansive greenery is the result of an environmental policy decision that seems enlightened by today’s standards. By the middle of the 19th century, the hillsides surrounding Rio de Janeiro had been deforested. Coffee plantations reigned. A severe drought struck the city in 1844, prompting Emperor Dom Pedro II (yes, Brazil was an Empire, but that’s another story) to expropriate plantations for reforestation and thus help guarantee the water supply of the then-national capital. The work begun with a skeleton crew of six slaves. Eventually over 100,000 seedlings were planted.

Gávea Rock wasn’t part of that project, but it was hardly ignored by history. Sailors have used the 842 meter (2,763 feet) tower as a landmark since at least the 16th century, perhaps explaining its name, which translates to Topsail or Crow’s Nest Rock.

Before Dom Pedro II decreed the reforestation effort, scientists had begun to speculate about the origins of figures, each about 15x4 meters (49x13 feet) in size that seemed to be scrawled across the face of Gávea Rock. They might be idiomatic figures that could provide insights into the region’s prehistory, some speculated. By the 1920s many were interpreting the apparent markings as Phoenician hieroglyphics and thus evidence that the rock was the final resting place of the tomb of a Phoenician king that had come up missing roughly around the time that Homer was first reciting his lines somewhere else.

To ascend Gávea Rock isn’t a Trojan War in climbing terms, but hikers must be in good enough shape to maintain a steady pace on a constant uphill grade during the 2-3 hours it takes to reach the top. Tour companies like Rio Hiking provide guides that can give trekkers an occasional boost or set up ropes to rappel one slightly challenging section. But you’ll still have to earn it.

The reward comes at the top – a plateau with the most spectacular views of anywhere in Rio de Janeiro in a setting far more natural and less crowded than Sugarloaf or Corcovado. On a clear day, you can see Corcovado’s Christ Statue on slightly higher ground on one side. Down below it lays the Lagoa, Rio’s urban lagoon next to the beachside neighborhood of Ipanema. On the other side appears Latin America’s largest shantytown, Rocinha, rolling down almost into the fashionable São Conrado district. The city’s two main golf courses stretch out below. Further in the distance, there are the coastline and the lagoons of the rapidly urbanizing, upscale Barra de Tijuca.

Thanks at least in part to this god’s eye view, Gávea Rock has attracted successive generations of spiritual pilgrims. They are rumored to include Brazil’s best selling singer Roberto Carlos (Brazil’s Julio Iglesias), British rocker Rick Wakeman and Uri Geller, probably the world’s most famous paranormalist. The rock’s flat upper surface is said to be a favorite landing place for flying saucers.

No matter how long you stay, it will seem too brief. Soon it will be time to make your own descent – not into the Macchu Pichu via the portal but back into the urban reality you’ve been looking down upon.

Travel to Rio de Janeiro

A good locally-produced guidebook for Rio de Janeiro in English is Rio For Partiers. It is much more practical and insightful than any of the brand name guidebooks.

Rio Hiking offers tours with qualified guides for trips up Gávea Rock and other key spots around Rio, including Sugarloaf. The company organizes sundry outings in and around town that can include rappel, cycling, rafting, trekking, hang gliding, diving, surfing lessons and kayaking. A nightlife tour focuses on the hip Lapa district.

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