Culture Travel

    Forests and favelas: explore the heights of Rio de Janeiro

    15 January 2019

    It’s impossible to tire of making new discoveries in this spectacular city. The forest around which the city is built offers plenty of trails, waterfalls and swimming holes, and after nearly six years living here we’ve only just found a nifty new route to one of the main entrances to the Tijuca national park, passing thong bikinis and sleek speedos having showers in the fresh waters that spill out of pipes onto the road.

    The current-day Tijuca forest that sweeps across over 3900 hectares is actually secondary forest, thanks to a replanting programme kickstarted by then Emperor Dom Pedro II in the 1860s. Severe deforestation caused by coffee and sugar plantations and wood profiteering led to springs drying up and the city faced a drought. The programme began with expropriating these properties and history has drawn a bit of a biased blank around what that process looked like; those sufferings are but a parentheses of the city we all now enjoy today.

    Most favelas in Rio were originally formed by freed slaves and/or their descendents who were given nowhere to go but to make some sort of a living in parts of the city that were not desirable to live in (ie. up the hillslopes). Nowadays a lot of those neighbourhoods, especially in the southern part of the city near the beaches, are prime real estate and therein lie a whole host of land rights demons. Speculation is rife in the city about the still unsolved murder of the Rio politician Marielle and her driver Anderson who was involved in community land rights and property speculation terrain and made many enemies as a result.

    In praise of Rio’s natural bounty, and against the new backdrop of a president who may well not defend the forests and the favelas, I’d like to offer a list of alternative and free (ish) views of the city. I have no intention of diminishing Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf (the scramble up half of Sugar Loaf is worth it, and the hike up Christ the Redeemer from the dreamy Parque Lage in Botafogo used to be absolutely worth it but it’s become too unsafe). I also won’t pretend that there’s not a chronic security issue going on in Rio. The bewildering array of different drugs gangs, milicia (pseudo police drug-gangs) and corrupt police mean that access to favelas is controlled. There are however guides from small local tour outfits who can take you around.

    Going to Rio without seeing first-hand life in the favelas is to miss some of the heart of the city. If you want to truly understand the city and its complexity and also see it from a completely different vantage point, both literally and metaphorically speaking, then it’s necessary to venture off the beaten track.

    Here is my guide to the forests and hills surrounding Rio and the favelas inhabit them:


    Purportedly South America’s largest favela, a city in and of itself that is surrounded by Tijuca forest. The dazzling Escher-esque staircases and alleyways have a lot of stories to tell, so try Kultour Rio or Rocinha Histórica to guide your way.

    Santa Marta

    The funicular can take you right up to the top of the favela at the edge of the forest that then runs up to the Cristo for a panoramic view over the southern neighbourhoods of Botafogo, Copacabana and beyond. Go with the local guides at the entrance to the favela.

    Dois Irmãos (‘Two Brothers’ hill) via Vidigal

    Only those with well-seasoned calfs and hamstrings can walk up through Vidigal and then do the trail through the forest to the top; most of us just hop on the iconic white VW van. It offers a spectacular view of the coastline and the headbanging contrast of deluxe neighbourhoods of São Conrado and Leblon with Rocinha.


    Reportedly Rio’s first favela, it is right in the centre of the concrete urban jungle of downtown Rio, near the historical port area where the slave ships docked. A friend’s community centre at the top offers support for the local kids and an incomparable view of the city, the hills and the Guanabara Bay stretching out to the ocean.

    Pedra Bonita

    Pedra Bonita offers a postcard 360º view of Rio, although be prepared for the surprise of being cloud-shrouded, which happened to us, but the view from the hill next door (Agulhinha da Gávea) was reward enough. And that’s a classic for Rio, if it’s raining or cloudy in one location, just lift your eyes up for another option nearby – there are so many you’ll be spoilt for choice.