Although the dense tropical Floresta da Tijuca that covers Rio ’s jagged mountains possesses a distinctly primeval quality, the truth is that by the 19th century, the original Atlantic forest that had existed for thousands of years had been almost completely cleared away to make way for sugar and coffee plantations.
The deforestation was so dire that by the mid-1800s, Rio was facing an ecological disaster that menaced the city’s water supply. Fortunately, inspired Emperor Dom Pedro II had a green conscience. In 1861 he ordered that 3,300 hectares be replanted with native foliage—the first example of government-mandated reforestation in Brazil’s history.
Over time, the forest returned to its original state, and today this urban jungle boasts an astounding variety of exotic trees and animals ranging from jewel-colored hummingbirds to monkeys, squirrels, and armadillos.
Within the Floresta lies the largest urban park in Brazil , the Parque Nacional da Tijuca (tel. 21/2492-2253, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily). A veritable oasis in the midst of the city, it is particularly refreshing during the dog days of summer. The park has various walking trails—many of them quite easy—waterfalls where you can stop for a drink (or a dip), grottoes, and many lookout points that offer stunning views of the city.
The most spectacular of these are the Mesa do Imperador (Emperor’s Table)—where Dom Pedro II liked to picnic with members of his court—and the Vista Chinesa. Another highlight is the charming Capela Mayrink, with panels painted by the talented modernist artist Cândido Portinari.
Within the Floresta da Tijuca, the Museu do Açude (Estrada do Açude 764, Alto da Boa Vista, tel. 21/2492-2119, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Thurs.–Sun., R$2, free Thurs.) occupies the former house of wealthy industrialist Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya. Beautifully decorated with antiques and Portuguese azulejo panels, the neoclassical villa, completely engulfed by jungle, exhibits Castro Maya’s impressive art collection, which runs the gamut from ancient Oriental ceramics to works by contemporary Brazilian artists.
The easiest way to explore Floresta da Tijuca is by car. If you don’t have access to one, take a taxi: You can usually negotiate with drivers to drop you off and pick you up for a reasonable rate. You can also take a guided Jeep tour with a company such as Jeep Tour (tel. 21/2589-0883, www.jeeptour.com.br ) or Trilhas do Rio Ecoturismo & Aventura (tel. 21/2425-8441, www.trilhasdorio.com.br ).
If you want to venture in on your own, take the Mêtro to Saens Pena and then a bus going to Barra da Tijuca that stops at Alta da Boa Vista. For an organized hiking tour, see the [node:79668 link Hiking and Climbing page. The park entrance is at Praça Alfonso Viseu, and a few hundred meters inside is a visitors center where you can buy a map (although trails are well marked).
Robberies are increasingly common, so be careful not to venture too far off the beaten track, and don’t go alone. It’s safer to visit on weekends, when the park is more crowded. Near the entrance, there are three restaurants and a café. Or if you want, bring along food for a picnic.