It was a hot day in Rio, and the beaches were filled with scantily-clad women and men in their sungas. I, along with the friends I was visiting in Rio, weren’t on the beach. Instead, we were in a car climbing up the coastal mountains and snaking through one of Rio’s most affluent neighborhoods. I felt a million miles away from the madness of the city.
The green foliage of the Tijuca National Park shaded the road. With the windows rolled down, something unheard of in the city, I stuck my head out the window to dry the sweat from my face. The 8,000 acre rainforest, the largest urban forest in the world, rose high above Rio and its famous favelas. I wasn’t there to hike or see any of the 30 waterfalls in the park. No, my destination was Pedra Bonita.
There are no shortages of beautiful views in Rio. Sugar Loaf and Corcovado Mountains are certainly the most well-known and visited. Christ the Redeemer towers above the city on Corcovado, and cable cars shuttle tourists to the top of Sugar Loaf on a constant basis. In addition to the beaches, those two attractions are on most tourists to-do lists.
But for the more adventurous and physically fit, there’s Tijuca National Park and Pedra Bonita. It’s not easy to get to; I find that most wonderful places aren’t. The car could only take me so far before I had to hoof it. I climbed up a long, steep incline made of pavers and then up countless stairs before finding myself at the top of Pedra Bonita. The view was certainly worth the workout.
Sprawling before me was all of Rio. I could see Maracana Stadium, Rio’s famous Rocinha Favela, Rio-Niterói Bridge, and Sugar Loaf Mountain. The white sands of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon Beaches were dotted with red umbrellas. I’d seen many spectacular views during my week in Rio, and although impressive, that was not why I broke a sweat climbing to the top.
Pedra Bonita is not just a great view. It’s also the spot where thousands of tourists and locals hurl themselves off of a mountain. They trust that the wind, harnesses, and some fabric are going to keep them from plummeting to their death. Before you get to thinking that I had any such intentions, please let me remind you that I backed out of bungy jumping in New Zealand last year. I literally was strapped in and standing on the ledge. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t miraculously lose my fear of heights (or death) just because I’d arrived in South America.
At an altitude of around 1,700 feet, Pedra Bonita was abuzz with activity. Would-be hang gliders and parasailers milled around waiting their turn from the various operators. They were being fitted for their gear and schooled on proper techniques and safety. They were willing to risk life and limb for the $130, twenty-minute flight. Then there were people like me who had no intention of taking a leap. We were the curious, the ones who wanted to live vicariously through the more daring.
Boards that looked like they’d been salvaged from a construction site made the ramp that flyers jumped off. They jetted off the side of the mountain and angled down ever-so-slightly. I watched a few of the hang gliders from the ramp level before taking my seat below. Fifty people sat in the shade watching flight after flight on the benches built below. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM went the feet of the hang gliders above our heads before silence and our first glimpse of the brightly-colored wings. We marveled at each of the flights.
Parasailing began at a landing in front of the seating area. There was no pounding of feet above us to indicate a flight was about to happen. Instead, a gust of wind and the rising of the sail was our only warning.
It was Carnival in the already pulsating city of Rio, but on top of Pedra Bonita, one would never know it. The calm atmosphere of the rain forest combined with the gracefulness of flight gave me such a serene feeling. Secretly, I wanted to fly, too. But it wasn’t happening that day. Perhaps I’ll never get over my fear of heights. That Sunday afternoon, I was content watching others float down to the earth.
After nearly an hour of flight watching, it was time to leave. As I walked down the stairs and the steep incline, I was grateful that I’d made the hike up. We were headed back down to the city, out of the cool and peaceful forest. My friends wanted me to see the hang gliders and parasailers from a different angle, so we went to the beach where they land.
From the top I’d seen the faces of flyers; they were filled with expressions of fear and excitement. The landing expressions were much different, however. They were ones of exuberance, amazement, and pride. Seeing the looks on their faces gave me encouragement.“Perhaps on my next trip to Rio,” I thought.
The workers at the beach level worked feverishly to disassemble the gliders. They folded them up, threw them over their shoulders, and carried them to their cars. Strapped to the tops, a caravan of cars shuttled the gliders back to the top of Pedra Bonita for the next daring souls to take their leap of faith.
Perhaps next time I’ll be among them.