Highs and Lows in Rio
Leah Walker July 26, 2012

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.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.


  1. Cant hardly wait to Read it, especially when I was about to do it for my 40th… And recent tragic events shut down the place for a couple of weeks. I called it a sign ! ;-))

  2. I’d like to say I am brave enough to do it, but the older I get, the less physically harm I’m willing to risk. But the view at least would be worth getting up there even if I backed out.

    1. I agree with you. The view alone was worth the trek to the top. I’m not sure that even in my younger days I’d bungy or hang glide. Perhaps the only way it would happen is if I had a little liquid courage swirling around inside of me. One day….I keep telling myself, one day.

  3. Wow, for a moment there I thought you had actually done it! I always wanted to do it.. but would never have the courage. Stunning pics – thank you for reminding me of Rio again 😉 and how I got to know you!

    1. That’s right! We did get acquainted over our trip to Rio. :-) You’re crazy. There’s no way (well, maybe) that I’d hang glide. I did get a rush watching the others, and for now, that’s simply enough.

  4. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous photos. Almost enough to make me want to try it… but no. Especially since I had my son, I am much more risk averse. Thank you for sharing!

    1. I can see why you wouldn’t jump off the mountain, Kristin. You don’t have just yourself to worry about. A lady actually died a few weeks after I left doing this. She slipped out of her harness and fell I don’t know how far to the ground. Yeah, I’m glad I didn’t do it!

  5. I’m pretty sure the first post of yours I ever read was from Rio, and this is another great one. My heart beats a little faster seeing those hang gliders. I’m not sure if I could do it myself, but man what a thrill that must be…

    1. Oh really, Deej? I wonder which post that was. I’ve written several and have many more to write. I’m with you. My heart was pounding and I wasn’t even entertaining the idea of going.

    1. I think it probably is pretty peaceful after you’ve managed to put your heart back in your chest. The adrenaline must be pumping like nothing else. I’ll just have to imagine. :-)

  6. This is a great tip for things to do and views in Rio. I would take a pass on the hang gliding and parasailing and check out the views and hike the trails in the National Park. I had no idea there was such a cool place so close to Rio.

    1. For sure, Ted. The national park would be your kind of place for sure. This is the same park that runs under Christ the Redeemer. The day we were at the hang gliding, there was a warning of kidnappers in the forest, so besides all the creepy-crawlies, there was the kidnapping risk. Ahhhh…welcome to Rio!

  7. Rio looks awesome! I don’t know what it is about paragliding and hang gliding, but I find them to be extremely frightening. I’d rather bungee jump or skydive again then get back on one of those. It might have been because I watched a man catch himself in a tree right before I took off. Hmm…

  8. well. i think this is part of why we are travelin’ BFF’s. i’m crazy but not that crazy. not yet. i need to see the world from the ground first. and all of it – before i hoist myself off the side of a cliff and hope for a FAB view and another day to see more of somewhere else! :) amazing pictures BTW!!

  9. Leah, you must. It is SO WORTH IT.

    People have asked me what is the most adventurous thing I ever have done, often times I answer with.. running off that ramp in Rio as my answer. I spent close to twenty minutes in the air gliding before my beach landing… Definitely one of the highlights of my adventures in Rio, but that is a long list…. great destination indeed.

    tudo Bom.
    stay adventurous, Craig

    1. Craig, although I want to embrace your “stay adventurous” credo, I’m just going to have to find adventure with my two feet on the ground. Any suggestions with that criteria?

  10. I’m with Lisa and Kristin: I’ve acquired a fear of heights just in the last years. Also with Tawny: I’d much rather skydive. I did it once in Mexico (also landing on a beach), and it didn’t trigger my fear of heights (just death!). Everything seems unreal from so high, and since I couldn’t even tell the ground was rushing up at me, I didn’t feel as if I were falling.Afterwards, I bet I looked like the people you mention here. My buzz lasted for at LEAST two days.

    1. Oh, Jenna, you’re a braver woman than I. I know I could jump off that ledge and hang glide much faster than I could jump out of a plane. I’d probably love it, but I just can’t bring myself to take that leap of faith.

Your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have the world delivered to your inbox
Well, maybe not the whole world, but some of it. Either way, subscribe to my monthly newsletter. I'll include my latest articles from around the Web, travel announcements, and maybe even a few Paris insider tips.