Marveling from the Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The elongated part is called Urca hill, the granite rock in the back is the actual Sugar Loaf (©Coen Wubbels)

The elongated part is called Urca hill, the granite rock in the back is the actual Sugar Loaf (©Coen Wubbels)

Thus far thick traffic and having to watch my back had made me wary of the city but after a leisurely walk up the Sugar Loaf, I took in the view and suddenly understood the spell that visitors as well as Cariocas – Rio de Janeiro’s residents – fall under. Even more, I could clearly see why the city’s earliest colonizers chose this spot to settle down.

In front of me stretched the enchanting Guanabara Bay of tropical blue waters filled with sailing yachts and lined with beaches. Framing it was the dramatic backdrop of the forest-clad mountains of Tijuca National Park, topped by Brazil’s famous Cristo Redentor.

What was there not to fall in love with?

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cristo Redentor watches over Rio de Janeiro (©Coen Wubbels)

Cristo Redentor watches over Rio de Janeiro (©Coen Wubbels)

It’s not without reason that Rio de Janeiro is loved by many and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its landscapes. As UNESCO describes it:

The site consists of an exceptional urban setting encompassing the key natural elements that have shaped and inspired the development of the city: from the highest points of the Tijuca National Park’s mountains down to the sea. They also include the Botanical Gardens, established in 1808, Corcovado Mountain with its celebrated statue of Christ, and the hills around Guanabara Bay, including the extensive designed landscapes along Copacabana Bay which have contributed to the outdoor living culture of this spectacular city.”

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to see one of Brazil’s famous landmarks.
  • You travel with kids and the Sugar Loaf Trail is fun to walk with them because of monkeys, birds and views.
  • Good for everybody who visits Rio de Janeiro. Walkers can follow the trail, the walking-impaired (or those who simply don’t feel like walking) take the cable car.

Visiting the Sugar Loaf

View of the Sugar Loaf from Praia Vermelha (©Coen Wubbels)

View of the Sugar Loaf from Praia Vermelha (©Coen Wubbels)

During my stay in Rio de Janeiro I met many Cariocas and all were more than happy to share their city with foreigners. “You have to see the Maracanã Stadium.” “You can’t leave the city without having visited the Christ statue.” “You haven’t seen Ipanema beach?” One day I met Christina. “You haven’t been to Pão de Açucar (Sugar Loaf) yet?! No, how can that be?! Okay, let’s go. Today.” She lives in Copacabana and after a long, leisurely stroll along Copacabana beach we arrived at the picturesque turquoise water cove of Praia Vermelha, where the trail up the Sugar Loaf starts.

We took our time on the trail, which meandered through a beautiful forest to the first viewpoint at 220 meters. Because there is so much shade this trail was very doable during the hot afternoon we had chosen for it. The trail is home to chipmunks, a lot of birds (apparently there are 70 species of them) and cute little monkeys called marmosets. It is incredible how quickly you can escape Rio de Janeiro’s smog-filled streets (unless you’re stuck in a traffic jam) to visit a park or forest and inhale pure air.

Taking in the view from the first platform (©Coen Wubbels)

Taking in the view from the first platform (©Coen Wubbels)

The trail stopped at a platform and from there I took in the view that largely defines Rio de Janeiro’s landscape. But I was not the only one here to admire it: after the tranquil forest with chirping birds I was now surrounded by clicking cameras and kids running around. Here the first cable car ended and it was clear that this was the more common way to go up.

There was a second cable car going up still further. I turned around to follow the cable. “Can you go all the way up to that granite top?” I asked.

“In fact, that is the ‘real’ Sugar Loaf,” Christina told me. “Even though we refer to the island as Sugar Loaf, we are in fact now on the section called Urca Hill.”

Sugar Loaf versus Urca Hill

Things started to make sense. I had been intrigued by the name, as the island doesn’t look anything like what I know in the Netherlands to be a ‘sugar loaf’ (sweet bread with cinnamon and chunks of sugar). From Christina I learned that the name is not related to the elongated part of the island, which in fact is Urca Hill, but to the cone-shaped rock at the far end of it, which resembles the traditional conical form in which refined sugar was produced and sold until the production of granulated and cube sugars took over.

It was time to take the cable car to what turned out to be the actual Sugar Loaf. However, the place – and the cable car – was packed. I didn’t know so many people could cram themselves into one place. It was claustrophobic and that was enough reason to leave it for what it was. I had seen the granite rock from quite up close, seen the views and was ready to go down.

By the way, only later I learned you can climb that granite rock by following a side trail going up Urca Hill. There are guides who provide climbing equipment as well. To me that sounds like a great alternative to a crowded cable car.

Scenic views from Pão de Azucár, or Sugar Loaf (©Coen Wubbels)

Scenic views from Pão de Azucár, or Sugar Loaf (©Coen Wubbels)

Practical Information

  • The trail is open every day but closes at 6pm. The cable car goes down until in the evening (free of charge after 6pm).
  • Bring sturdy walking shoes or sandals, a hat and sunscreen – the latter especially when you also stay on the beach. You can buy drinking water at the entrance of the trail and there is a restaurant on the platform.

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