Somewhere down the hill we can hear a scrabbling in the undergrowth. A troop of raccoon-like coatis are hunting nearby but the jungle is too thick to reveal anything but shadows. A hummingbird –—‘flower-kissers’ they call it here — flits ahead as we move along a trail that is barely larger than the animal tracks that zizag through the bush. During the last three hours we have seen few signs of human habitation. It is hard to believe that the bustle of Rio de Janeiro city centre lies just a short distance to our east.
Jungle guide Raf Kiss checks the reading on his GPS: “We’re steadily gaining altitude,” he says. The burning tension in my thighs confirms his statement but in less than an hour we are victoriously clambering up a bamboo pole onto the giant boulder that marks the summit of Pedra Branca (White Stone Mountain). Looking across the forested slopes I realize that most of the land between here and the city remains a pristine wilderness.
Rio de Janeiro is one of the world’s great unsung trekking destinations. Both of the world’s two biggest urban forests can be found here: the immense Pedra Branca Massif and Tijuca National Park. Only here can you find 120 square kilometres of rainforest just 15 minutes from some of the world’s most famous beaches.
Tijuca boasts more than 30 kilometres of near-deserted trails but there are also several much easier treks rising almost directly out of Rio’s gleaming sand, such as Dois Irmãos and Morro da Urca, home to large families of monkeys. The view from either of these peaks takes in two of the wonders of the world: the natural beauty of Guanabara Bay and Christ the Redeemer on his Corcovado perch high over the city.
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If you are after a more challenging expedition, however, Pedra Branca is capable of surpassing all your expectations. When Raf’s trusty GPS finally let us down, and we trekked right across Pedra Branca from end to end, and I gained a heightened respect for the world’s largest urban forest.