Brazil: The Wonders of Rio de Janeiro and Iguacu Falls
As I gazed down from the Sugar Loaf mountain across the whole of Rio de Janeiro at sunset, I just knew I'd witnessed one of the planet's all time urban vistas. It brought a tear to my eye as the mists below me cleared and then gradually twilight gave way to nightfall. The city of samba was well and truly alive below me. You could hear the throng of people, traffic and sirens. I think what bamboozled me also was that despite the urban feel, you have the splendor of forested mountains surrounding the entire city. In fact, I have always put Rio in what I consider to be the top 5 'scenic' cities in the world. These are cities that have an impressive natural geography surrounding it, as well as impressive culture too. The other cities are Hong Kong, Sydney, Cape Town and San Francisco. I am humble and lucky enough to have been to these other four also.
As the misty clouds below me cleared I admired the bay of Botafogo below me. Ironically, Rio de Janeiro means 'River of January' and yet the city is dominated by ginormous bays, like Guanabara. The most striking feature of the whole skyline was of course that of Cristo Redento, the statue of 'Christ the Redeemer' You side the outstretched arms of Jesus from almost anywhere in the city. They certainly chose the most prominent peak possible to put on show what was a gift from the French, similar to that of the Statue of Liberty that was gifted to the city of New York.
As sun dipped to the western peaks across the bay, I felt like I was in the most aesthetically outstanding place on the entire planet, as the clouds swirled into different wispy shapes, sometime covering Jesus, but then revealing him as the 'guardian of the city' once more.
This is probably the photo which best summed up my 5 days visit to Brazil's most favoured city. Every so often a helicopter would emerge from Corcovado, the peak on which Christ's statue is located, and fly across to where I sat on the Sugar Loaf mountain, a couple of miles across the bay. Then finally, as I sipped a nice cold beer, day turned to night and Rio de Janeiro changed herself into a panorama of twinkling lights. What a class way to finish what had been an incredible day!
So after gazing down on Rio de Janeiro's 6 million inhabitants at nightfall, I spent the next day wandering the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, in what is regarded as Rio's more wealthy and privileged part of the city. Indeed apartments in these Atlantic Ocean beachside districts are not at all cheap even by European or North American standards. I enjoyed frazzling in the midday sun and watching people play volleyball, roller blading and jumping around in the sea, and occasionally indulging in the waves myself just to cool down.
Rio was a thoroughly decent location for South America's first ever Olympic Games in 2016, despite a few local reservations that the money could have been better spent. It's a difficult question that any Olympic host city has to face is whether the legacy of hosting the Olympics will filter down to the local people for any amount of time afterwards. Undoubtedly it creates jobs in the first instance, but not long after the Olympics have left town, what happens next? Many of Athens' Olympic venues have completely gone to waste. I hope Rio's venues stay more active for the foreseeable future.
This is Lagoa de Freitas with Corcovado (Hunch back) towering up behind. The lake was used for all the rowing events in the Olympics and is surrounded by fairly well off neighbourhoods. Indeed the favelas or slums of Rio are tucked higher up the mountain sides, controversially in areas that are not so stable to have houses. There have been many landslides over the decades which have devastated the poor districts of Rio when a few days of rain have arrived and made the surrounding mountains very unstable and prone to collapsing.
So finally, I decide to take a closer view of Christ the Redeemer by firstly getting a bus across the city to the base of Corcovado in a district called Cosme Velho. The buses of Rio are pretty frequent, cheap and super fast when the traffic is a little lighter. Next you get a cog train which takes you to the summit of Corcovado some 700 metres (2200ft) above the city. It's a fun ride which takes you through fairly thick rainforest along the way.
Then eventually I arrived up the steps of the famous Christ statue and stared out across to the Sugar Loaf, where I'd been the previous night. What an immense view, staring down from over 2000ft into harbour. It's pretty crowded up on the deck below the statue but you get your selfie moment and a few minutes to soak up one of the greatest urban views in the world.
So as you can see from the base of the Christ statue, its a very popular tourist location. The statue itself 98 ft high and the outstretched arms are a massive 92ft wide. The statue weighs in at over 600 tonnes. In 2007 it was included in the list as one of the seven modern wonders of the world. As it is a high point of the area, it has been hit by lightning a couple of times but only sustained minor damage. As I looked over to the north from the balcony I caught sight of the mighty Maracana stadium which was used in both the 2014 World Cup and Opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics Games.
Although the modern day capacity of the stadium is only 78,000 people, in 1950 it broke the world record for the largest number of people in a football game for the game between Brazil and Uruguay which decided the world cup, with a massive 199,000 people. However back then, many in the stadium were in standing terraces where as now it is an all seater stadium.
My time in Rio was up and so I travelled on down to one of the greatest set of waterfalls in the world, the mighty Iguazu falls, or as the Brazilians call them 'Foz do Iguacu'. It's only a couple of hours flying time from Rio, or a rather gruelling 20 hour bus journey. Along the way, I changed planes in Sao Paulo, the tenth largest metropolis in the world with a population of 21 million people. It was at one time 3rd largest behind Tokyo and Mexico City, however with a surge of building in Indian and Chinese cities, Sao Paulo has fallen down the rankings.
Sao Paulo as the largest city in Brazil provides the hub of multinational companies for the continent of South America. As you fly over mile after mile of highways, skyscrapers, factories, apartments and houses, you are in awe at its shear size. The buildings literally fill the horizon.
I arrived in Foz do Iguacu city, which is in itself pretty huge at 250,000 people on the three way border of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The city thrives as a trading post as its on the border of two neighbouring countries but it benefits massively from the millions of tourists each year who come to see the almighty waterfalls.
My first view of the waterfalls as I jumped off the shuttle bus could not have been more mindblowing. I peered up the Iguazu river towards what is known as Garganta do Diablo (Devil's Throat). The falls are there as a result of changes in rock types from the Parana Plateau to the softer which has eroded beneath it. There are a up to 300 falls in total, some of which are in multiple layers of over 200ft in height.
As I gazed across the river, into the setting sun, I was overwhelmed by the spray and deafening roar of 5000 cubic metres of water per second tumbling off the lava plateau. What makes the setting even more impressive is the fact you're surrounded by rainforest, which adds a certain serenity to the place which the likes of Niagara Falls cannot offer. Indeed, this wondrous place has been a national park since before WWII and is host to 2000 plant species and 400 types of birds, alongside countless other mammals and reptiles.
You only need a couple of hours to view the waterfalls from the Brazilian side, as it is on the Argentinian side of the falls where you get closer and down among the falls themselves. Indeed Argentina have 80% access to the falls, where as Brazil has only 20%. However, Brazil does have an incredible panoramic view of the falls, which are in a sort of 'J' shape. Only Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe and Zambia border is taller with a larger 'curtain' of water tumbling over it. Iguazu is second largest whilst Niagara is classed as third biggest in the world.
I hope you enjoyed my blog covering Rio de Janeiro and Iguacu Falls. If you wish to learn about life in the favelas of Rio, may I recommend the film City of God, which is the true story of two rival drugs gangs in Rio, back several decades ago. It is gritty and highly entertaining movie, and filmed so incredibly well and worth putting up with the subtitles, given that it's filmed in Brazil's native Portuguese language. I did get to cycle through a favela whilst in Rio, but sadly was advised not to get my camera out for my own safety. If you wish to photograph a favela, there are now organised tours which are the safest way of getting close up and personal.
If you wish to see more photos please click here. Next week I will continue this journey on from the Argentinian side of the falls and then continue down via Buenos Aires all the way down to the bottom of the world at Tierra del Fuego. Until then, have a great week!