We have Roger Moore and his safari suit to blame for my wanderlust. It was seeing him on the big screen in the seventies when I was a kid which intrigued me about exploring the world. He and the lovely Lois Chiles battled Jaws atop the cablecar in "Moonraker" and when I was old enough I promised myself that I would visit such a spectacular location. And the Sugarloaf mountain in Rio de Janeiro surpasses expectation and became my favourite sight in the Cuidade Marvellosa.
To underestimate the importance of the Sugarloaf in the psyche of Carioca''s is to underestimate their same love for the beach. The Sugarloaf predates Rio and was there when the Portuguese sailed into Guanabara bay back in 1500. It dominates the horizon wherever you are in Rio. Whever you are speeding in a bus along Bortofago bay or lying on Copacabana beach - the streaked granite of this bishops mitre of a mountain will forever be in your sightline. The peninsula that it stands on is surrounded by mountains and jungle. Pristine beaches with white sands lie at it''s foot, sapphire waters lap against it sides and exclusive fazendas doze in it''s shadow in the wealthy enclaves of Urca and Bortofago. Like bee''s to honey - sooner or later you will be drawn to the Sugarloaf.
It takes a bit of planning to get to on your own. You can take a tour for 50 reals which will include a samba show and possibly a meal but this will only give you an hour to get up and down the mountain. And a taxi from Copacabana will cost about 10/15 reals. It is better to do it on your own and the Sugarloaf is in a military area so is very safe to visit. Buses from Copacabana and Ipanema (511/512) will drop you off at the cablecar station. But it is possible to walk from Copacabana beach. You have to start from the far eastern Leme end. At the end the wide road Rua Princessa Isabella leads up from the beach and through a tunnel bored through the granite mountains. Cariocas use this Tunel to get to the pricey Rio Sul Mall on the other side. This is an enjoyable Mall with plenty of clothes and jewellry shops and is so European that you might forget you are in South America. To the right of the Mall is Avenida Venislav Bras - walk east, past the Universit, to Avenida Pasteur. Pastel academic buildings, tour buses and armed guards line this Avenida which ends in a beautiful placa . And you will finally see the granite monoliths of the two mountains soaring like giants into the sky. Above you gondolas swing down on creaking cables and the praca (square) is bordered by the golden sands of a tiny beach with glittering blue water.
The Sugarloaf consists of two mountains. The first is the smaller, though still enormous, Morro de Urca whose summit passengers disembark from the gondolas and catch another one to the higher peak - the Pao de Acucar. This is the more famous,spectacular peak and I''m told the entire journey takes about two hours including gawping time. One of Rio''s great icons is the gondola/cablecar which has been refurbished in 2002. The view of these glass and steel capsules creaking up the mountain above is one of the great sights of Rio de Janeiro. (see photo)
The cablecar station hides under the mass of the Morro de Babilonia, a colossal mountain range that separates Bortofago from the famous beaches of Copacabana. The station itself has been renovated and can only be described as spiffy - clean glass and metal draped with jungle vegetation. Full journey back and forth on the cablecar costs 24 reals (£6/$8) and after paying the man in the kiosk you ascend the ramp to the disembarkation area. My visit coincided with a hundred excited Brazilian schoolchildren who crowded the platform and waited for the gondola to descend. I was originally going to wait for the next one but excitement got the better of me - and I jumped into the capsule. The doors slammed, the kids squeaked and we were whisked upwards.
Your immediate concern as you ascend is the wobbling capsule. But moving below was the green and grey of the Morro de Babilonia with buildings gracing it''s slopes but more transfixing was the beach. Fringed by granite outcrops, the water looked azure as it washed up on the golden sand. Before I could get a good look we banged into the first cable-car station and the schoolchildren disembarked in droves and sprinted for the second cable car station at the rear of the summit. I had the summit of the Morro de Urca nearly to myself and nonchantly walked to the edge......and saw one of the best views in the world. (see photo''s)
Rio de Janeiro was laid out like an artists watercolour in the sunshine. To the west was the Morro di Babilonia. It''s bulky green spine hiding the favela which takes it''s name. This was the range of jungle mountains which kept colonial expansion in Rio to a minimum until the building of the Babilonia Tunel. And beyond it was Copacabana in all it''s glamorous glory with it''s 4km white sands and it''s art deco hotels visible at this distance. Even the dual summits of the mountain at the end of Ipanema could be seen. East of the Morro de Babilonia mountain range was the residential district of Bortafago, squeezing this area in their enclosing folds were Rio''s truly monster mountains - the Tijuca National Park. Over 100km of mountain and tropical rainforest within the city limits. They looked like a great rolling emerald menace trying to push the city into the sea. The most prominent of all was the green spike of the Corcovado. Even from this distance you could see the statue of Christ with arms extended as if to dive off his lofty perch.
But the city was hanging grimly on in the face of all this encroaching vegetation. A thousand yachts were moored in Bortafago harbour and nudged onto it''s golden beach. The highway lined coastline buzzed with cars and buses as it swept past the districts of Flamengo and Gloria before climaxing in the skyscrapers of Centro. Way to the north, past the favelas near Centro, was where Guanabara bay turned into a thousand islands. Arced across these waters was the Niteroi bridge - not so long ago the longest bridge in the world. And even 500ft beneath us were sunwashed islands hardly inhabited by anyone. The tiny neighbourhood of Urca directly below me looked apetising with it''s tiny beach and rocky headlands. If I could choose anywhere to live in Rio it would probably be there.
At the back of the Morro is the cablecar station taking you up to the peak of the Pao de Acucar. It''s huge bulk dominates your vision as you wait for a capsule to swing down from it''s summit. Between it and the Morro de Urca is pristine jungle. If the cable snapped there would be no soft seawater to break our fall but a hard carpet of vegetation far below. But I was too entranced by the views to worry about that and it was with regret that we bumped into the cablecar station - once again I was ill-prepared for the view from the very top.
To start with the Sugarloaf is perfectly positioned at the mouth of Guanabara bay. From here you can see hundreds of the jungly islands that dot the bay. Centro looks more spectacular from here and there are planes taking off from tiny Santos Dumont airport. Ships look like miniatures from this height and on the other side of the bay is Niteroi - a kind of mini Rio with its own islands, mountains and beaches. The view directly down is terrifying with golden marmosets bounding across the granite surface like fleas and kites wheeling far below. There is not much else on the summit except excitable Brazilian schoolchildren, telescopes, a small restaurant and a souvenir shop. But every tourist laps up the views and has his or her photo taken against the rails. You will only be here once.