I’m lurching through the sun-smeared streets of Rio de Janeiro in a dark-green open-top Jeep. Palms flanking Rua Pacheco Leão nod in the humid 40C heat. Cranes peck at building sites, busses hiss and the tat-a-tat of drilling ahead of the Olympics drones into the afternoon. Suddenly, everything changes, as we pass beneath the lush rainforest canopy of Tijuca National Park. The stifling humidity is replaced by a balmy breeze. The cantankerous clang of machines fade. The smell of soil and the sound of tropical birds take its place.
“Tijuca has more biodiversity than the Amazon,” my guide, Rodrigo, explains. In addition to being a sanctuary for some of the six million cariocas (Rio locals), it’s also home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna — many rare and endangered.
But this place nearly didn’t exist. By the mid-1800s, 70% of the forest had been cleared, with the land given over to sugar and coffee crops. Deforestation had detrimental effects — the Carioca River and mountain streams began to run dry, landslides increased, the city became hotter and rainfall decreased, affecting the supply of drinking water.
“The forest regulates climate — for the survival of the city of Rio this is very important,” Rodrigo explains. And luckily, back in 1861, the Brazilian king, Dom Pedro II, realised this, ordering one of the world’s first reforestation projects. A century later, this secondary rainforest was designated a national park.
As the engine whines up a steep road, it’s incredible how remote the park feels. We drive past cariocas bathing in a natural spring, while others cycle beneath the cool canopy. Two orange-plumed toucans watch from a branch, and further along, a maniacal marmoset does its best impression of a character from Gremlins. Plump jackfruit hang limply on trees whose branches spill a posy of pink orchids.
Reaching a pagoda at the Chinese Viewpoint, we hop out and enjoy the view of the southern part of the city — Sugarloaf Mountain, Guanabara Bay and the sweeping sands of Copacabana Beach. Identikit favelas top hillsides and white icing-topped downtown buildings glisten in the sunshine as frigatebirds circle overhead. Distant islands erupt out of the ocean — Rodrigo tells me they’re protected to safeguard resident seabird colonies.
And towering above it all is Christ the Redeemer, which crowns Corcovado Mountain — one of the many peaks in the Tijuca neighbourhood. The 125ft-tall statue faces the bay, “to bless and welcome ships coming to the city”, Rodrigo explains.
The park is still evolving. After a 100-year absence, howler monkeys were reintroduced in September 2015 and a rodent called the cutia was brought back in 2010. Plans are even in place to repopulate the area with native boars and the endangered golden lion tamarin.
The king would be pleased.