May 30, 2016
On Memorial Day Monday we were unable to hold our regular classes in the CIEE study center so it was the perfect opportunity to do one of the student-led activities. As part of their program application, each student had written an essay detailing a possible activity that the group could do while on the Global Gateway program in Rio. Although this was really only a rhetorical exercise, this pro-active and dynamic group of students wanted to actually do several of these activities, and as a class they voted on the most popular ones. One of the most voted activities was a hike in Tijuca Forest to the very top: Pico da Tijuca at 1021m. The Tijuca Forest is often referred to as the largest urban forest in the world (although that honor actually goes to the Pedra Branca massive) and is one of the highest points in the city of Rio de Janeiro. After years of intense deforestation to make room for coffee plantations, the emperor D. Pedro II ordered that the forest be replanted. In the second half of the 19th century, with the help of slaves, about 100,000 trees were planted, resulting in the lush forest we see today.
This activity was planned and led by the students, spearheaded by Katie Piel. Katie did all the logistical planning for the hike, figured out how to get to the entrance of the park (no simple task, combining metro and bus), and then once in the park, where to find the trailhead. She also sent out the informative emails to the group indicating departure time, what to bring, etc. Katie’s organization was flawless, and if we were not more prepared for the hike it was not our valiant organizer’s fault.
Prior to entering the park, Ron led us in stretching exercises. I think most of the students went through the motions to humor him, but little did we know how essential this stretching would turn out to be (thank you Ron!!).
First, the hike is rather gentle. There are points of interest on the way, the Taunay waterfall and the visitors’ center (although they were reluctant to give us one of their precious maps, we had to really insist to get one). After a second waterfall the trail starts climbing, and it continues that way all the way to the top. Once at the Bom Retiro parking lot, about an hour into the hike, the group divided. Some of the students were hungry and didn’t have enough water, especially as the incline was intense. Part of the group went back down, and seven students and myself continued up to the Pico. Apart from being fairly steep, the trail is sometimes rocky and uneven, and in parts even slippery and you need to climb over fallen trees. Although this was by no means an easy hike, the students were determined to keep going, some faster than others, but all seven of them made it.
Almost at the top of the Pico there is a manmade stairway that apparently was built for the Belgian King Albert I, an avid mountaineer who visited Rio in the early twentieth century. These steps are very steep, and for those of us with even a little vertigo they were quite the challenge. The view from the top of Pico is breathtaking: the entire city of Rio seems to unfold beneath you, all the way over the Guanabara Bay to Niterói, the Maracanã stadium, Lagoa, Pedra da Gávea. At the very top I will always remember celebrating with this amazing group of students, looking down to the city below. I was also reminded that students need to be fully fueled for such physical activities and I was sorry part of the group didn’t make it all the way to the top. Funniest part of the hike? Watching Julio consume an entire large pizza after the hike all by himself. It is one of my greatest regrets from this program that we were too famished to capture that moment on film. Priceless.
And thank you Katie for literally taking us to new heights.