The stand-up paddle board glides over the murky estuary water. Clusters of oysters cling to the arched roots of the surrounding mangroves. A watery “plop” puts my senses on alert. Could that have been an alligator, I ask my instructor, Leonardo Henrique Souza dos Santos (known as Leo). “No, you won’t find alligators here,” he laughs, before adding seriously, “They’re all in Recreio.”
Recreio is a district in Rio de Janeiro that borders the Barra de Guaratiba neighborhood, where I was stand-up paddling. Located 56 kilometers from the city’s downtown, it’s one of the westernmost points and geographically the southernmost point of Rio. It’s also a world apart from the city’s iconic regions — like the famous Copacabana Beach, where skyrise buildings line the famous sands and samba-fueled parties last all night. Instead, Barra de Guaratiba is made up of forest-covered mountains, empty white beaches and immense hiking trails. And did we mention a stellar Instagram spot?
Other forest trails lead to untouched beaches — very few tourists venture this far west.
One of the most famous trails is the Transcarioca, which begins in Barra de Guaratiba, winds through Rio’s urban forests and finishes some 110 miles later at Sugarloaf Mountain. The start of the path leads up to Pedra do Telégrafo, a viewpoint that has become Insta-famous after someone posted a photo of themselves hanging off its edge above the 1,161-foot drop. Since then, thousands have followed suit. (Spoiler alert: There is a natural platform just below so there’s no danger; it’s just a crafty camera angle).
Other forest trails lead to untouched beaches — very few tourists venture this far west. Praia Funda is a white sand expanse bordered by the Atlantic Forest to one side and the churning sea to the other. There are no roads here and the only beachgoers are the dozens of seabirds that rest on the shore. It’s one of a chain of isolated beaches accessible only by hiking; others include Praia do Meio and Praia do Perigoso.
The wild landscapes are Barra de Guaratiba’s main draw, but it has culture too. The former home-turned-museum of Roberto Burle Marx, the late Brazilian landscape architect, is Rio’s hidden gem. Its surrounding botanical garden, with more than 3,500 plant species, is the result of Burle Marx’s fascination with plants. For botanists, it’s one of the world’s most important collections of flora; for visitors, it’s an exotic natural wonderland on land and in the water. However, the turtles, which are a special sight here, face ongoing danger. Fishing, which many locals depend upon for income, is a problem because it’s not strictly regulated, Leo explains. Sometimes turtles get caught in fishing nets and hit by boats.
Leo guides me through the narrow waterways to where the sea meets the mangroves, explaining that it’s this saltwater that keeps the alligators away. While it may be a hostile environment for them, it’s not for other wildlife. I catch a glimpse of a shadow move under my board before a turtle breaks through the surface to breathe. The occasional fish makes a daring leap out of the water before belly-flopping back in. “Barra de Guaratiba is the perfect place for those who like direct contact with nature,” says Leo as he floats up the canal. “Just not many people know about it.”
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