Sunrise at Praia Vermelha in Rio de Janeiro with Sugar Loaf to the left. (Photos: Vitor Marigo)
I was pleasantly surprised when I felt the cold air filling up my lungs even on a hot summer’s day in Rio de Janeiro. The strong and sweet Brazilian arabica coffee helped me through my state of torpor at 4:30 a.m. The dark sky was clear and soon Vitor would be picking me up for our day of activities.
Vitor is a dear friend whom I’d met nearly two decades prior. Following in his dad’s footsteps, the renowned nature photographer Luiz Claudio Marigo, he took a liking to the outdoors from a young age. After creating a successful extreme sports tour agency, he was now focusing on his photography career.
“You won’t regret it!” He said almost apologetically as I got in the car. I was excited to have some photography lessons with him while exploring my beloved city. However, in order to do so, one needs to wake up unreasonably early to catch the best lights.
Arriving at Praia Vermelha I reminded myself the place would be heaving with people in just a few hours — Sugar Loaf’s popularity never seems to fade. We set up the tripods and camera on the beach’s promenade and eagerly waited for the show that nature performs every single day.
Vitor was annoyingly right — the sunlight made the lonely clouds blush as they caressed the curvature of the Sugar Loaf mountain to our left. The calm sea waters painted an eerie reflection underneath as the salty sea breeze filled the air.
After contemplating the spectacle we packed our things and slowly followed Pista Claúdio Coutinho, a path contouring the base of the mountain along the ocean. In a few minutes we were inside a tiny patch of rainforest, engulfed with the sounds of chirping birds and the waves crashing on the rocks.
No, we would not take the cable car, we were going to climb the mountain! As the path ended, we walked over the rocks and up a flat area where we would put on our harnesses. Once there your attention shifts from the vastness of the sea behind you to the sheer rock face you are about to tackle.
The higher we got the more mesmerizing the view became. Lizards, which were aptly hidden, ran away as we got closer to them, whereas marmosets seemed to welcome us and tag along. We soon became a group of five companions — two humans and three monkeys!
It took us just under two hours to get to the peak. I had left my telephoto lens in the car, as Vitor said we should cut down on weight for the climb. He, however, had brought his — “a professional photographer knows better,” he later conceded.
As the day was incredibly clear, we spent a couple of hours taking shots of Rio’s iconic spots: Christ The Redeemer, Copacabana Beach and the sailboats in Botafogo Bay. We then took the cable car down to Cara de Cão Hill (the smaller of the two) and walked the 20-minute trek back down to Praia Vermelha.
With noon looming closer, the temperature was becoming unbearable and the light was no longer suitable for great photos. As true cariocas (Brazilian locals for the uninitiated), we both agreed that a cold açaí with muesli and a nap was in order, before resuming our afternoon plans. Why struggle with the heat if you could relax for a few hours? There’s nothing like afternoon slumbers — especially on a hot day.
The obvious choice was Tacacá do Norte — this unassuming store nestled in the Flamengo neighborhood boasts the best açaí one can find in Rio. With our bellies full with frozen fruit goodness, we headed home to nearby Laranjeiras as our eyelids began to droop.
I woke up startled after a vivid dream with snakes and gorillas. My body was slightly sore from the climb and an invigorating waterfall shower at Paineiras was exactly what I needed.
Paineiras is a road inside Tijuca National Park, our own urban tropical rainforest. As it’s higher up in the mountains, locals tend to go there to enjoy cooler temperatures as they walk and cycle while enjoying nature and the great views. Vitor picked me up again and this time insisted that I take the telephoto lens as we would likely see wild animals.
I could instantly feel the difference in air quality, the dense jungle around us made sure it was the purest you can get. The tall jackfruit trees were loaded with massive jackfruits and hundreds of bromeliads flourished with the increased humidity of the area.
As we got to the waterfall — which is actually a makeshift pipe directing the water — there were already some people making the most of it. Due to its height, the water comes down strong, so not only do you feel energized with the cold fresh water, but also you get a free shoulder massage!
With the sun slowly receding we pondered our next step as we took some long distance photos of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and the Jockey Club, Rio’s hippodrome. Suddenly Vitor spotted a bright yellow toucan and blurted out “We should finish the day as we started — watching the sunset!”
There’s no arguing with that. And as any carioca knows, there’s only one place to go: Arpoador, the surfers’ haven where Ipanema meets Copacabana.
We couldn’t have timed it more perfectly as we arrived just before the colors started changing. The crowds sat down as if it were an open air cinema and quietly waited for the magic to happen. Vitor told me to focus on the clouds and the Dois Irmãos Hill, but also mentioned I could take great photos of the surfers and the people playing “altinha” (Portuguese for the game keepy uppy).
When the sun was nearly touching the horizon and the sky was strewn with burnt orange brushes, the people around us cheered and clapped thanking mother nature for the show. I then turned to Vitor and said “When are we doing this again?”