I am in the most popular postcard on the planet. Above me Sugarloaf Mountain, below me a mistake. The Portuguese made it when they took this bay to be the mouth of a river. Since it was January, they called the whole thing Rio de Janeiro. Big birds circle above my head, inside it, small thoughts. For example, whether I dare pass water here. There’s plenty of thirsty greenery for it on both sides of the Claudio Coutinho hiking trail. Had I not already traveled through Amazonia, I might almost call it a rainforest crowded with wild animals. I encounter a riot of color in the shape of a giant butterfly that seems to sum up Brazil’s unique palette. The tomtit-sized tié sangue birds resemble flying lipsticks. Toned muscle packs jog by. I’ve outgrown all that.
Now I walk in beauty, as the Native Americans say or reputedly said, and if necessary, I could make good progress here with a walking frame. This walk-in postcard has no tripping hazards or other easily identifiable perils. I am in Urca, the smallest and safest neighborhood in Rio, where there’s nothing relative about safety. Urca is home to Brazil’s School of Naval War and as such, is populated by officer cadets and their families. The musclemen are half-naked elite soldiers and sports-obsessed military police, making this an environment in which muggers and footpads are unlikely to feel at home. I pop into the bushes and emerge relieved. No snake bit me, no scorpion came creeping, but a small monkey did beg for bananas. Signs along the path discourage compliance with that wish, as monkeys construe such gifts as an act of subjugation rather than Christian creaturely love. And then the postcard idyll is no more.
Our columnist, Helge Timmerberg, an irrepressible globetrotter since 1969, writes travel books and contributes monthly to our magazine.