GEO Tourism: Marvelous Vistas

Gateway to huge offshore oil reserves, Rio de Janeiro and southeast Brazil offers stunning scenery and geologic evidence of ancient mountains and the forces that spawned two continents.
This article appeared in Vol. 5, No. 4 - 2008


Bays along the southeast Brazil coast near Rio de Janiero have been redeveloped to act as service centers and ship yards for offshore operations. Photo: Tom Smith Rio de Janeiro viewed from Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). Copacabana Beach is on the left of the photo and Corcovado Mountain, with the statue of Cristo Redentor, is in the clouds on the right of the photo. Photo: Tom Smith Magnificent beaches, Carnaval, and the impressive Christ figure on a mountain top all come to mind when thinking of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. However, this enchanting city is anchoring Brazil's emergence as a major player in the world energy picture. Beyond its gleaming shores lie recent deepwater oil and gas discoveries that could be some of the largest ever. It is a city surrounded by the endless beauty of its people (Cariocas), its dramatic setting, and promising frontier hydrocarbon basins.  

Also known as the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City), Rio is now Brazil's second largest city and was its capital until 1960 when it was moved north to Brazilia. It has grown around the mountainous landscape; the various ‘neighborhoods' that make up the urban area have been interconnected by tunnels that bore through the base of the steep mountains. Rio is known for its sparkling white beaches, in particular Copacabana and Ipanema, each separated by granite headlands. Made up of the weathered native granite, these long stretches of sand form beautiful crescents framed by mountains and sea.  

Rio serves as the headquarters for the enormous state-owned oil company, Petrobras, and a growing number of oil and service companies. Offshore oil discoveries have prompted a serious expansion of the company (now the 6thlargest in the world) with plans to modernize and enlarge their fleet of deep water drilling and production rigs. Production of biofuels has also contributed to the success of Brazil's diverse economy as Petrobras is a worldwide leader in research, development, and production of this alternative fuel.

European Colonists

The art deco sidewalks or Portuguese pavement, like this one along Copacabana beach are prevalent throughout the city. Photo: Tom Smith Many Brazilians run on the less expensive ‘Álcool’, or alcohol fuel, that has helped them be nearly energy self sufficient. Photo: Tom Smith When Gaspar de Lemos of Portugal sailed into Guanabara Bay in January, 1502, he mistook the large bay for a river and named it Rio de Janeiro (River of January). It would be years before the area was actually settled, first by the French and finally taken over by the Portuguese. By the 17th century, the native Tamoio people had been wiped out and Rio became an important European settlement in Brazil. African slaves were brought in to work the sugar and coffee plantations, and later, the gold mines. The King of Portugal, fleeing Napoleon's army and Lisbon, fell in love with Rio. From there he continued to rule his kingdom, Brazil, and the Algarve, making it the only New World colony to ever have a European monarch ruling on its soil.

By the end of the 19th Century, Rio was approaching a million people due to European immigration, along with the migration of ex-slaves from the declining sugar and coffee regions. This mix of cultures and people all add interest and life to the city. Development during the 1960s gave rise to many of Rio's modern skyscrapers but loss to some of its most beautiful colonial buildings. This period also saw immigration from outlying poverty-stricken areas, giving Rio its growing favelas (shantytowns).  

A turnaround came when Rio hosted Eco 92, the UN Conference on Environment and Development. The government pumped more than a billion US dollars into the city for infrastructure upgrades. Now, the city buzzes with energy and new projects in an attempt to integrate the favelas into the city.

Signature Mountains

Granites form the backbone of the beautiful scenery in and around Rio and materials for many of its buildings and walls. Photo: Tom Smith The area's captivating scenery is underlined by its unusual geography shaped by mountains that rise sharply from the sea and form an irregular coastline. Most notable of these large protrusions are Sugarloaf and Corcovado. Both features are composed of gneissic granite formed 570 million years ago and are evidence to the massive convergence of land masses and consequent Atlantic rifting which plays an important role in interpreting the formation of South America and its oil reserves.  

Uplift and erosion has left what we see today - the hard, banded gneissic masses that not only form Sugarloaf and Corcovado, but underlay most of Rio. The shape of the rocks is determined by its resistance to erosion; the brecciated metasedimentary material located near fault zones weathered much faster and produced the rich soil of the densely forested lowlands along with the Rio Carioca (from which the term ‘Carioca' was derived meaning Rio dwellers), supplying Rio de Janeiro with fresh water for centuries. The more resistant augen gneiss, characterized by its pink eye-shaped feldspars, caps the ridges of Sugarloaf and Corcovado.  

A second type of granitic rock present in this southern region of Brazil is the leptinitic gneiss which contains beautiful tiny garnet crystals. Since the 16thcentury, the very prevalent augen gneiss has been used to build forts, castles, monuments, walls, and houses and can be seen in structures throughout the city.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Climbers ascend Morro da Babliônia in the neighborhood of Urca, which can be seen from the Sugarloaf tramway, and is a very popular route to climb in Rio. Photo: Tom Smith Located at the tip of a peninsula, Sugarloaf Mountain is an ascent all tourists must make when visiting Rio de Janeiro. Beautiful views of Guanabara Bay, Cristo Redentor, and of course, the city. Two cable cars are taken to reach the top of the mountain. The first heads up 220 m to Morro da Urca which in itself offers beautiful views from stone terraces and various trails. The second cable car ascends to the top 396 m above Rio and offers unparalleled views of the bay, coastline, and outer islands.  

As you ascend these summits, look directly across to see ambitious rock climbers scaling a gigantic granite rock face. Rio's setting offers numerous outdoor activities including jogging, hiking, walking, cycling, and surfing. These mountains are also attractive to hang-gliders and climbers. Rio de Janeiro is the center of rock climbing in Brazil with about 350 established climbs available locally.

Corcovado Mountain

The Jardim Botânico has many beautiful sculptures and fountains located at every turn. Pictured here is the central fountain surrounded by gorgeous royal palms. The fountain was sculpted in England and brought to the park in 1905. Cristo Redentor (Corcovado) can be seen in the background. Photo: Tom Smith Corcovado Mountain forms the background of many views across the city. Photo: Tom Smith High on Corcovado Mountain, 710 m above the city floor, stands the most notable of Rio's landmarks, the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). This enormous statue looms over Rio de Janeiro with outstretched hands. At 38 m tall and carved completely out of the local granite (1,038.5 metric tons), the statue can be seen from almost all parts of the city. The mountain is within the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, a lush 120 km² tropical urban forest and all that is left of the Atlantic rain forest around Rio and many parts of southeast Brazil.

The panoramic view from Corcovado is breathtaking. There are two ways to reach this steep summit: a small cog train which leaves from the base of the mountain every 30 minutes, or by road which winds its way up through the Tijuca rain forest. Both culminate at an escalator which will take you to the summit of this spectacular mountain.

Located at the base of Corcovado, and also within the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, is the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens), a lovely park designed and established in 1808 by Dom Joâo VI who was then the prince regent of the United Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal. Considered by UNESCO in 1992 as a biosphere reserve, it is one of the great tropical botanical gardens of the world. Some of the park's highlights include an entire greenhouse of beautiful rare orchids, a Japanese garden, and gigantic royal palm trees that line the pathways and squares. Many plant species native to Brazil, including the Amazon region, can be found in the park. Cariocas and their families make this a special place to visit during the weekends and holidays as it is located only minutes from the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

Excursions from the City

Quaint towns like Angra Dos Reis along the Costa Verde west of Rio offer tranquility and island hopping opportunities. Photo: Tom Smith Escape from the bustling and lively city life is not far away. Easy day trips to outlying towns are available to find that ‘perfect beach' or take a boat to visit the islands. Tour operators are located throughout Rio to arrange tour excursions and lodging at numerous destinations.


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