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Visitors who expect an amorphous sprawl—standard for a city of several million—cannot but be astonished by the junglelike and exuberant vegetation of the undulating landscape that hugs the highway from the international airport to downtown. Rio de Janeiro’s magic works immediately upon arrival, because the city is an integral part of its environment.


Landscape

The city of Rio de Janeiro is the capital of the eponymous state that comprises an area of 16.953sq mi/43,909sq km and a coastline of 153mi/246.2km in the southeast of Brazil. It borders the state of Espírito Santo in the north-northeast, São Paulo in the west, Minas Geráis in the northwest and is washed by the South Atlantic in the south and east.

The city itself measures 43.5mi/70km from east to west and 27.3mi/44km from north to south and has an area of 473sq mi/1,225sq km. Its terrain is remarkably diverse: the existence of high cliff-faces capriciously cut close to the seashore creates natural landmarks such as the hills of Sugar Loaf Mountain, Dois Irmãos, and Corcovado. The tropical forests, sandbanks, beaches, inland lagoons, and bays provide not only a continuously varying landscape but also a range of picturesque and photogenic backdrops to a city that easily deserves the epithet “La ville merveilleuse,” coined by French poet Jeanne Catulle-Mendes in 1912.

The city’s surroundings are a reflection of the state’s topography which is dominated by two main mountain ranges, the Serra do Mar and the Serra da Mantiqueira.

The Serra do Mar is one of the major mountain ranges of Brazil. It rises sharply along the Atlantic coast, extending over 621mi/1,000km from the state of Santa Catarina to the north of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Local names are given to sections of the Serra do Mar, such as Serra da Bocaina in the neighborhood of Paraty, Serra da Estrela by Petrópolis, and Serra dos Órgãos near the city of Teresópolis.

The Serra da Mantiqueira, more to the interior, is a separate mountain range which forms an imposing escarpment leading toward the central Brazilian plateau with peaks that regularly top 6,560ft/2,000m. It is centered in the massif of Itatiaia, whose summit of Agulhas Negras stands at 9,158.5ft/2,791.5m and forms the fifth-largest peak of Brazil.

Between the two mountain ranges runs the valley of Rio Paraíba that cuts through the state of Rio de Janeiro southwest to northeast and passes through several towns and villages that are part of the historical and architectural itinerary of the Brazilian coffee cycle.

The coastline of Rio de Janeiro state also presents characteristics of great diversity and outstanding beauty, which have been exploited for touristic purposes. Three great bays dent the coast: the Bay of Guanabara, where the city of Rio de Janeiro is located; the Bay of Sepetiba farther west, separated from the sea by the extensive Marambaia sandbank; and that of Ilha Grande in the south, full of small, charming beaches encrusted within the cliffs of the Serra do Mar.

The Costa do Sol on the eastern side harbors countless beautiful beaches, especially around the peninsula of Cabo Frio where the chic resort of Búzios is located. Because of the presence of large bodies of water such as that of Araruama and Saquarema lagoons, the area is also dubbed the “Lake District,” famed for its permanent blue skies and cool breezes.

The south coast, between the island of Itacuruçá and the city of Paraty, is called the Costa Verde with good reason: it looks like a tropical version of the glacial fiords, as the Serra do Mar dives abruptly into the Atlantic. This sudden encounter of cliff-faces that can easily reach 1,640ft/500m and the ocean has created a multitude of jagged bays and a labyrinth of islands that meander their way close to the continent. There are approximately 300 islands, all within 3.1mi/5km from the coast, which used to shelter pirates and corsairs; something like 50 shipwrecks between Angra dos Reis and Ilha Grande are testimonies of 16C and 17C raids and battles. The beaches of Costa Verde are small and delicate, fashioning tranquil retreats that are often accessible only from the sea. The setting is particularly picturesque because of the strong contrast between the blue sea and the green mountains covered by thick tropical forests.

The Rio de Janeiro city landscape is a synthesis of the geological aspect of the state, a transition area between the open terrain of the Costa do Sol and the serrated scenery of Costa Verde. It combines the typical elements of both, such as inland lagoons like the heart-shaped Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas with an area of 544acres/220ha, rocky outcrops that rise abruptly from the sea like Sugar Loaf Mountain and Pedra da Gávea, a maze of islands in the Guanabara Bay—the largest being Ilha do Governador with an area of 11.5sq mi/30sq km—and a gamut of beaches that range from the closed and sheltered (Praia Vermelha and Praia da Urca) to those with a strong surf (Ipanema, Leblon and Barra da Tijuca).


Climate

Because of its accentuated geological relief, the climate of Rio de Janeiro state is quite varied depending on altitude, vegetation, and proximity to the ocean. In the mountains the temperatures can be quite low in the winter. In the National Park of Itatiaia there is at least one month with an average low of 50ºF/10ºC, while during the summer the thermometer never crosses 86ºF/30ºC. In the interior valley of the Rio Paraíba, the climate is subtropical and temperate. The cities of Petrópolis and Teresópolis perched in the Serra do Mar have cooler temperatures and higher rainfall than the coast, which is why they were the preferred residences of the imperial family during the summer.

The coastal area is sunny, subject to high temperatures and plenty of wind, primarily on the north shore. The Costa do Sol (Sun Coast), as the name suggests, has lower rainfall, an abundance of sunshine, and slightly higher temperatures. The Cabo Frio-Búzios region is the area with the lowest precipitation, counting just 100 days of rain a year, with June and July being the driest months. Those factors combined with the constant winds favor sailing activities and explain the popularity of the area. On the other side of Rio, the sudden escarpment formed by the Serra do Mar acts as a barrier to the moist oceanic winds. As a result the Costa Verde (Green Coast), where the cities of Angra dos Reis and Paraty are situated, has the highest precipitation index in the state.

The climate in the city of Rio de Janeiro is generally very hot and humid, with a drier season during the months of June and July. Annual precipitation ranges between 47–111in/1,200–2,800mm; because of the tree cover, the areas of the Tijuca National Park and the Botanical Gardens have a higher than average humidity. The average annual temperature is 72ºF/22°C, while daily averages in the summer between November and March can regularly top 95ºF/35°C with frequent rainstorms in the afternoon.


Flora

Rio de Janeiro city and state lie completely within the Brazilian biome of Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic Rain Forest, whose biological significance can not be overestimated. Extending along the Atlantic coastline between the states of Rio Grande do Norte and Rio Grande do Sul and as far inland as the Iguaçu Falls, the Mata Atlântica is one of the top five biodiversity hotspots on Earth, rated above the Amazon. It contains seven distinct ecosystems with an estimated 20,000 plants species of which 8,000 are endemic.

This high species diversity of the Mata Atlântica is a function of its geological history, its location, and the extreme environmental variations of the biome. In short: significant climatic changes in the past, elevations that vary from sea-level to just under 9,834ft/3,000m—the highest on the eastern seaboard of the American continent—and the spanning of the tropic of Capricorn are the most important factors. Bordering the Atlantic is also enormously influential, because coastal rain forests are more abundant in terms of biodiversity than inland ones.

As one climbs higher, one travels through such ecosystems as mangroves and restingas (sandbanks) at sea-level; tropical rain forest up to 2,624ft/800m; deciduous and semi-deciduous seasonal rain forest up to 4,921ft/1,500m—characterized by a hot and humid summer and a dry winter, unlike tropical rain forests that have no dry seasons; and higher up still, the “altitude fields”— treeless expanses with scrub vegetation that look remarkably like the Andean Altiplano on the other side of the continent.

Sadly Brazil’s “other” rain forest—as the Mata Atlântica has been dubbed—which for centuries reigned over the coast and rendered it impenetrable, has been almost completely obliterated. Today a mere six percent of its forest-cover is left, the result of five centuries of colonization, the clearing of the land for the sugar and coffee cultivation, and 20C urbanization.

In that context, the Tijuca National Park (12.7sq mi/33sq km), all of which lies within Rio de Janeiro city limits, is all the more remarkable for being there at all. The whole forest, which is divided by trails into four separate sectors, is replanted secondary native forest. It was the dream of Emperor Pedro II who recognized that unbridled mono- culture was damaging the fragile Atlantic ecosystem of Rio de Janeiro and decided to reverse the process. The reforestation of Floresta da Tijuca started in 1862 and 100,000 seedlings of native trees were planted over 13 years. A second phase between 1874 and 1887 planted 30,000 more. This project was stopped in 1889 when the monarchy was overthrown and since then the area has remained almost untouched. Today the forest is almost indistinguishable from the nearby primary Mata Atlântica reserves.

The most common flora in Rio de Janeiro includes hardwoods such as the graceful pink-and-silver trumpet trees (Tabebuia sp.); gigantic jequitibás such as Cariniana legalis and Cariniana estrellensis; sapucaias (Lecythis ollaria) that can live for thousands of years; angico trees (Piptadenia sp.); asparagus ferns (Asparagus setaceus); evergreen quebrachos (Schinopsis sp.), and many epiphytes and creepers, such as orchids, lianas, mosses, lilies and begonias, 75 percent of which are endemic and count among them some well-known garden species such as Begonia egregia. In fact, it is not uncommon to find the odd wild orchid or begonia sprouting on trees in the city of Rio de Janeiro, even in urban areas like Copacabana and Ipanema. Last, but not least, is the botanical family of bromeliads whose presence is associated with a healthy forest environment. Brazil has more than 1,000 species of bromeliads and colorful examples can be found on Rio’s hillsides and in the public gardens of the city. There is also a wonderful collection at the Jardim Botânico.


Fauna

The endemic animal biodiversity of the Mata Atlântica is as impressive as its flora. There are 94 reptile species, 73 mammals including 21 species of primates, 160 species of birds, and a staggering 282 species of amphibians. Most of these can be found in the parks around Rio de Janeiro, especially in Itatiaia and Serra dos Órgãos.

The sad news, however, is that because of the devastating habitat loss—it is here that the largest cities of Brazil are situated and most of the population lives—the Atlantic rain forest also contains the most endangered species in Brazil. Out of the 202 Brazilian animal species that are officially endangered, 171 live in this biome, including six species of primates.

Many of the mammals that live in Brazil can be found in Rio de Janeiro. In the less trodden parts of Tijuca National Park one can find brown capuchin monkeys, crab-eating foxes, tapirs, giant otters, coatis, peccaries, armadillos, lesser anteaters, opossums, and sloths. Reptiles are rarely spotted but include constrictors such as boas, and also poisonous lanceheads and coral snakes. Further out in the parks of Itatiaia and Serra da Bocaina one can also find pumas, otters, tapirs, howler monkeys, marmosets, capybaras, and monkeys, such as the rarest primate in the world muriqui (Brachyteles sp.), whose population decreased from several hundred thousand to just over 1,300, living in about 15 scattered protected areas.

Capuchin monkeys (Cebus sp.) can readily be seen on the trees around the National Parks’ restaurants and hotels. They are the most common primate species in Brazil and are easily recognized from the black tuft of hair that resembles a Capuchin’s cap. They are apparently very intelligent and are best-known in the West for providing the “organ grinder” monkeys of not so long ago.

Although jaguars do not live in Rio de Janeiro, mountain lions or pumas (Puma concolor) are not uncommon in the larger parks like Itatiaia. Like all cats they are solitary and tend to ambush their prey. Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are the wild felines a visitor is most likely to spot, because they tend to hunt during the day. There is no danger of mistaking them for jaguars, because they are only the size of a domestic cat. Unlike cats, however, they are not afraid to jump in the water: they are excellent swimmers and fish are a regular part of their diet.

Another animal that a casual visitor might encounter is the lesser anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla). This small, agile solitary mammal, only up to 33in/85cm long with a prehensile 16in/40cm tail has long had a relationship with man: Indians used to keep them as pets to keep their reservations free of ants and termites. Although cute and curious, it should be treated with respect: it has four sharp clawed digits.

Some species of armadillo can also easily be seen, like the six-banded (Euphractus sexcinctus) and three-banded (Tolypeutes tricinctus) armadillo. Like the anteaters they can be seen foraging for insects, as well as ants and termites, either licking the ground in front of them as they walk or destroying nests with their claws. The presence of both species in Tijuca National Park helps keep down the population of termites in the city.

The animals that have become most adapted to the presence of humans, to the extent that they will hang around trails and car parks to seek food, are the South American coatis (Nasua nasua). They resemble their close relatives, the North American raccoons, being about the same size, with spotted eyes, gray backs, white bellies and bushy ringed tails.

They differ from raccoons in that their snouts are long and flexible and they permanently nuzzle the ground like pigs. They are omnivorous and often raid both trash cans and chicken coops in outlying communities.

Most other animals are nocturnal and well-camouflaged so the chance of seeing them is small, except maybe for tree sloths, the two-toed (Choloepus sp.) and the three-toed (Bradypous sp.) varieties that hang from branches all day long, only coming to the ground to defecate once a week. They move extremely sluggishly because they have a slow metabolism and body temperature, since their leaf-and-fruit diet is not nutritious enough for their size. Still, they belong to evolution’s survivors: their ancestors appeared 35 million years ago and included the extinct, elephant-sized Megatherium.

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