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Rock Climbing in Rio, Brazil

One climber finds uncommon adventure in a city whose soul is found at the beach

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Rio rock climbing brazil barrinha
Rio de Janeiro local Caio Cesar sweats it out on a slab at Barrinha. Photo: Forest Woodward

I dip my hand into my chalkbag and feel a thick paste. I’m not sure if it’s from the humidity in the air, my sweaty hands, or yesterday’s rainstorm. It’s 7:15 p.m. and the sky is just getting dark enough to warrant headlamps. Thirty-five meters up Via dos Italianos, a four-pitch 5.9 in Rio de Janeiro, I hand Forest the gear so he can lead and photograph the next pitch. Suddenly I feel a drop of rain on my arm. Then another one. No way, I think. We checked the forecast and there was zero chance of rain. No way.

Less than an hour before, we padded through the jungle with marmosets perching on nearby branches and a giant lizard ambling across the trail in front of us. Our approach halted abruptly at the base of Pão de Açúcar, Sugarloaf in English, a popular tourist attraction where summit seekers can ride a cable car to the top of the iconic monolith. We swapped our flip-flops for sticky rubber and began our climb out of the confines of the canopy. As I followed the first pitch, the temperature was ideal, the wind cool and refreshing. The sky was a deep red behind me and the view dramatically postcard-perfect.

Now I look behind us in the direction of the looming Christ the Redeemer statue, and sure enough, pulsing black clouds impede our view and a lightning bolt splits the horizon. In Rio, feverishly growing nimbus clouds trump Google’s meteorology report every time. We fix the anchor to rappel and within five minutes of the first raindrop, I’m drenched to the bone. The wind shoves me against the rock. Thunder cracks and flashes of light illuminate a sky filled with dark, swirling clouds.

A half hour later, we wade through knee-deep water in the parking lot below. We find shelter in a café and then negotiate with taxi drivers requesting four times the normal fare to return us to our neighborhood. Shocked and slightly ashamed, I find myself thinking back to a Facebook message I received that morning from a local climber: “Where have you got this idea of climbing Italianos at night, in the summer in Rio? I would not recommend that, and I know my climbing teachers and mentors wouldn’t too. It rains at night in the summer. The way out from Pão de Açúcar after 19:00 is tricky. The gates are closed. Just locals know the path out by the beach, and it’s dirty.”

And thus we spent most of our time in this tropical city soaking wet, dirty, with our tails between our legs. Rio is not a city for museums, historic sites, and tweed jackets. Rio is not a city you see; it is a city you feel.

Rio Brazil beach rock climbing
The beach if life in Rio. Photo: Forest Woodward

If the Marvelous City has a heart, it’s certainly made of sand and nestled on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The beach is the center of life in Rio. On any given day, the sand is teeming with Brazilians hiding under umbrellas, juggling soccer balls, and strolling two by two along the shoreline. Vendors make laps across the strip, peddling cold beer and Brazil’s national cocktail, caperhinia, and carrying racks of string bikinis and sunglasses. The beach is Rio’s unofficial center for commerce, fashion, food, and sport, and all people are welcome.

The rock in Rio doesn’t discriminate either; it rises out of favelas (urban slums that creep up the city’s many hillsides), wealthy neighborhoods, and tourist traps alike. Rio’s roughly 470 square miles of dramatic topography—where ocean meets jungle meets granite monoliths, all with sandy strips of beach in between—is an absolute climber’s paradise. The city is home to the world’s largest urban forest, much of which is protected as a national park, as well as hidden overhanging crags and clean boulders. There are thousands of routes, with something for everyone. Almost all of the rock in Rio is solid granite, typified by steep, crackless—and at times, sparsely bolted—slab.

I was in Brazil on a whim. Visiting Argentina the previous winter, I had shared a campsite with a Brazilian who raved about the climbing in Rio, “Thousands of routes, rising straight out of the city. You can climb up to Christ the Redeemer himself!” Though the setting sounded absurd, I couldn’t shake his description, and I dreamed all year of an urban climbing trip to Rio. I don’t even like cities. I’m an alpinist at heart and thrive off a good dose of route finding, logistics, and hiking, with a little bit of suffering thrown in. Adventure climbing is my jam, the wilderness my venue. And yet my Brazilian friend’s portrayal had caught my attention, so when a winter climbing trip to Colombia brought me down to South America, I jumped at the chance to extend my journey farther south.

Soccer Rio brazil beach rock climbing
Combining two favorite pastimes with beach soccer. Photo: Forest Woodward

Nereida Rezende shows up to take us climbing in a matching sports bra and capris, the same color yellow as her home country’s flag, with an identical fire engine red set in her bag.

“For the photos,” she slyly admits, hands jumping between the steering wheel, her chirping phone, and her bright red hair. I met Nereida through Rio’s Facebook climbing group, Vai pra Rocha? (roughly translated as “Go to rock?”). After one glimpse at the complex geography of the city, the confused faces of everyone on the bus, and the complete lack of online trip reports, we knew we’d need help, and Rio’s tight-knit population of climbers delivered. Today, Nereida has driven all the way across the city, keen to give two young Americans a royal tour of Rio by way of its rock.

We slither through stop-and-go traffic toward Floresta de Tijuca, passing construction workers blasting a tunnel in hurried preparation for the upcoming Olympics. We’re surrounded by the rumble of careening city buses, the occasional siren of a police car, shrill horns, shouts, and catcalls.

“Rio, it’s a jungle, a stone jungle. But there are many places that are paradise inside Babylon,” Nereida says. Unphased by the bustling scene around, she tells us her story. After moving to Rio in 2008, Nereida was invited by a friend to take a beginner mountaineering course. Eight years later, she’s hooked and has reoriented her life around climbing, currently training to be a guide with hopes of starting her own international guiding company. When I ask her about where to find some good samba in town, she explains that she does not go out at night because she wants to be in fine shape to climb the next morning. Climbers will be climbers, no matter where you are.

Nereida takes us to the local hardman crag Barrinha, driving through a hilly neighborhood that grows more and more green as we ascend. We park at a Tijuca National Park guard station, pack our gear, and start hiking, quickly leaving the main trail for a climber’s path that spirals up through the jungle’s via hanging vines and thick underbrush. The city sounds have faded, and we’re accompanied now by birds and the thick white noise of humidity. We arrive at the shaded and clean granite wall, and Nereida shows us the warm-up: a 5.12c that goes at 11c if you stop two bolts from the end. We are sure something has been lost in translation, but Nereida leads the way and gracefully hangs the draws. We follow suit despite sweat pouring from our bodies and mosquitos chasing us up the rock. Any notion of proper temps and sending conditions is thrown out the window, but we soon adapt, making powerful moves on the steep and sustained face, pulling on crimps and jugs with sweaty fingers that somehow stick. The climbing is indeed spectacular.

It takes us two hours to return home through the traffic, making a 1 to 1 ratio of hours driven to pitches climbed. Sounds about right for Rio, a city where “hurry” isn’t in the vocabulary—an annoyance when standing in a cramped grocery store line for 30 minutes as the clerk pauses to look at her nails between scanning each item, but a luxury when it’s 90°F with 80% humidity.

Driving through sheets of pelting rain on our way back, Nereida tells us about empenho, a Portuguese word that references effort and commitment, basically meaning “you gotta want it.” As we say farewell and make a mad dash to our apartment through the rain, exhausted from a day of jungle approaches, horrible traffic, and stifling humidity, we understand. Climbing in Rio will take all the empenho we can muster.

Sugarloaf Rio Brazil Rock Climbing
Jenny Abegg soaks in the view atop Via dos Italianos on Sugarloaf. Photo: Forest Woodward

A few days later, we’re standing at the base of the Sugarloaf cable car. It’s 7:30 in the morning, and we’re meeting a group of local teenagers and their mentors for a morning of climbing. The kids are coming from a favela across town, and just as I’m wondering if the 7 a.m. meeting time on the text message was a typo, three teenage boys fall out of a taxi, and a pair of men with ropes hanging off their packs pull up on a motorcycle. I see some familiar faces among the group of five: Andrew, who we had met at Barrinha a few days before, Jonas, a teenager I bouldered next to at the local climbing gym, and Marcos Babu, a kind-eyed old hand who Nereida described “like my climbing brother.” We leave the parking lot behind, the boys skillfully leading the way with their mentors in tow. Spirited banter rises early from the subdued, humid jungle. Familiar with the approach to their 11a project, they lead us to a slab overlooking Rio’s harbor where we drop packs and drape soaked shirts on the nearby branches to dry.

Though we first met him at Barrinha, I had been in touch with Andrew Lenz before arriving in Rio. He is an American who moved to Rio at the age of 10 and never looked back. Andrew is as Brazilian as they come, proud in a way that invites interest and enthusiasm, boisterous and direct in a way that puts you at ease. Along with owning Climb in Rio, a popular guiding outfit in town, Andrew is the founder and director of Centro de Escalada Urbana, a small outreach to under-privileged youth. This nonprofit gives kids a solid community and an engaging activity to keep them away from the violence that has infiltrated slum life in Rio. The leaders also provide powerful mentorship, and as we watch Jonas head up the slab, sweat glistening on his dark skin and focus in his eyes, Andrew and Babu shout words of encouragement to breathe, rest, and move with intention. I would need the same reminder for climbing slab in the direct sunlight, I think. Just at that moment, Andrew leans over and jokes to me that climbers in Rio are fond of practicing two sports at once—swimming and climbing. With sweat pouring off my face, I couldn’t agree more.