Photograph by Buena Vista Images, Getty Images
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The Sugarloaf Mountain cable car offers brilliant views of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Photograph by Buena Vista Images, Getty Images

Uncover the Secret Side of Rio de Janeiro

Here's how to experience the authentic culture of Brazil's second largest city.

Since the release of the animated movie Rio (2011), parents and kids might be forgiven for thinking the city on the coast of Brazil is populated by frolicking blue macaws, red-crested cardinals, and yellow canaries that spar with Britishaccented cockatoos—and yet, feathers do indeed dance both down on the streets and high above Rio.

During the fabled celebrations of Carnival, exotic costumes topped off by feathered headdresses and colorful boas flutter about every corner of the city as part of one of the world’s greatest parties—which has evolved into a combination of music, dance, and fantasy that can singlehandedly kick-start a universe of creativity for young minds.

Yet, although there is great benefit from letting kids enjoy the frenetic rhythms of the city, there is ample room for them to discover a more serene, reflective Rio atop the enchantingly named Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar).

Prime postcard material beautifully set in an otherwise entirely postcard-worthy city, the 600-million-year-old, granite-and-quartz peak is not only a “registered trademark” of Rio, but it stands as a beguiling, bold monument to Brazil’s nature, history, and tourism. Jutting out of the Atlantic like a stony sentinel, the mountain affords mesmerizing views of the city, the ocean, Guanabara Bay, and the many green-covered mountain droplets that rise within Rio’s panorama.

“On the way up to the Pão de Açúcar, one is overcome by a wonderful, magical feeling that can naturally stimulate a child’s imagination,” says local Rita Vieira de Souza—daughter of a Brazilian ambassador—who grew up in various countries and experienced firsthand the benefits of early immersion into a global education. Now an English teacher with a background in child psychology, Souza says, “One feels that he or she is in a different, fascinating world surrounded by nature—this is amplified in a child’s mind.”

With cable cars soaring swiftly to the quarter-mile-high mountain, it’s not hard to picture where the inspiration for an animated movie featuring birds of a feather flocking together could have come from. Only the third cable-car operation in the world when it opened in 1912, the Sugarloaf system ushered in a new era of tourism for Brazil as a whole, and enabled millions of visitors (some 37 million by certain estimates) to conquer one of the world’s most recognizable monoliths.

It was at the foot of the Sugarloaf that Portuguese explorers founded the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1565. And, just as Rio in its early days was subject to attack by (mostly French) pirates and buccaneers, the mountain guarding Guanabara Bay would be subject to conquest centuries later at the hands of the many mountaineering nationalities that scaled its steep surface—the British (in 1817), the Portuguese (in 1817, one day after the British), and the Americans (in 1851) all planted their flags at the summit.

As an alternative to the cable cars, families seeking a sky-high adventure can opt for a helicopter ride from Morro da Urca, which circles Sugarloaf. Who knows? Your child might even spot a singing blue macaw, like that in the movie, trying to learn to fly.

Know Before You Go

Insider Tip: Each ride of the two cable-car segments up to Sugarloaf takes three minutes, yet locals know that the mountain has as much to offer at ground level as at the top. Families with older children may wish to explore the trails through the tropical forests that circle the mountain, to take in panoramic views from several verdant angles.

Books for Parents:

Rio de Janeiro, Carnival under Fire by Ruy Castro (2004): Part of Bloomsbury’s The Writer and the City series, Ruy Castro’s entry is a good-humored, good-natured social history of Rio and its colorful inhabitants. Taking on every definable era of the city, from early founding quarrels to contemporary issues, Castro freshly recounts many anecdotes that capture the city’s charming and spirited side.


Brazilian Playground by Putumayo Kids Presents (2007): The award-winning world music label has compiled an eclectic mix of sounds from Brazil’s many genres of music, like samba, bossa nova, and forró. Child-friendly anthems suitable for any carnival take center stage as greats, including Gilberto Gil and Roberta Sá, perform. Putumayo’s website also includes a downloadable Brazilian Playground learning guide that parents can use in conjunction with the CD.

Rose and Charcoal by Marisa Monte (1994): One of the classics of MPB (abbreviation for Brazilian popular music), Rio’s own songbird, Marisa Monte, with her soft, seductive voice has crossed Brazilian borders and gained followers worldwide. Released in 1994, this work is but one of Monte’s highly acclaimed albums—but one that encompasses a varied repertoire of songs penned by Monte herself, Paulinho da Viola, and Jorge Ben Jor, to name a few composers and contributing artists. The result is melodic, intense, and satisfying to ears of all ages.


Rio (2011): Chronicling the story of Blu, a blue macaw that grows up in Minnesota and then finds himself back in his native city, this animated film is a fun, visual feast suitable for curious, wide-eyed kids (and their parents). The famous Rio backdrop enhances the tale of adventure, love, and self-discovery.

Excerpt from 100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life , by Keith Bellows