Posted by: Rob Viens | May 25, 2012

Ascending Corcovado

After a day of rest, on May 25th Darwin took a little jaunt 2000+ feet up the slopes of Corcovado Mountain with his friends (who were clearly feeling better).  He describes the hike in his diary:

“Walked to the city to procure some things which I wanted, then joined Earl & Derbyshire & we proceeded together to ascend the Caucovado.” (May 25)

The start of the day trip – Corcovado Mountain from Botafogo Bay in the 1830’s and today. The peak with the sharp cliff face is Corcovado (painting from Conrad Martens, photo from

Botafogo Bay by Conrad Martens

Corcovado Mountain

Darwin continues to describe the ascent::

 “The path for the few first miles is the Aqueduct; the water rises at the base of the hill & is conducted along a sloping ridge to the city. — At every corner alternate & most beautiful views were presented to us. — At length we commenced ascending the steep sides, which are universally to the very summit clothed by a thick forest. — The water-courses were ornamented by that most elegant of all vegetable forms, the tree fern. — they were not of a large size, but in the vividness of the green lightness of the foliage, & in the beautiful curve of head, they were most classically admirable.” (May 25)

Much of the Botafogo Bay region has been heavily developed today, but Corcovado Mountain and its immediate surroundings are actually part of a preserve– Tijuca Forest National Park. But this was not always the case.  Much of this region was turned into coffee plantations prior to the late 19th century (this was probably the case in Darwin’s time).  In the late 1800’s the entire region was actual replanted by hand to recreate the traditional forest.  This was done in an effort to protect Rio’s water supply (in much the same way cities such as New York City and Seattle have protected the ecosystems around their water supplies, as a proactive way to ensure a clean source of drinking water). Today it claims to be the largest urban forest in the world at 32 km2 (though I’m not sure how they define this claim). (For more on tree ferns, be sure to see The 300-Million-Year Legacy of Tree Ferns and Tree Ferns Revisited.)

At last the party reached to top and was rewarded with a spectacular view. I am particularly fond of this description:

“We soon gained the peak & beheld that view, which perhaps excepting those in Europe, is the most celebrated in the world. — If we rank scenery according to the astonishment it produces, this most assuredly occupies the highest place, but if, as is more true, according to the picturesque effect, it falls far short of many in the neighbourhead. — Everybody has remarked that a landscape seen from an eminence loses much of its beauty, & although here the two elements are largely present, which perhaps are least injurious from this cause, viz. an extent of forest land & of open sea, yet the observation holds good. — The Caucovado is about 2000 feet high, one side of it for nearly 1000 is so precipitous, that it might be plumbed with a lead. — at the foot there is a large wood; nothing pleased me so much as the beautiful appearance this presented when seen so nearly vertically. — It would lead one to suppose that the view from a Balloon would be exceedingly striking. ” (May 25)

View of Cacavado Mountain near Rio de Janeiro, watercolor by Augustus Earle  1822 (technically more a view from the top of the mountain)

View Near Rio

What’s at the top of the mountain?  In Darwin’s time it appears to have been a nice hiking destination, but Earle’s painting suggests there was nothing built there.  By the late 19th and early  20th century there was a road and tourist overlook at the top of the mountain.  Richard Klein, author of the book Lost Samba, uncovered a nice historic photo of the gazebo that was at the summit prior to the 1920’s.  You can see it on his excellent blog – Lost Sambista. (Check out the rest of his site to get a great feel for the culture and recent history of Rio.)

Ten points if you can tell me what is on top of the mountain today….OK, times up.  It is the 40 m (130 ft) tall stature of Christ the Redeemer – one of Rio’s most famous landmarks. The stature – considered the largest art deco stature in the world – was built between 1922 and 1931 out of reinforced concrete and soapstone.  Interestingly, because it is the highest point around, the stature has lightning rods built into it.  I imagine it is a sight to see during a big electrical storm!

Christ the Redeemer statue and the view from Corcovado Mountain.  Botafogo Bay (where Darwin’s cabin was) is just below and to the left of the statue.  If the left arm was angled down a little bit, it would be pointing at Darwin’s house 🙂 (from Wikipedia Commons)

Christ statue on Corcovado Mountain

Darwin wraps up with a little history:

“Some years ago a poor insane young woman threw herself from this summit; in few places could a more horrible lovers leap be found. — Our present host, Mr Bolga, was one of the first who found the corps dashed into pieces amongst the trees & rocks. (May 25)

I find it interesting that this is the second or third time while in Rio that Darwin describes someone falling to their death off a steep cliff.  I wonder what caused this fascination.  Did he have a fear of heights himself? (RJV)


  1. […] To be fair, the falls and the area around them may be less developed today then in Darwin’s time.  You may recall that the Tijuca Forest was the result of massive replanting effort led by Major Manuel Gomes Archer in the later 1800′s to protect Rio’s water supply (see Ascending Corcovado). […]

  2. […] trying to ascend to the highest point – from Brazil to Tierra del Fuego (for a few examples see Ascending Corcovado, Ascending the “Mount” and “I Can See for Miles”). So maybe this line […]

  3. […] miles (~18-24 km) in one day. Some examples of Darwin’s “peak bagging” include Corcovado and Pedra da Gávea in Brazil, the Mount of Montevideo, an unnamed peak in Tierra del Fuego, and […]

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