I have written about a few of those breathtaking moments in my travel experiences that have renewed my love and appreciation for the spirit of life that surrounds me. There was the time I kneeled in a cave in Tibet’s Drepung Monastery with monks who displayed unbelievable gratitude on the brink of survival. There were the paralyzing minutes I stood at the summit of the Temple of Poseidon at Mount Sunion in Greece, allowing the power of a sight I only thought could command me in the pages of mythology to overtake me with an indescribable grip. There was the ride I took through the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil that shattered and then reconstructed the way I perceived surface-level encounters with the places I visited. All of these moments in my travels have been crucial building blocks in my growth as a person, but their influence only sunk in with time. There was one experience, however, that instantly impacted me by rehabilitating my dwindling sense of faith.
On a hot Spring afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, my family and I stood outside our hotel, waiting for a jeep to pick us up from Leblon beach. We were about to embark on what we were universally told was the city’s greatest attraction: climbing Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar). The peak beautifully overlooks Guanabara Bay and at higher elevations all of Rio. Although we’re not the biggest fans of guided tours, we knew that a legitimate rock climbing challenge would require help from people who had scaled Sugarloaf enough to be able to get us back in one piece. And so after a picturesque drive to the base of the mountain and a necessary dose of caffeine at a modest roadside tea shop, we trekked to the checkpoint where our ascent up one of the most remarkable climbs of my life began.
Snuggled in the tight security of our helmets and harnesses and feeling like the most professionally equipped amateurs ever (hey, it was memorable to feel incompetently official), we step-by-step moved up the uneven terrain of Sugarloaf. I had expected something along the lines of a difficult hike, so the reality that this actually vertical rock climbing overtook me with a simultaneous surge of excitement and downright fear. Even after becoming slightly accustomed to how I was supposed to use my hands and legs to balance my body, I felt like the rope I was attached to would snap with my every subtle movement. My hands were charred from clinging onto the gears for dear life. My paranoia of plummeting down hundreds of feet into oblivion was helped only meagerly by my refusal to look down. Never in my life had I been so fatigued and afraid at the same time. I was literally on this vertical slab of rock, trying to cling onto the smallest ridges I had ever had seen in my life. With the encouragement of our wonderful guides, some mental endurance, and the gorgeous progression of a setting sun, we made it to the summit of a mountain that would give me the one the most soulful memories of all time.
Words cannot do justice to what met me when I stepped foot on the topmost, circular platform of Sugarloaf. All the heat and physical wear of the last few hours was an insignificant price to pay for the ultimate reward: a 360 degree panoramic view of all of Rio at night. It was too captivating to believe. I could literally see every light in the city twinkling, and all that light together reflecting off the surface of the serene water below. It was incredible.
But that’s not why standing at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain became part of the those few travel experiences that embedded themselves so deeply in my conscience. Since my great-grandmother passed away a few years ago, my faith in any sort of power that existed beyond me had began to fade irrevocably (or so I thought) into the memory of a negative life experience. Since that day, there were three special moments where I felt her presence, as if she was watching over me and telling me that I had no reason not to be smiling. The first was on the beach of Sanya in China. I felt her presence through the element of water. The second was when I dedicated my first candle to her on my sweet sixteen. I felt her through the element of fire. And now, standing at the summit of Sugarloaf and seeing all of dazzling Rio at night, I felt her through the element of earth. It was as if she was the force helping me endure that climb so I would get to the top of this mountain and witness the beauty that life was capable of. It was unforgettable.
After spending time appreciating the greatest aerial city view I have seen, we all took a cable car down to the historic center half-way between the Sugarloaf summit and base station that educated us on the history of the mountain, how the cable car system was created, and the mysteries of the nebulous Acai berry that the Brazilians believe unless properly prepared is merely a marketing scheme for nutritionists with few legitimate benefits. Our adventure ended as the cable car descended to the bottom, but the memories of that evening will be forever indelible.
For anyone interested in this climb, Rio Hiking is a fantastic adventure company that leads some great tours in Rio. Check them out here: