The Harbor At Rio de Janeiro

It took the Portuguese explorer, Gonçalo Coelho, three months to sail from Lisbon, Portugal, to the new world. On August 17th, 1501, he arrived off the coast of what we now call Brazil. He and his small fleet of three caravels (small, maneuverable sailing ships) began working their way along the seaboard, mapping the shoreline of South America. On January 1st, 1502, the ships reached a break in the seaside that seemed to be the entrance to an enormous river. The bay they found was spectacularly surrounded by huge, oddly-shaped mountains that astounded the European explorers. Taking a cue from the date on which they'd found this amazing harbor, they named it the "January River," or Rio de Janeiro.

Seven Quick Facts
Highest Peak Along Harbor: Corcovado 2,300 feet (700m)
Size: Harbor runs 20 miles (32km) inland.
Name: Means "January River" in Portuguese because of the date of discovery.
Discovered: By Portuguese explorers on January 1st, 1502.
Location: Brazil, along the Atlantic Coast
Formed By: The interaction of the Serra do Mar mountains with the ocean.
Other: Mt. Corcovado is capped with a 130-foot (40m) tall statue named "Christ the Redeemer."


The inlet at Rio de Janeiro isn't actually the beginning of a great river but a huge balloon-shaped bay that stretches 20 miles (32km) inland. The harbor is surrounded by giant mountains and at the entrance of the bay is a lopsided peak of bare granite standing 1,299 feet (396m) tall that the Portuguese named Pão de Açúcar, ("Sugarloaf") because it reminded them of the conical sugarloaves made on the island of Madeira. The largest mountain near the harbor rises 2,300 feet (700m) above the water and is named Corcovado ("The Hunchback") because of its mounded shape. The bay itself is studded with 130 islands, many of which are the peaks of smaller hills with their bases covered by the water.

The harbor is the result of a great mountain chain (Serra do Mar) meeting the sea. This set of gneiss and granite stone peaks runs for 1,500 miles along the coast of South America. It is the interaction of the softer gneiss rock with that of the harder granite at the harbor that gives the mountains their spectacular shapes. Wind, rain and ocean waves erode away the malleable gneiss where it has no protective layer of tough granite on top, creating the many steep cliffs and deep valleys.

A cable car takes tourists to the top of the Sugarloaf. (Photo courtesy of Wutzofant licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license)


The Tamoio, one of the native peoples that inhabited the area, called the place Guanabara which means "arm of the sea," a name that is still used today. When Europeans tried to settle along the edge of Guanabara Bay they found it tough going. There was practically no flat land along the water's edge and those places that were flat were also swampy. In 1555 five hundred French colonists built a Fort on one of the Bay's islands they named for their leader, French Admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon. Five years later the citadel, Fort Coligny, fell to a siege by Portugal's navy and the French fled. Today the location, now called The Isle of Villegaignon, is home to the Brazilian Naval School.

In March of 1565 the Portuguese got around to founding their own city at Rio de Janerio which they named Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, in honor of St. Sebastian. Farming sugarcane was the major industry in the surrounding region. As it became an important export the harbor began to become crowded with ships bound for Europe. Unfortunately, this activity attracted the attention of buccaneers. In 1711 the French privateer René Duguay-Trouin raided the city and held the governor for ransom. In the mid-18th century gold was discovered inland and an influx of European settlers transformed Rio de Janerio into a boom town. By 1749 the city's population had expanded to 24,000 and soon it became the capital of the Portuguese colony. Though sugar and gold declined in importance as exports in the 19th century, they were replaced by coffee. Later, cotton and rubber also began to be shipped overseas.

The gigantic face of Pedra da Gáve

The city remained the capital when Brazil became an independent kingdom in 1816 and a republic in 1889. In 1960 the capital was moved to a more central location, the city of Brasília. Rio de Janerio, however, remains the country's second largest metropolis with a population of over 6 million, and also the third largest metropolitan area in South America.


The city and the harbor are well known for their scenic beauty. There are a number of spectacular beaches here including the famous Copacabana and Ipanema. In the city's South Zone, Pedra da Gávea, a rock made of granite and gneiss rises 2762 feet (842m) above the ocean. It has been eroded into the shape of a human face and can be seen for many miles out to sea. Other sites that tourists visit here include the top of Sugarloaf Mountain which is accessible by a cable car system. From the summit of Sugarloaf, visitors can get a 360-degree view of the famous harbor.

The statue of Christ the Redeemer stands on top of the peak of Corcovado. It is 130 feet high and weighs 635 tons. (Photo courtesy of Klaus licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license)

In the 1850's Catholic priest Pedro Maria Boss suggested building a large religious monument within the city. Nothing was done immediately with the idea, but it was not forgotten. In 1921 the Catholic Circle of Rio organized a crusade to attract donations and collect signatures in support of building an enormous statue. Several designs were considered including a cross and a statue of Jesus with a globe in his hands. Finally, a proposal showing Christ with his arms outstretched was selected. The statue, composed of reinforced concrete and faced with soapstone, was erected at the peak of Corcovado. It stands 130 feet (40m) tall and the outstretched arms are 98 feet (30m) across. The statue, completed in 1931 and known as "Christ the Redeemer," weighs in at 635 tons.Overlooking the harbor, it is accessible by road and has become a major attraction in the region and a symbol of the city.

Rio de Janeiro is also known for its extensive Carnival celebration in the spring just before the sober religious period of Lent. Parades featuring music and dancers wearing colorful costumes occur in many sections of the city. One of the most popular celebrations is Cordão do Bola Preta which is held in the center of Rio de Janeiro and has been attended by as many as 500,000 people in just a single day.

There are few people that come to this place that do not appreciate its natural beauty. The harbor has been called one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. In 1932 when Charles Darwin, the great naturalist, visited he wrote that the location seemed almost unreal, like some kind of immense theatrical stage. "Every form, every shade, so completely surpasses in magnificence all that the European has ever beheld in his own country, that he knows not how to express his feelings. The general effect frequently recalled to my mind the gayest scenery of the Opera-house or the great theatres."

The famous Ipanema Beach. In the distance the hills are known as The Two Brothers. (Photo courtesy of Chmouel licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Generic license)

Copyright 2012 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.