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Recipe for a Trail: The Trilha Transcarioca Model

Sunset over Ipanema

Voce e Carioca? Are you Carioca?

To be Carioca is to be a proud resident of Rio de Janeiro. What's not to be proud of? The beautiful beaches, granite peaks rising out of a sea of white buildings, and iconic Christ the Redeemer high above the metropolis make Rio one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

One might say the richness of this paradise lies in the intersection of its vibrant metropolis and awe-inspiring natural areas. What better representation of this intersection than the Trilha Transcarioca, a nearly 180 km (112 mile) trail that transects all of Rio de Janeiro.

Visiting Pão de Açúcar or Pedra do Telégrafo, two of the most iconic landmarks in Rio, you will have walked on the Trilha. While enjoying the grand vistas and warm sun is a must, understanding this trail’s past, present and future, can only enrich the experience.

The Trilha Transcarioca began as a dream only 20 years ago. In the 90s, there was a flight attendant and avid hiker who used to fly daily between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Looking over the green mountains that surrounded and intersected the metropolis he wondered, 'Could there be a way to connect these hills? Can we cross all of Rio de Janeiro?' This idea led to the birth of a movement. Today, the Trilha Transcarioca is the longest trail in Brazil.

Building the country's largest trail, inspiring environmental stewardship between urban and rural Cariocas, and connecting protected natural areas in one of the world's largest urban areas is no easy feat. And it goes beyond merely putting up some signs.

The specific practices used in the creation of the Trilha Transcarioca offer unique insight on opportunities for improving and sustaining community-driven projects that benefit human communities and the natural environments on which we rely.

Recipe for a Trail: Trail, People and Brand


First, get the trail.

I'm told by a smiling Horacio Ragucci, Head Coordinator of the Movimiento Trilha Transcarioca. He knows this trail better than most, having hiked and documented the full extent of the Trilha, some 15 days, on several occasions.

To have a trail, you need a trail. This seems obvious. But a closer look at this process and its complexity becomes apparent: building a trial requires funding, navigating land-use zoning, dealing with governing bodies, working with communities along the proposed corridor and organizing hands on the ground.

At the beginning, a small but growing group of volunteers interested in the Trilha made a lot of moves on their own. It could have been easy to disintegrate without exterior support. In designing and starting the trail they had to just do it, explains Ragucci. If we had tried to talk to everyone, the trail would still just be on paper. With some things already completed, they were able to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and could present a substantive project to the relevant stakeholders. With their proactive beginning, they were able to show how little money could make a big impact, leading to amplification with fundraising efforts.

Another factor that adds complexity to building the Trilha Transcarioca is its urban context. Unlike other trails you might have heard of: the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast, the Andina Trail in Argentina or the Great Trail in Canada, Trilha Transcarioca is in a city. One very large city.

Overlooking Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro

That's not to say some areas don't feel rural, many places are. 45% of Rio de Janeiro is green space, shares Adriano Melo, Project Coordinator at Conservation International Brasil and Entrepreneurship & Partnership Coordinator for Movimiento Trilha Transcarioca. This is due in part to preservation through natural parks and lower rates of development in agricultural zones.

The whole area of the Trilha Transcarioca intersects six protected areas, contributing to efforts to connect and integrate natural spaces, known as the Mosaico Carioca. On the trail you forget you're in one of the largest cities in the Americas.

Its urban setting has been both a challenge and a great asset.

It has meant some risk of theft and issues with Not-In-My-Backyard pressures from several communities that don't want to have the trail near their homes. Presently, it's not safe to climb to Christ the Redeemer. Hike to Christo if you want to lose your phone, a park guard advises me.

(Fortunately, this is only one section and the majority of the trail is safe; and as the Trilha has gained popularity and success, some originally wary communities are now asking for sections to pass by their homes.)

Views from Christ the Redeemer, to get there you can take the tram

At the same time, the urban backdrop means more people and, therefore, more involvement, more awareness and more access to the trail.


People are the root, says Beto Mesquita, Director of Landscape Strategy at Conservation International Brazil and Governance Coordinator for the Movimiento Trilha Transcarioca. The trail would still be a dream if the visionary flight attendant had been alone in the effort.

Mesquita credits community adoption and involvement for the growing success of the Trilha. As more and more people heard about the project, there were more and more volunteers and supporters. The idea became reality.

The Trilha is particular in that its governance structure followed the burgeoning interest for the project, rather than the other way around. First there was the people power, and then the organizing body, Movimiento Trilha Transcarioca. People - including Ragucci, Mesquita and Melo - naturally slipped into the leadership roles for the Movimiento.

People need to believe in the cause at hand, Mesquita explains as he shows me photos from a volunteer workday that brought some 800 volunteers onto the trails. (This coming November 25th will be another big day of mobilization. Click here to learn more.)

It's hard to get very different people at the same table, for an environmental cause or any other for that matter. And yet, in these photos I see professors, volunteers from Conservation International, other NGO representatives, community members, blue-colored workers, children, all together.

Now that the trail is built and signs are in place, I am told, the volunteer efforts have shifted more to picking up trash and assisting with environmental education. They're spreading information about the importance of national parks and protected areas, zones that makes the Trilha Transcarioca possible. Nature and national parks aren't separate from humanity nor the urban fabric.

Tell me and I will forget

Show me and I will remember

Get me involved and I will understand


Starting a trail is like starting a company. To get clients - in this case, trail users - you have to be recognized and trusted. To get support, be that financial or bureaucratic, you need to peak the interest of influencers with a charismatic, robust idea. Trilha Transcarioca has this in its' favor. It's nature, Melo says. People like to be in nature.

Melo explains the importance of making the Trilha Transcarioca an icon that everyone -- volunteers, hikers, city residents -- could identify with and have pride in. It's important to have an identity, he tells me. Gaining recognition for the Trilha meant finding a specific rallying point.

One manifestation of this identity has been the iconic logo of the trail: black or yellow boot print (depending on whether you're going east or west). It's crisp and hard to miss, whether on the trails or online. The symbol is proudly displayed on the Trilha Transcarioca website, pocket trail guide and user-friendly app. The attention to detailed communication is clear. Mesquita explains how they aimed to make the trail accessible to everyone -- whether they were seasoned hikers or city residents who had never left the concrete jungle.

These tools help share information on all sides and for all levels. Young people wants apps. Families want to know how difficult the hike might be and the animals they might encounter. Tourists want photos to show where the best views can be found. Hikers may just want mile markers and the entry/exit points. We want to translate what the mountain says for the people, says Mesquita.

Communication has been central to the development of the trail. Once the logo was developed and the trail sections were built with proper signage and access points, they turned to creating as many different sources of information as possible.

It's about creating connection and changing perceptions, says Mesquita. They hope to make hiking more accessible, show that the Trilha is safe to visit and share the natural patrimony with all Cariocas and visitors.

View from Pedra da Tartaruga

This recipe for a trail is not to suggest that the Trilha Transcarioca is complete. A trail is never finished: it is always changing, facing new challenges and adapting to the needs of its users and environment. Ragucci, Mesquita and Melo are hopeful for this project and the role it can play in the lives of Cariocas. Ragucci hopes the Trilha will be a stable and organized project and that people will show up to the trail; not only to hike but to also join in the work.

The Trilha Transcarioca is more than a dirt path. It represents a vital tool for connecting people and nature and in the conservation of vital ecosystems. "Conhecer para Proteger," Melo tells me. Know to Protect. Melo hopes the trail can inspire environmental stewardship, giving people access and understanding to the protected areas that provide oxygen, vital species habitat and make up part of Rio's watershed. When I ask what Mesquita hopes for, he poses a question: "Quanto dependemos da natureza?" How much do we depend on nature? What matters most is that we realize just how much we rely on these mountains.

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To take a virtual trip on the Trilha Transcarioca, check out this video:

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