Jardim Botânico, Gávea
Rio de Janeiro
Tel: 55 21 3874 1808
Concierge.com's insider take:
Rio's botanical garden in Gávea is the oldest of its kind in South America. Founded in 1808 by King Dom João VI, it covers an impressive 338 acres of the city, giving Cariocas a real oasis within the city limits. It is one of the few places in the country where you can still see the smooth-barked, yellow-flowered pau-brasil, a sought-after brazilwood tree that was felled in vast quantities by early Portuguese explorers. The garden contains some 8,000 species of tropical trees and plants, including a 130-foot kapok tree, whose roots extend some 20 feet up from the earth, and the aptly named cannonball tree, whose heavy nuts fall with a dangerous crunch. The cocoa and rubber trees are also present, but the collection is not confined to Brazilian species: There are some fine Madagascan traveler's trees and splendid avenues of Cuba's royal palm. Extensive collections of orchids, cacti, and medical plants, many housed in elegant glasshouses, also rank among the richest in the Americas, particularly the bromeliad collection, whose 1,700 species offer a seemingly unlimited variety of color, shape, and texture. Children, in particular, make a beeline for the insectivore greenhouse, where pitcher plants and venus flytraps form part of the carnivorous plant collection.
Park officials have been working on filling the information gap: Maps in English are available at the visitor center; most trees now bear name tags in Portuguese and Latin; and an interpretative trail has been blazed through a dense patch of Atlantic forest. If you don't fancy walking, watch for the electric carts that depart with a small number of passengers every two hours (the tours are free, but sign up early at the visitor center). Even if you're no botany buff, it's difficult not to enjoy wandering through the gardens, which provide habitat for myriad butterflies, hummingbirds, toucans, and guan. Look carefully, and you can even spot lizards in the undergrowth and several tribes of marmoset monkeys, which cavort through the trees in the late afternoon.