Brazil's forgotten rainforest

It may not be as well known as the Amazon, but the Atlantic Forest of Brazil has everything from rare monkeys to maned sloths and deserves to be rediscovered.

The Lost Forest article spread

It may not be as well known as the Amazon, but the Atlantic Forest of Brazil has everything from rare monkeys to maned sloths and deserves to be rediscovered.

The Atlantic Forest of Brazil may be one of the most remarkable natural places you’ve never heard of. While the Amazon tends to get all the press, this eco-region – one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – is much more vulnerable.
More than 90 per cent of the original forest that once covered this 3,200km stretch of rugged coastline has been cleared to make way for farms and factories, and two of the world’s largest cities, São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro.
That makes Brazil’s network of Atlantic Forest parks and reserves even more precious, and worthy of their World Heritage Site status. Within these protected areas are dozens of plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth.
Some, such as the golden lion tamarin and the muriqui or woolly spider monkey, the largest non-human primate in the New World, have only barely been saved from going extinct.
As well as the wildlife, the landscape of lush rainforests and granite spires is truly spectacular, making this one of my favourite corners of the planet. The following article offers just a sample of what the Atlantic Forest has to offer.
1. Serra dos Órgãos National Park, Rio de Janeiro
The granite domes and cliffs, such as Sugarloaf Mountain, that surround Rio de Janeiro are world famous, but this dramatic landscape stretches for hundreds of miles along Brazil’s coast. Just an hour north of Rio is the Serra Dos Órgãos National Park, whose peaks reminded early explorers of organ pipes and gave the place its name.
Wandering the trails beneath orchid- and bromeliad-clad trees, you’ll see plenty of amphibians and stunning birds (mammals are hard to spot). On the Pedra do Sino trail, look for the bare-throated bellbird, the Surucua trogon and the rufous-breasted leaftosser.
The nearby town of Teresópolis makes a good base, but bring a jacket – at 900m above sea level, it gets cold here at night.
You cannot go all the way to Brazil and not visit Iguaçu Falls, one of the true wonders of the natural world. Though the breathtaking scenery is the main draw for most people, you may find yourself equally dazzled by the wildlife.
Surrounding the falls are thousands of hectares of protected forest inhabited by troops of curious coatis, monkeys and an enormous variety of exotic birds, including such tropical showstoppers as motmots and toucans. But don’t overlook the close-up views of great dusky swifts roosting on the cliffs alongside and even behind the falls.
If you can tear yourself away for a few hours, spend a morning walking the 3km-long Macuco Nature Trail, which leads deep into the forest to a remote waterfall. An encounter with a troop of brown capuchins scrambling in the canopy overhead or a brief glimpse of an agouti are both possible.
Because the falls straddle the border between Brazil and Argentina, you will hear much debate about which side is better. Ignore the chatter: in fact, they are sufficiently different that you would do yourself a disservice by only visiting one. Spend several days here at least, with time enough to see both sides. And holiday or not, you must be up for sunrise to see the falls at their best.
3. Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais
Strictly speaking, Canastra is not part of the Atlantic Forest, but I’ve included it because it’s not far away and utterly astonishing. The open grasslands of this World Heritage Site are the best place in the world to see one of its most extraordinary mammals – the giant anteater.
I have spotted as many as half a dozen of these bizarre beasts in a single day here, simply by driving along the main park road and scanning the surrounding grasslands with binoculars.
Getting closer to them on foot takes patience and strategy, however. They don’t see well, but are very sensitive to scent and motion, so a slow, careful approach from downwind could put you within a few metres. Look out for a female carrying its tiny baby clinging to its back – the coats of mother and offspring are so beautifully matched, however, that junior may be almost invisible from a distance.
Wildlife watching here is not limited to anteaters. There are also pampas deer and armadillos, but the ultimate species to see must be the maned wolf. Though not really a wolf at all, its golden red coat, black mane and long spindly legs (from which it gets the name 'the fox on stilts') make it an animal well worth keeping a sharp eye out for.
4. Una Ecopark, Bahia
This small patch of protected forest has been developed as an experiment in community ecotourism, so your visit will help to fund conservation. Two hundred species of birds have been spotted in this area, some of them from a canopy walkway that rises 30m into the trees.
Though never easy to see, mammals here include golden-headed lion tamarins, capuchin monkeys and collared peccaries.
You might also catch a glimpse of the rare maned sloth, the most endangered of its tribe, which is found only in this part of coastal Brazil. Spotting a sloth is usually a case of locking your bins onto any mysterious clump in the canopy. If the clump has fur, you've found your quarry. The Una walkway gets you closer to the treetops and, with luck, you may catch a sloth on the move, albeit slowly.
My advice? Hire a local guide and let their experienced eyes help you to find the animals.

Conservation International (Brazil) helped to found Una Ecopark.

5. Poço das Antas, Rio de Janeiro
In a world of gloomy wildlife stories, that of the golden lion tamarin is a genuine antidote. In 1980, fewer than 100 of these tiny, beautiful monkeys survived in isolated scraps of Atlantic Forest north of Rio de Janeiro, but, thanks to habitat protection and a reintroduction programme, numbers have increased to 1,500 and they now bounce joyously around the forest like golden puffballs.
It is easy to arrange a day trip to see them at Poço Das Antas Biological Reserve. Though much of this patchy coastal forest has a dense understory, regular contact with scientists (and in some cases hand-rearing) makes for friendly tamarins that guides can normally 'call in' for visitors.
6. 'Caratinga' Reserve, Minas Gerais
A visit here is nothing less than a pilgrimage. Surrounded by farms, this tiny forest reserve is one of the last refuges for the largest New World primate, the northern muriqui (or woolly spider monkey). Critically Endangered, there may be less than 400 muriquis left in the wild, yet thanks to ongoing research, they are surprisingly easy to approach and photograph.
The trails that crisscross the reserve can be steep in places, and the climate is hot and humid, but the reward for your courageous endeavour will be sitting below large groups of these gentle monkeys, creatures that came within a hair’s breadth of vanishing forever.
There are other rare primates here as well – the brown howler monkey and the impossibly small and impossibly hyperactive buffy-headed marmoset.
Further info: Technically, the full name of the reserve is Reserva Particular do Patrimônio Natural (RPPN)-Feliciano Miguel Abdala, with the operations base being the Caratinga Biological Station. Click here for more information
7. Itatiaia National Park, São Paolo
Tucked into the misty mountains between Rio and São Paolo, Brazil’s first-ever national park protects an important high-elevation section of Atlantic Forest. Above the trees, it also includes a true alpine zone that is dotted with strange rock-formations and typically shrouded in fog.
Itatiaia is the place for hummingbirds. Fans of these whirring wonders can marvel at their colour and diversity, with names such as the plovercrest, the Brazilian ruby and the tiny but feisty frilled coquette. All can be seen along forest trails or visiting the feeders at several of the forest hotels that cater to birdwatchers.
Besides the hummers, there are plenty of other exotic birds, including the red-breasted toucan, the dusky-legged guan and the rarely seen swallow-tailed cotinga.
And for amphibian-watchers, keep a sharp eye out underfoot for the pumpkin toadlet, a tiny rainforest amphibian the colour of gold.
Further info: Itatiaia National Park is part of the Mata Atlântica Biosphere Reserve
8. Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro
You wouldn’t expect a city of six million people to offer much in the way of wildlife or wilderness, but Rio de Janeiro has a surprising amount of both. Cloaking the mountains around the city are the forests of Tijuca National Park, and these are crisscrossed with trails that give the odd startling view of the metropolis below to remind you of where you are.
Birdlife includes some truly spectacular endemics, such as the red-necked tanagers that you really would cross the Atlantic or more to see, and some, such as the star-throated antwren, you might not.
There's also a world-class botanical garden that is filled with native trees, orchids and plenty of wildlife, including tufted-ear marmosets. Best of all, the animals here are accustomed to people, and therefore much easier to approach and photograph than in more far-flung locations.
Finally, this being Rio, you can follow a day in the forest by joining the locals on Copacabana Beach to sample an ice-cold caipirinha. Just remember one word – 'Saúde', which means ‘To your health’ or simply ‘Cheers!’
Further info: Hiking in Tijuca
Getting there
  • British Airways (0844 493 0787) and TAM Airlines (020 8741 2005) have non-stop flights between Heathrow and São Paolo, Brazil’s largest city.
  • Iberia Airlines (0870 609 0500) has flights to Rio, but these require a change in Madrid.
  • Once in Brazil, you’ll find that several of the locations are best reached by internal flights. If taking several, consider buying a Brazil Airpass, which allows foreign travellers to buy discounted internal air tickets.
  • Currently, no visa is required for UK citizens visiting Brazil for up to 90 days.
Organised trips and guide
  • Many of the places listed here are in remote areas where little English is spoken. For that reason, most overseas visitors to the Atlantic Forest join a tour organised in the UK or, as I often do, arrange a custom-made trip through a local tour operator before they go.
  • WildWings in the UK offers guided tours to Brazil, primarily to see wild jaguars in the Pantanal, but also to several of the Atlantic Forest locations listed here. (0117 9658 333)
  • The Brazilian company Brasil Aventuras can arrange custom visits to almost all of my eight locations. (00 55 31 3024 9827)
  • English-born Richard Raby of Birding Brazil is bilingual and can also arrange custom-made trips to all of the areas listed here. 
When to go
  • Brazil’s dry, cool season lasts from May to September, and that is generally the most comfortable period. The rains begin again in November and it soon becomes very hot and humid. August and September are probably the best months to go.
Health Issues
  • For recommended immunisations, check the National Travel Health Network website. It currently recommends jabs for yellow fever, as well as Hepatitis A and B. For more information, check with your GP or a local travel clinic.


Further reading
  • A Field Guide to the Birds of Brazil by Ber van Perlo (OUP, ISBN 9780195301557, £27.50).
  • Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A field guide by Louise Emmons (University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226207216, £27.00).
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here