Rio’s Favela Tourism – Eyes Wide Open

28 Nov

Our mini-van climbed high into the hills of Rio de Janeiro leaving behind the glitzy malls and million-dollar apartments lining the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.  We sped past a chaotic mass of ramshackle houses clinging precariously to the steep mountainside.  We noticed the prevalence of armed police and our guide Ricci pointed out walls ravaged by bullets and covered in gang graffiti. We had arrived at Rocinha – Rio’s largest favela – and we were about to step into a world once firmly off limits to tourists.

The favelas were originally built by former slaves who were without land or work and they grew rapidly due to mass urban migration in the last half century. Nowadays, Rio has around 750 favelas and they are home to almost 1.4 million people, or 22% of the city’s population.


Once lawless areas associated with drugs and gang warfare, the favelas were largely isolated, with the residents left to fend for themselves.  Brazil’s recent rise as a global tourist destination, coupled with their successful bid to host the 2014 Football World cup and the 2016 Olympics, sparked a government-led scheme in 2008 to reduce crime and violence. The scheme, called ‘Pacification’, aimed to rid the favelas of its drug and crime related gangs by installing a large police presence and encouraging huge social changes.  The effects are now resulting in safer communities with reduced homicide rates.  Projects have been initiated to create new houses, improve infrastructure and transport links, build crèches and to offer training opportunities to locals.

Our tour of Rocinha started at the top of the mountain. Our small group descended single file through the favela’s twisting alleyways. It was instantly clear that the residents were living in poverty. Corrugated iron strips plugged holes in the roofs and walls of houses. A jumble of electrical wires hung precariously overhead. Piles of rubbish lay everywhere and open sewers left a pungent smell in the air. Just a few blocks away people sunned themselves on Rio’s beaches and dined alfresco, whilst here close to 120,000 people crammed into a hodgepodge of single room houses, frequently without heating, running water or sanitation.


We knew this would be a very different kind of tourism, with somewhat of a voyeuristic awkwardness associated with the visit. Were we exploiting these people? Flouting our wealth with flashy cameras and designer trainers? Rubbing their noses in it? Here we were travelling the world whilst they struggled to make enough money to put food on the table.

Our guide reassured us. Ricci believed in the positivity of tourism to help favela residents build better lives. “Tourists bring money to the community and support local initiatives” explained Ricci, “whilst at the same time gaining first-hand experience of the reality of poverty in Brazil”. Ricci was very optimistic that we could all work together to create a more equal society.

A percentage of profits from these tours goes towards social projects and organisations who teach children practical skills such as mechanics, cookery and art. This focus helps to prevent children joining gangs and offers basic skills for employment.

The first stop on our tour was an art gallery where locals painted and displayed vibrant, colourful pictures about their lives in the favela. There were opportunities to purchase some of the artwork but no pressure to do so.

We climbed to the rooftop of the gallery and looked out over Rocinha and down to the coastline. As Ricci explained a little about the history of the favela and pointed out various landmarks, we watched handmade kites dancing in the sky above us, flown skilfully by children.

We also visited a volunteer-run day-care centre funded almost completely by donations. The centre looks after children from single parent families for free, allowing the parents to work and earn money. This money can then be used to send the children to school and improve the lives of families in general.

As we delved deeper into the heart of the favela, we were struck by the normality of daily life happening around us – people doing washing, shopping for food, watching TV, and walking their kids to school – this community was no different from any other.

People waved as we passed and stopped to say hello to welcome us to their homes. We enjoyed a visit to a local bakery and indulged in fresh pastries and cakes before moving on.

As we turned a corner we stopped in our tracks to see a group of youths blocking the pathway carrying barrels and tins.  After a few nervous moments we noticed big smiles on their faces and then the reggae drum beat started, then another, then another. The favela band played using instruments made out of recycled rubbish. As the music played smaller children danced a very animated samba, throwing their arms wildly in the air and wiggling their hips. We gave them a very well deserved tip for their brilliant entertainment.

We were met with nothing but kindness and respect in Rocinha but going alone can still prove very dangerous. We did hear stories about tourists who’d been subject to opportunist muggings whilst wandering alone in the favelas so it’s best to stick with a guide and a group. Our guide Ricci had made it possible to see places and met people we’d never have been able to without him and he’d saved us from getting hopelessly lost in the rabbit warren of lanes and steps which don’t appear on any maps!

‘Poor tourism’ is a growing trend around the world. It’s possible to visit the townships of South Africa and the slums of Mumbai; however, the rise in favela tourism is probably unique to Rio.  Favela tours are actually listed as one of Rio’s top highlights alongside a visit to Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain, with an estimated 50,000 tourists a year visiting the favelas. The tours offer a rare insight into another side of the city and reminds us of Brazil’s inequalities.

Hotels and guest houses will be able to arrange tours (roughly two hours) costing around R80 per person including transfers from your accommodation.

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