Visiting a Favela in Rio de Janeiro

Favelas are mainly populated by Brazillians from the poorer north-eastern states of Bahia and Recife, coming in search of better jobs and a better life in the big city.

Visiting a Favela in Rio de Janeiro

Where: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
What’s it about: Seeing first hand our Brazil’s most impoverished live in a culture of guns, drugs and lawlessness
Experience: Join a reputed tour company – no question – and you will experience colourful streets, friendly people and delicious foods
Safety: Leave flashy clothes, cameras and valuables back at the hotel

Where It’s At

Though some travellers would be put off by visiting Rio’s poorer neighbourhoods, the latest tours in Rio pay a visit to the suburbs slum favelas, and introduce you to the social structure and hierarchy in these areas. The visits offer an insight into how one third of Rio’s inhabitants live, and serve as a contrast to experiences of visiting the ritzier neighbourhoods of touristic Rio.

Favelas ring the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, with some wedged in between luxury housing estates and others climbing the hillsides at steep angles. Most of the favelas are not in sight of downtown Rio and are actually concentrated in the Zona Norte, over the hills and behind the outstretched arms of the iconic Jesus statue.

Favela Residents

Favelas are mainly populated by Brazillians from the poorer North-eastern states of Bahia and Recife, coming in search of better jobs and a better life in the big city. Running water and electricity are intermittent here, though the favelas are not as decrepit as you may imagine; many families live in spacious homes that resemble some of the more upmarket areas of the city. The biggest difference between the favelas and the wealthier neighbourhoods is that police protection is almost nonexistent in the favelas, in fact, most favelas operate under the watchful eye of the drug dealers and crime gangs that use the young residents of the favelas as drug sellers and couriers. The lawlessness of these areas is legendary and periodic gun battles still erupt between rival gangs.

The Favela Tour Experience

To safely visit a favela, join a tour through your hotel or from one of the many companies that now offer them. You will be met at your hotel in Copacabana and then start walking towards the dark green hills behind the hotels office blocks and department stores. Suddenly you will take a shortcut down a narrow alley that leads upwards, stepping on concrete blocks that serve as steps to the unpaved dirt pathways and roads that snake through the favelas. Houses and apartment blocks are crammed in side by side, some of which have more amazing views of the ocean than the wealthier apartments below, but the lack of social services and police protection make life here precarious and often dangerous.

The film ‘City of God’ is a good depiction of the lawless, violent and tragic consequences that occur when children in the favelas try to get involved with the drug trade to get a better life. For several hours a walk through the vibrant neighbourhoods will be a highlight of a visit to Rio, because the small cafes and restaurants here serve some of the most delicious food in the city, along with some of the most friendly Cariocas you will meet. Learn some Portugese and the experience will be even better.

Safety Advice

If intending to visit a favela, it is unwise to go alone, as they can be dangerous and unpredictable; it’s never safe to go early in the morning or late at night. It’s a smart idea not to bring expensive cameras and other valuables with you either; it’s better to be safe than sorry. Though running into problems is extremely rare, it’s still a risk that should not be taken.

Main image: Image by Susana Santana, Flickr Creative Commons

By Dave Lowe

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