Friday, November 2, 2012

Why Go On A Favela Tour in Rio?

Before going to Rio last month, I’d told some of my students that I intended to go on a favela tour whilst I was there. Each of them bar none groaned after I’d said this, “oooooh, Andrew, this is such a tourist thing to do”.

They would then continue by arguing the following against going on the tour:

  • “There are so many beautiful places in Rio, why would you want to spend your time looking round a slum?”
  • “Don’t you think it’s strange that you can look around a poor area like it’s a tourist attraction?”
  • “Aren't the people living there going to feel like animals in a zoo when you start taking pictures of where they live?”

And when it’s put like this, a favela tour sounds pretty degrading. I would never consider going on an organised tour of a council estate in England ready to take pictures of people’s houses.

The reason I didn’t go on a favela tour the first time I was in Rio was for this very reason. The hostel I stayed in at that time offered trips into the slum…but for me then, going on one just seemed disrespectful.

However, the more I thought about it after leaving Rio, the more I regretted not taking up the opportunity. I saw the film City of God about five years ago, and I have been intrigued by favela life since. So last month when I was planning my trip to Rio, I decided that a tour of a slum really ought to be on my list of things to do.

I booked the tour from my hostel when I arrived, and the next day I found myself sat on a bus heading towards the most populous favela in Brazil, Rocinha.

The Tour

The bus dropped my group of 15 off at the entrance to the favela, just by a motorbike-taxi rank. After our tour guide gave us instructions on how to get on and off the bikes without burning our legs, he joked that the women could grab on to the motor-taxi driver’s waist during the journey up the hill.

“The drivers will probably enjoy it ladies. But guys, they won’t appreciate you doing the same! You need to hold onto the handles at the back”. He then laughed, half-heatedly.

Call me cynical, but I had a feeling that this wasn’t the first time he’d used this joke! My suspicions were seemingly confirmed when he later told us that he gives tours inside the favela most days. He explained that over 200 foreign people visit Rocinha every day (with separate tour companies), so there is a big demand for tours such as this one. Because of this, we were told that the residents would not be at all surprised when they saw us.

After waiting for just a few minutes, I’d been assigned my moto-taxi, and was on my way up to the top of the hill. As we set off, my worry wasn’t that I was heading inside the largest slum in Brazil, it was breaking my neck by coming off this bike. This seemed like a very real possibility as my moto-taxi was weaving in and out of the traffic like something out of the Fast and Furious….am I exaggerating? Well probably! But as a novice to the world of motorbikes this is sure what it felt like, and I really had to stop myself from bear hugging the shit out of the driver; particularly when half way up a dog ran out from behind a car and into our path, and the guy suddenly hit the breaks.
Luckily after just a few minutes we'd reached our destination and the moto-taxi pulled up on the roadside to let me off, where I joined the others. One by one the group gathered outside an artist’s house, and then with everybody assembled we followed our guide inside. We walked straight up some stairs, past an art studio, and onto the rooftop.

As I looked out at the view before me, I remember being in awe…it was spectacular.

Before me was the Rio coastline and beneath me sat a random collection of houses. Each house looked unique, almost as if it had been constructed and painted with the intention of looking very different to the house next to it.

Against this backdrop our guide began to explain that the reason we’d gone up the mountain on motor bikes, instead of by a bus, was to make the tour feel more like an exploration of the favela…and less like a safari. He also told us that his intention was not simply to show us around, but also to challenge some of the misconceptions many foreigners have about life inside a Brazilian favela.

Preconcieved Ideas About Brazilian Favelas

So what were my thoughts prior to this tour I hear you all ask? (Whatcha mean I’m totally out of touch with the people who read my blog!) Well, prior to moving to Brazil the only knowledge I had of favelas were through films and news reports we got in England. These portrayed these places as being notorious breeding grounds for crime, poverty, gangs, violence and drugs (so....pretty bit different to Disney Land then!).

And whilst I’ve been living in Brazil, I’ve been very aware of the aggressive pacification programme that began just a few years ago, because when that first started it was BIG news here.

Spurred on by the impending World Cup and Olympics, the police have slowly began pacifying the many favelas in Rio. What this basically means is that they have recaptured them from gangs of drug dealers and private militias, and now have more of an active presence in the communities.

The prospect then of entering the favela didn’t strike me as being all that daunting. I’d also done a bit of homework on taking a tour beforehand and discovered that with an organised group, the tour of Rocinha wasn’t going to be a dangerous experience.

After his talk on the rooftop, we were invited to buy some artwork from the owner of the art studio. The Argentinean woman in the group seemed very excited about this, and she bought quite a few paintings. We then followed our guide into an alleyway; I really wouldn’t be exaggerating here when I say that one alleyway in Rocinha leads into a labyrinth of other alleyways, which all lead deeper into the heart of the community. Without a guide I imagine it would be so easy to get lost.

We walked past a number of houses, many of which had their doors open to reveal people inside sat in front of TV screens. I also heard funk music (of the Brazilian kind) blasting out of many windows and at one point I even heard Adele’s album 21 being played incredibly loudly. Seriously, I knew that Adele is absolutely everywhere right now, but the last place I expected to hear Someone Like You was in the middle of a Brazilian slum!

Surely that is just asking for violence! Or maybe it is part of a clever strategy by the police to rid the area of its remaining drug barons….by driving them out!


Perhaps I am going to sound a little foolish for admitting this, but I really expected to be looking around a slum that looked a lot more like the one in City of God (which spanned life in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s). So I was a little taken aback when I realised that far from being incredibly basic, all of the bars, shops and buildings we passed had electricity. We were told that an estimated 150,000 people live here, with the vast majority having access to basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity. There are also banks inside Rocinha, and at one point they even had a McDonalds. So far from being basic, the favela has quite a few facilities.  

The Butchers

After walking past several shops and houses, I had to double take as we passed a butchers. Several pieces of raw chicken had been sliced up and were sitting inside a glass counter, which of course, in itself isn’t unusual. But behind this counter were about sixteen live chickens inside cages.

There is fresh meat….and then there is meat this fresh!

Having since mentioned this butchers to some of my students, I’ve discovered that this style was not uncommon in the rural areas of Brazil about 20-30 years ago. I even talked to one student who told me that when she was a child she used to go to the butchers and help her grandmother pick out a live chicken, which would then be eaten for dinner that evening.

“My grandmother told me that it was my job to look for the fattest one. After we’d picked it, the butcher would take it from its cage and return it to us about 10 minutes later. It would be featherless, dead, and wrapped up in cellophane….ready for our dinner”

The Artists

About walking down more narrow, twisting alleyways for about ten more minutes, we stopped in the street to look at an artist’s stall. This artist wasn’t wearing many clothes and looked like he was no stranger to doing push ups. The tour group quickly realised that Esther, the scrawny Argentinian with a head full of unkept, curly hair (It wasn't too hard to imagine that she'd never kissed someone before!) would always stop to buy paintings from these muscular guys…on the condition that she could have her photograph taken with them.

Apparently the old lady we passed selling her art wasn’t selling ANYTHING she liked.

"What's that? I should have another slice!?!
People will really benefit from be being
a fat bastard...oh, go on then!"

The Bakery

Fifteen minutes later we stopped at a bakery, where our tour guide said this to us; “remember guys, the more money you spend, the more money will be put back into this community!” After ramming a slice of pizza and a second wedge of cake down my throat, I almost felt like I was doing something worthwhile just by eating.

Which begged the question, just how much was the community as a whole benefiting from us being there?

Drug Lords V’s Tour Groups

Well midway through the tour this question was addressed. One of the guys asked how much money the tour guide needed to pay local drugs barons for us to be allowed inside the favela. It was a question I’d been wondering about, and one the guide was more than happy to answer.

“Nothing. Times have changed here, people have realised that they can produce things for foreigners to buy. Of course, there is little doubt that the selling of drugs still goes on here, but so too do the businesses of honest, hard working people. I pay nothing to drug dealers because I don’t need to. And us being here encourages people to utilise their talents, to create things and to make their money in an honest way, instead of turning to crime to make a living. If the drug lords stopped us going inside, there would be a lot of angry people”

I really wanted to believe him....

Crumbled Houses

A fallen house
After about twenty minutes, the group abruptly stopped walking as our guide pointed to a mound of rubble to our left. “This place used to house three families”, he explained. “Each house was built on top of the other. But with very small foundations, it inevitably collapsed” he then pointed to the right. “Now look at these houses”.

In sync, we all turned in the direction of two of the houses below us, which had been built on top of each other. There were two little girls playing outside.

“This house is at an angle, which suggests that very soon it too will not be able to support itself. It’s such a shame, but then these people just can’t afford to move”.

He shrugged his shoulders.

I looked down at these two girls who seemed blissfully unaware that the house they live in may soon be about to meet the same fate as the house near by. Before we’d had time to properly think about what he'd told us, he had already instructed us to follow him further into the alley.

A part of me was surprised by how flippant he’d been, but then I guess this is reality for some of these residents. With no space left to develop further housing projects inside the favela, they have literally just been building on top of each other. It’s shocking to imagine that some residents will go to bed on a night, wondering if the roof above their heads will soon collapse.

As the tour drew to a close, I began to reflect on what I'd seen. Obviously I am under no illusions that my grasp of favela life was, and still is, incredibly superficial at best. However the one thing that surprised me were the people. Far from finding them cold, looking tired of life and worn out by their living conditions, whenever we passed them I found them to be very friendly. Many would smile and say hello, and curious children would come over in an attempt to communicate with us. I also saw so many neighbours gathered round front doors, people stood around chatting in the alleyways and also sat talking in bars. 
Looking up at the hill, midway down

There is a real sense of community in Rocinha, one that was evident from very early on in the tour, one I really hadn't anticipated.

Had I not taken the time to visit, I wouldn’t have seen this side to life here. Instead I am in little doubt I would still have a mental image of the pictures I’d seen in the media, of favelas resembling some sort of war zones. 

Our guide told us that the majority of residents welcomed international visitors, because through the tours they hoped that people would be able to see their favela in a more positive light.

For me personally, I was very aware that my experiences in Brazil up to visiting Rocinha had been filtered through the people I had come into contact with in Sao Paulo; namely my students who are fortunate enough to have had a good education, who study English as a means to further their careers and who can afford a lot of the things those living in favelas cannot.

So being able to see the favela community for myself has given me a glimpse, all be it a very small one, of how less fortunate Brazilians live. This in turn has given me a bit more of a rounded perspective on what  life is like for those living on the lower end of the pay scales.
For favela residents, through this tourism the community can show the world that they are not all bad people. So to return to the question I asked myself in the title of this blog, why go on a favela tour in Rio? 

Well, after so much violence, negative press and the huge amount of stigma thrown at its residents…. them being able to readdress these detrimental stereotypes themselves is an opportunity they really deserve. 

Yet you cannot help but think that they still have a long way to go.


  1. With regards to the pacification of the favelas you should watch this video as it gives a rather different perspective about what their intentions are there.

  2. I went on this tour when I was in Rio last year just before Rocinha had been pacified. At that time there were guys walking around with machine guns patrolling the place, and the guide made us point our cameras to our chest so that they wouldn't think we were taking pictures of them. As it turned out, the most dangerous part of the tour was the bakery we stopped at.

    1. Hey Josh, thanks for stopping by to comment! Why was the bakery the most dangerous place? Good luck with your new website!

  3. It's very sad to see people believe these horrible stereotypes about Brazil's favelas. I saw City of God myself and despite having a good plot I understood that the movie had exaggerated favelas tenfold. People need to understand that it's a movie and not real life. I still hear people say how they think South American countries are third world countries and are war zones. I've seen the pictures of these so called crime filled ghettos and seen that everyone has electricity and basic sanitation, drinking water, and full access to all basic needs. It's not even like favelas were worse in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In fact, they were even better. As much as the movies would hate to hear me say this, Brazilian favelas have less crime than American ghettos and in the 60s and 70s they were even better than Europe in terms of crime. All stereotypes about Brazilian favelas need to stop.

    1. Thanks for stopping by to comment, I completely agree with you.

  4. Sorry by my opnion but,i just cant stop thinking what shit head think about creating the Favela's tour.
    Its disgusting! What people think when accept do that? They take pictures of the poor people houses and actually the poor peoples too! What the hel ?! They think poor people are what,animals ?! Favelas isnt a zoo, so,please, think about your opnion about this later, because 99% of the money that the people win in the favela tours go to the people who DID the favela tours,no to help the poor children,our encourage the mayor to do better houses to those people.
    And other bad thing, with this, people start thinking brazil is just a big hot beach where everyone live in trees or in favelas.

    1. You don't need to apologise for expressing your opinion here Leonard, thanks for coming by to comment! From the conversations I've had with my Brazilian friends I know that favela tours are certainly a divisive issue. However I would have to challenge you on your 99% figure, I'm pretty sure the residents get a lot more than just 1% of all profits made. Particularly when people on the tour are asked to buy things directly from vendors inside the favela.

      I'm interested to know a little more about why you think people visiting Rio and learning more about Brazilians living in favelas is a bad thing. This is a way of life for a huge portion of Rio's inhabitants, and thanks to films like City of God, some foreigners will have a natural curiosity to know more. Would you rather people completely ignored the poverty in Rio, didn't visit the favelas and instead took pictures of tourist attractions and the beaches?