Should You Take a Favela Tour in Rio?

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Panoramic view from the top of the Rocinha favela in Rio

Why you should consider a Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro

There is much controversy surrounding the idea of favela tours in Rio de Janeiro. A favela is a shanty town. In Rio and you will see favelas all around the city, many with prime real estate and million dollar views. While Rio was being developed, the wealthy took up all the beach front property. That left the working class and poor to build on the hillsides. In Brazil at the time squatters were allowed to own the homes on the land they built it so long as it was not in danger of landslides.

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There are over 1,000 favelas in Rio today and many more spread all over Brazil. The rich and the poor often live side by side. Approximately 1 out of every 5 residents in Rio lives in a favela. These are working class people. They hold jobs in the many hotels and restaurants tourists visit. If you visit Rio, you will interact with many favela residents and not even know it.

There are many reasons why favela tours are controversial. Some think these neighborhoods are too dangerous – that there are drug dealers and people around every corner looking to rob or kill tourists. People often think of the movie “City of God” when they think of Rio’s favelas. Others feel that a short tour does not give any true insight into the lives of the locals. And many say that it is “poverty tourism” – exploiting the residents as if they are zoo animals or a tourist attraction.

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Several of my Brazilian friends suggested that we take a favela tour when we told them about our upcoming trip to Rio de Janeiro. We’ve lived in Brazil over a year now and have a better understanding of the culture and politics. We went to Carnival in Rio and we wanted to see where Rio’s Carnival comes from as well as the backbone of the “Cidade Maravilhosa”. So we decided to go ahead and book a tour and decide for ourselves. While deciding to take a favela tour is a personal decision we think you should at least consider it and here is why.

Ignoring poverty and pretending it doesn’t exist does not make it go away. I’ve worked with people living in poverty most of my adult life. I’ve worked in poor and violent neighborhoods. I’ve spent hours in homes infested with roaches and bedbugs through no fault of the actual residents that clean and clean and spray and spray. I’ve done therapy sessions with families in 110 degree heat with no air conditioning and only a fan blowing. I’ve problem solved with families to help them find resources and opportunities. I worked with children that have seen community and family violence up close and personal.

I also know people that would never step foot into any of these communities. They have no understanding of poverty or the barriers that people face. They don’t want to try and know or understand. They also do not understand how resourceful and resilient humans can be. They don’t see any hope.  For many, looking at poverty and trying to come up with real working solutions is just too painful and uncomfortable. So poor people get ignored and the status quo continues.

The Brazilian government often ignores the favelas all together, unless they feel the need to “clean up” or “pacify” a favela. They did this prior to the World Cup, and are doing it now before the Olympics. That means most of these favelas survive with little to no government influence. The favela tours help to raise awareness of the many struggles Brazil faces. The more people that understand these struggles means more people can advocate or donate to the efforts of these communities. Also, a favela tour allows you to get a glimpse of the progress that has been made over the years through charitable organizations, community organizing, and other local efforts. Several favelas shine as prime examples of the strength of community organizing. You can see hope and innovation despite poverty and struggle.

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Somehow they’ve made this work!

We visited the Rocinha favela. It is the largest favela in Rio with over 150,000 residents. Many of those from Rocinha are proud of where they come from. They are not ashamed of living there, so you should not be ashamed to visit their neighborhood. They created a thriving community with little to no government involvement or help. The favela is not a miserable place for everyone. Yes, they have many barriers but they have also made a lot of progress over the years. They have stores, restaurants, and shops. Rocinha has a Bob’s Burgers, Subway, travel agencies, banks, clothing stores, restaurants, a Samba school, a social club, Havaianas (famous Brazilian flip flop brand) store, etc. Stores and shops equal jobs and employment for the residents as well as a better standard of living.

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Tourism if well managed helps to confront stereotypes. It can be a wonderful cultural exchange. The outside of many homes in the favelas look run down, but inside it is a different story. They are clean, many are well furnished and have large flat screen T.V.’s. Not exactly what a lot of people would expect. Also, the people we met in the Rocinha favela were friendly and nice. If you take a favela tour, say hello to people, talk to them, and be respectful. Many are happy to see tourists because they bring in money to the local economy. While taking photos from the bottom of the favela, residents would stop and wait for us to take a photo before walking. I paused several times and signaled them to go ahead and pass (Brazilian thumbs up sign). I can’t see any locals in a major US city being so polite while people are taking photos!  Note: if you want to take any pictures of the residents, please be respectful and ask first.

People in Rocinha were polite and went out of their way to be friendly. And guess what? They are regular, hard working people. You can see school children in uniforms walking to school, city busses picking up people and taking them to work, people walking their dogs, people working, neighbors visiting with one another, etc. Just like people everywhere, only they live in a favela. Not once did we see a drug lord or any illegal activity. I’m sure it’s there.  It is pretty much everywhere these days not just in poor neighborhoods. However we didn’t hear any gunshots. Sorry readers that were expecting some excitement, it was just an interesting and colorful community filled with real people doing everyday normal people kinds of things, not criminals.

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Locals going about their day in Rocinha

Art often comes from struggle. Dale and I love local art and local artists. If we buy a painting we love to meet and talk to the artist that created it. Most of the best local artists in Rio live in favelas. It is no coincidence that the best Samba schools in Rio de Janeiro are located in favelas. Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is from the favelas. You can find great music, paintings, dancing, etc. in the working class communities. If you take a favela tour, make sure to meet some of the local artists. Buy their art, buy food on the street, buy music, and buy your souvenirs here. Help support the local economy. They line the streets with local art near the tour areas. Some find this too touristy but we thought it was smart. Why shouldn’t the locals make some money selling their art and souvenirs?

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The paintings we bought in Rocinha

Over the years, the favelas of Rio have grown into bustling communities of artists and the working class. In fact rather than saying the word “favela” I prefer the word “community”, because that’s what Rocinha is, a lively community. So much culture comes from these communities. It is my opinion that if you only stay in the expensive hotels and touristy areas of Copacabana and Ipanema you miss out on the true essence of Rio including its culture, arts, politics, and history.

Do your research and go with a favela tour that hires people from that favela and gives back to the community. Take a tour that spends time going over the history of the favela you are visiting and the history of Rio de Janeiro.  Spend your money on local arts and goodies, and expand your horizons, while supporting their economy and development. Tell your friends and family that the stereotypes of Brazil and Brazilians are wrong. There is much more to Brazil than what you see on television or in the media. Let people know that Brazil and Rio de Janeiro are amazing places to visit! We sure think so, that’s why we live in Brazil.

Please share with us your thoughts and comments even if they are contrary to ours. Would you consider visiting a favela in Brazil or not and why?