The Best View in Rio… And It’s From a Favela

His name was Francisco, and he’d always lived in the favelas.

“I was born in Rocinha,” he told Kay in Portuguese, proudly, “but I built this house eighteen years ago.”

The blue-green building sits neatly on a corner of the narrow road that leads up, ever winding, to the very top of Rocinha: Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela. It’s also the one that most tourists visit – whether they’re there on a favela tour, or attempting to tackle it guerrilla style, taking their chances on solo exploration in one of Rio’s poorest neighbourhoods.

I, however, was choosing neither of these options. One of the huge benefits to travel blogging is the global network of fellow bloggers you find yourself in contact with. One such blogger is Kay, of The Kay Days, who’s currently studying for her semester abroad in Rio. And she’d offered to show me around Rocinha for the day.

A place where even native Brazilians are scared to enter.

“It’s really not as dangerous as people say,” she told me, earnestly, as we picked our way gingerly through the piles of trash littering Rocinha’s steep streets. “But there’s an obvious stereotype of the favelas that’s hard to shake.”

Rio’s favelas are where approximately 70,000 of the city’s poorest residents live. The favelas have a reputation for being crime ridden and acutely dangerous, with many places flagged as no-go areas: infamous as the hangouts for criminals and the location of drug deals. And I hate to say it, but I was gripping on pretty tightly to my bag strap as we walked.

But then why were so many people smiling and laughing as they passed us? Why were so many children walking alone through the twisting streets?

There’s a fascinating stereotype battle happening in places like Rocinha. In the news, the crime and drug issues come to the fore. And it’s understandable – clearly favelas have their dangers. But the tourist market has a different mindset: that the favelas are fascinating, vibrant, energetic and filled with a sense of community.

They also have a rather strange ability to make money, as they fit right into a burgeoning trend known as ‘slum tourism’.

Slum tourism: travelling to places you “shouldn’t”

Many backpackers and young travellers passing through Rio have the same idea in mind. Visit a favela, live through the potential danger, and feel like you’ve really got a story to tell afterwards.

Normally, I don’t prescribe to this kind of tourism out of principle. I didn’t take a tour around Mumbai’s giant sprawling slums when in India, and I wasn’t planning on visiting the favelas either. Despite being truly fascinated in the lifestyle of these communities, it’s often difficult to find a tour that doesn’t draw its main selling point from purposely exposing the misfortunes of others.

It’s also partly why I volunteer so much when I travel, as I’m able to get the same kinds of insights by actually interacting with the same communities, rather than simply driving past and taking photos of them.

But walking through Rocinha with Kay was immediately a different experience to the way most foreign visitors venture there. As we were two girls walking by ourselves, we looked a bit less like tourists and were more able to blend in! And as we wandered ever upwards through the narrow, cramped streets, searching out the best views across the favela, Rocinha felt like any number of poorer neighbourhoods I’ve explored when travelling; less like an enclosed bubble of poverty and danger, and more a community within a city.

We ducked under swathes of electrical wiring past groups of young men fixing cars or unloading produce from trucks; kept a watchful eye on the innumerable motor taxis, which zoomed past with no regard for pedestrian safety; and stepped quickly away from sparking metal above our heads, as repairmen on ladders played God.

It was fascinating and exhilarating – but I never once felt like I was in any real danger.

Ok, so these were a little bit terrifying..

I was lucky that Kay knew her way around Rocinha, though. One often-heard warning that I do have to adhere to is not heading into a Rio favela unless you, or someone you’re with, actually knows the place.

But why does Kay know this favela so well? Because she’s spent the last few months volunteering at an NGO that’s based right in the middle of Rocinha.

Favela based NGOs: positive change in the heart of the poverty

Il Sorriso Dei Miei Bimbi is an Italian NGO who work with the children of Rocinha, helping to improve their education and social awareness, as well as providing them with a safe and interactive learning environment.

It’s also where I was given coconut cookies and a glass of Coke, questioned repeatedly in Portuguese by the various teenagers Kay introduced me to, and treated to an impromptu dance display from said teens, courtesy of music from a mobile phone. The rumours are true; Brazilians do seem to be dancing the entire time.

As we left, Kay and I were joined by Marcella, a fourteen year old girl who was intent on showing us around the favela; first to get some food, then to visit her house, and then onwards to her local church service.

Simple stuff, maybe – if you aren’t in a favela. And with Marcella as our guide, I realised just how varied different people’s experiences of Rocinha can be.

Exploring the real Rocinha

Earlier that day, I’d felt somewhat smug that I wasn’t part of a tour group, and thought we might be blending in – but it was still clear that Kay and I weren’t interacting with anyone we walked past.

Walking around with Marcella, though, was the polar opposite. It took us over forty minutes to reach her nearby house because she continually stopped to say hello to people, to introduce us as her friends, to explain who we were and then to say goodbye again.

And let’s not forget that both Kay and I had to kiss every new friend twice: one on each cheek, as Brazilians are wont to do.

My first impressions were right. There’s a wonderfully strong sense of community in Rocinha – but it’s made more obvious when you’re actually involved in that community. Even a little bit.

This dedicated Rocinha dweller was covered in tattoos of his favela!

For one afternoon, walking with Marcella, we were part of the fabric of Rocinha.

It meant we had the ability to navigate the gloomy, half-lit alleyways that spiderweb their way behind the main favela streets – blindly following a child as she told us that the postman knows every single house in Rocinha.

It meant we could stand with that child’s mother and be invited to dinner, for no other reason than we’d just met her daughter that afternoon. I could listen to her speak Portuguese, then reply to her in Spanish, and watch her mull over what I’d said before she carefully, and slowly, attempted to reply. Giving the language-barriered conversation all the time in the world, just because.

And it meant we were able to walk into the beginning of a church service, wander downstairs to the basement, kiss the cheeks of at least ten grinning Brazilian strangers, and (totally unexpectedly) receive a blessing from their priest.

As his firm hands pressed heavily down onto the top of my head, I knew this was akin to being welcomed into the Rocinha community; belonging, even for a few moments, to a group of people happy to include anyone and everyone.

A new perspective on the favela

I know I may be somewhat biased in my opinions of Rocinha. I spent my week in Rio not doing very much; after two weeks in the jungle I was exhausted and internet-deprived, and so (much as it pains me to say it), a large part of my time was either spent sleeping or abusing my hostel’s wifi connection, while I got some long overdue work done.

As a result, my day in Rocinha favela forms the bulk of my memories of Rio – but it’s something I’m very happy about.

I never expected to visit any of the favelas in Rio – and I honestly never thought I’d experience one in the way I did.

While there’s no doubt it’s a dangerous place, Rocinha and the favelas of Rio certainly have their merits. Despite the clear evidence of drug traffickers and violence, that’s not the only thing the favelas should be known for – because they’re filled with communities that truly care for one another.

And when you actually take some time to get to know the people, it starts becoming obvious why they’re so proud to be from a favela like Rocinha.

Particularly when they have views like this.

Have you been to any of the favelas in Rio? What are your thoughts on the idea of ‘slum tourism’? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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21 Responses to The Best View in Rio… And It’s From a Favela

  1. colin farrel September 27, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    OMG!! That’s a story and a half and seeing life upclose and personal. If we are going to travel we cannot selective choose what we are going to see ’cause seeing the ngo areas are just as important as seeing the masterpiece on the wall.

    • Flora September 29, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it, Colin! I agree with your travel perspective, although I do sometimes have reservations about some places. With the favelas, for instance, I didn’t want to contribute to the idea of ‘slum tourism’ – but clearly I didn’t have to! When there’s a will, there’s a way, after all 🙂

  2. Kay September 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

    What an adventure that day was! I’m glad our time in Rocinha opened your eyes to the strong community there, and I’m even more elated that it was an experience that stuck. The students ask about you every so often and I tell them if they want to learn a bit of English I’ll help read and translate your posts to them!

    • Flora September 29, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

      Hah that’s awesome! Tell them I said hi 🙂 Yep, it’s definitely an experience that’s going to stick in my head. Although there are clearly dangerous elements to the favelas – and to a lot of places similar throughout the world – it doesn’t mean there can’t be pockets of positivity and community in amongst them 🙂

  3. Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans October 3, 2013 at 10:55 pm #

    You’re right – favelas like Rocinha have some of the best views in Rio. When I visited Rocinha back in 2010, the druglord was still running things and we saw young “soldiers” riding their motorbikes strapped with M16’s and AK-47’s. And while we never felt like we were in danger, the favelas are definitely not the place to venture into on your own. Also, I don’t think that visits to favelas and slums are a bad thing. I know that efforts are being made to clean up the favelas now with the World Cup and Olympics coming up. But the police are very corrupt, so problems in the favelas still persist. When we were in Rio, we also had the chance to visit the Vila Canoas favela and volunteer at the Para Ti School there. The contrast between the two favelas is somewhat stark. And wow – that guy definitely loves and is committed to Rocinha with those tattoos!

    • Flora October 9, 2013 at 1:49 am #

      Glad you agree Dana! You’re right, I think they’re doing a huge clean up job in time for the Olympics – and even though I highly doubt it will ever get rid of the underlying problems, it gives the residents of the favelas a fresh chance to be proud of where they’re from. Your experience of Rocinha sounds much more obviously dangerous though! I wish I’d been able to stay for longer and volunteer. Next time..!

  4. Ryan October 5, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this for days Flora! I’ve been so busy at work lately but this totally had me captivated the whole bus ride one morning and I’ve been thinking about it since. I really love the contrast you provide in this and the true honesty. It’s nice when someone admits that they had absolutely no interest in exploring an area, because I believe it makes that discovery and experience so much more profound when your perspective completely changes. It’s so amazing that people in such areas will just invite you in to their home for a chat or a bite to eat, I experienced the same warmth and hospitality in Haiti. Sure, areas like that have crime and poverty, but it’s surface level and is what most of the world chooses to see and associate with it…when there is so much more that lies beneath.

    • Flora October 9, 2013 at 1:52 am #

      Ryan, thanks so much! It’s true – just because somewhere has a reputation for danger doesn’t mean it’s the fundamental aspect of the place. I get the impression Haiti was a real game changer for you – I’ll have to make it there at some point.

  5. TammyOnTheMove October 10, 2013 at 7:40 am #

    I visited this favela back in 2008 and it definitely felt more sketchy back then. I was told not to take any photos under any circumstances and I saw men with AK47 all the time. It definitely felt quite dangerous, even though I was with a Brazilian at the time. I am very pale and blonde so can’t really blend in. 🙂 It seems that the favelas have changed a lot since though if you can just wander around by yourself, as foreigners certainly couldn’t have walked around by themselves back then. I recently watched a documentary about the cleansing of the favelas before the Olympics and it was shocking. The police are more brutal than the gangsters they are trying to fight and kidnappings and killings conducted by policemen are not uncommon. It obviously doesn’t make people trust the police anymore, so I am not sure if people are actually better off now than they were a few years ago as they now just fear police instead of gangsters.

  6. We Are Travellers October 21, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    Really cool pictures! I’ve been to the favelas ones and it can be pretty indeed.

    • Flora October 22, 2013 at 1:50 am #

      Thanks! Yep, many parts in the favelas are absolutely gorgeous – particularly the views!

  7. EscapeWriter January 14, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    I know there are companies offering favela trips in Rio and in Colombian cities as well. It must be a great experience checking those places out. But not alone and not without being guided by locals.
    Some of those places are very dangerous. Sometimes even the army intervenes to fight local gangs. Especially now before the 2014 World Cup, they’re getting ready to reduce crime.

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:19 am #

      Yes, I wouldn’t recommend going into the favelas alone when you’re a tourist and/or don’t know where you are or what you’re doing. But they’re also fascinating places and a really wonderful way to see how Rio works from the inside out.

  8. Chanel @ La Viajera Morena February 9, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    I am so glad that I came across this article about your trip to the Favelas and for sharing your insight. I am really interested in spending a couple of my days doing volunteer work while I am in Brazil, so I am going to look into Il Sorriso Dei Miei Bimbi 😀

    Once again, thank you!!

    • Flora February 22, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      Wonderful to hear it Chanel! I’d recommend getting in touch with Kay (of The Kay Days) as she spent a good few months volunteering there. Hope you have a wonderful time 🙂

  9. Gareth Leonard March 26, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    Great story and it sounds like you had an authentic view into a different side of Rio de Janeiro that many ignore or try to fabricate. I agree completely with this “despite being truly fascinated in the lifestyle of these communities, it’s often difficult to find a tour that doesn’t draw its main selling point from purposely exposing the misfortunes of others.”
    I have been living in Rio de Janeiro for the past two months and am working on building relationships to interact with the favela on a local level, like you did!

    • Flora March 27, 2014 at 4:07 am #

      Cheers Gareth, it was a very different experience than I’d initially expected, and I’d highly recommend spending as much time as you can in the favela culture while you’re in Rio – it’s so fascinating. Be careful though!

  10. Ray November 5, 2016 at 10:50 pm #

    My visit to Rocinha was done with a local tour company (Be a Local Tours). While I can understand where you are coming from, you do need to keep in mind that not all tour companies exploit these impoverished neighbourhoods. In fact, we were told that some of the proceeds of our tour actually get reinvested back into the community. In this case, it was to help refurbish the local Kindergarten.

    While I understand how “slum tourism” can be off putting to most people, if done right, then it can be a win-win situation for all. I learn more about a lifestyle that I will never see in Canada while my money goes to help some of the local people in this favella. Hopefully, these opportunities will persuade them from following a life of illicit criminal activity and make the overall situation in Rocinha slightly better than before.

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:04 pm #

      Thanks for your input, Ray. I totally agree that not all companies are intentionally exploiting poorer communities – I’ve just experienced/heard enough negativity surrounding the concept that I find it hard not to be critical from the outset!

      The best thing that prospective tourists can do is ample research. If there’s a tour which actively helps the community (and which the community agrees to and appreciates!) then it’s a fantastic option. The one you found in Rocinha seems to have been exactly that 🙂

  11. Travel Rumors August 16, 2017 at 6:40 pm #

    Would love to go one day. At the top of my bucket list, so very nice to read this article! Thanks!

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