Inside Rio Favelas: Visitor Safety, How to Visit, and Insights On Slum Tourism

Due to a hard disk drive crash, 7 years of memories gone in just a snap. *sob*

Rio de Janeiro is known for its lush beaches, carnival, samba, and the breathtaking Christ the Redeemer. For visitors who are tired of seeing the typical tourist destinations and are looking for something that offers a more in-depth experience, they choose to challenge stereotypes and visit destinations like favelas.

Attending the 6th World Youth Congress gave me the chance to take part in 50+ action projects in Rio, getting some hands-on experience of doing community improvement projects in the city, specifically in Favelas. I can honestly say that the experience I had, along with my co-delegates, was somewhat unique as we were with locals guiding us through a maze of alleyways – some even smaller, with narrow paths that you could only access on foot – while educating us on everything that was going on before our eyes.

Just as we were about to head off, we were advised to keep an eye on our belongings. Favelas have a notoriety of being crime-ridden and intensely unsafe, with numerous spots hailed as no-go zones: bases for culprits and drug dealers. I didn’t know what to feel though. I mean, how bad could it get in a place where stories revolve around getting mugged and waking up the next day with a missing kidney? With all these movies, documentaries, and news about life in favelas, it is easy to think that all of them are dangerous.

Here are some facts to get you started:

  1. Favela is a slum or shantytown located in Brazil’s large cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
  2. It was the great wave of migration from the countryside to the cities from the 1940s to the 1970s that was primarily responsible for the proliferation of favelas in Brazil.
  3. There are over 1000 favelas in Rio. Rocinha is Brazil’s largest favela and Providência is the oldest.
  4. Most people living in Rochina work as tour guides to the favela.
  5. Approximately 6% of Brazil’s population live in favelas. That’s around 11.25 million people across the country, roughly the population of Portugal.
  6. There is electricity, although it might not be a supply you can rely on.
  7. There have been frequent shootouts between gangs and police, especially during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio when the state government was forced to employ more police pacification units (UPPs) across the city’s favelas.
  8. Most favelas are pacified, which means the government came into the community to stop drug rings.

Is it safe to visit?

Famous from movies such as City of God (a classic favorite of mine!), tourists and even locals have many preconceptions about these areas and tend to avoid them. But I can assure you that this kind of violence and mayhem is not present anymore.

Truth be told, just under 1% of the residents of favelas are involved in drug trafficking. Most residents living in Rocinha and other “favelas” are hard working laborers thriving day by day, spending less than $300 a month.

Generally, it is safe yes, but it depends where you go. There is still a war between drug lords and police going on in the background, so if you don’t know where you are going and you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can get in trouble.

Well, I pretty much came out alive. Although there have been cases when visitors were robbed and mugged, I never once felt like I was in any real danger.

I can say it’s not safe but it’s not that bad. People in favelas are really friendly and very welcoming. So, I say EXPERIENCE IT YOURSELF.  

The community

It’s exactly what you can think of — houses built out of concrete and bricks, electrical wires all over the place, kids lurking around, playing soccer, men casually hanging out and chatting along narrow walkways, loud music playing, rubbish everywhere, lack of sewer system, some asking for money, some selling jewelry and souvenirs. 

There are bakeries and small art shops where you can purchase vibrant and colorful paintings created by the children and the adults living in the Favela. As we walked closer to main roads, we noticed how some can be considered middle class. There are internet shops and good-looking cafes. Most have cars and some houses look pretty dope for a favela.

In addition, it is common for girls to get pregnant at a very young age in favelas. Given the circumstance faced by these young mothers, there are daycare centers working to rectify this issue by providing the essential care and services so that these deprived children can develop well. Due to lack of financial means, these centers can only afford to hire few skilled staff so they need all the help they can get — mostly come from caring international volunteers who assume the position of working directly with children and their families.

On a lighter note, residents of favelas are very welcoming, smiling from ear to ear. We were told that nearly 90% of visitors are tourists and locals welcome this intrusion because this is how most of them make money.

Rocinha is a bizarre place where harsh realities run abound. The ongoing political issue and corruption are just two of the many reasons why it’s never been easy, almost impossible, for residents to get out of the cycle, no matter how much work they put in. Yet, a 2014 study by the Data Popular Institute states that 94% of favela residents say that they are happy.

Certainly, there are places that would undoubtedly be off limits to a tourist – they’d be more dangerous and you wouldn’t dare go without a trusted local.

We were able to see the favela in its full glory on a terrace of a house, looking at all the colorful houses being built on top of each other and realizing what a different world it is up there from what we know is home to powdery white-sand beaches and captivating landscapes.

Things You Can Do

Blend in

Favelas make culture flourish in Rio de Janeiro. From samba to graffiti to football to capoeira — you name it. In fact, the first school of Samba was born in Rocinha. During carnivals, Samba schools from different favelas compete against each other.

Get involved

If you’re looking beyond tourism and want to contribute positively to the community, then there are a number of projects you can get involved with.

  • Project Favela is a very small grassroots charity run by international volunteers with a focus on sustainable tourism. Volunteers will have the chance to live in the favela, immersing themselves in the culture. This organization focuses on education, working with local children across topics, from school subjects to sports, music, and culture.
  • Community in Action is a NGO in Complexo do Alemão, focusing on community development at a grassroots level. Types of projects are arts and culture programs, educational programs, and empowerment programs between volunteers and residents.

There are many ways to get involved in Rio’s favelas. Always do your research and check where the funds are being directed and whether the project truly is benefiting the locals.

Donate

There are numerous agencies/companies that focus on supporting favela communities. Here are some of them:

How to visit?

Join a walking tour

The best favela tours are found in Rocinha or Vidigal.

I know I mentioned in an old post to forget about guided tours but I guess such cases like this are different. People in favelas can easily tell if you’re a visitor or not. If you don’t have a local friend who can show you around, joining a walking tour is your best bet.

I’ve listed down some of the guided tours that other travelers have recommended. As we have only explored the favelas with local friends, I cannot say too much on this. All are known for local guides and social responsibility, donating profits back to the community in addition to the authentic community experience.

Note: Most hotels and hostels are now connected with these tours. However, ensure that the tour company is reputable and might as well choose those that give back to the community and promote awareness of life within favelas.

Responsible tips for your favela tour

  • Do not head into a Rio favela unless you, or someone you’re with, actually knows the place.
  • Do not enter the Favelas after 5 on your own.
  • Do not give “that” stare at anyone.
  • Don’t ever give money or tips to anyone, especially to kids.
  • If you are taking a tour, skip the tours that just pass through on a bus or in a car.
  • Refrain from taking photographs inside houses.
  • Do buy local arts and crafts and support the local economy.

Dark tourism or not?

Doing a tour in favelas is becoming prominent nowadays.

Slum tours, poverty tours, disaster tours or whatnot, regardless of the city, are deemed controversial. There have been arguments stating that such way of traveling is demeaning, more so dehumanizing. It does make sense though. If it’s been happening for years now, then why is the situation still the same? Why are such efforts aren’t driving better results? Shouldn’t this kind of tourism help ease the issue of poverty?

Although we are in no way to judge the whole picture, I hope it’s always about having the heart to expose ourselves to the realities of urban poverty and challenges of life to gain a different perspective and challenge ourselves to travel and live responsibly.

I believe that when done right, this kind of experience can truly create life-changing encounters for all travelers.

Insights

As much as danger is posed, we can always choose to look at these favelas as fascinating and vibrant communities; staying true to its local culture. Although pacified, I’m sure it’s like any other country in the world. I bet there could be more crimes outside the favelas.

There is no escaping from the reality that many of the people in favelas are living in hard conditions. Poor access to education is surely what bothered me most. Having no chance to get into an esteemed school would already force these kids to be trapped in the poverty cycle. Despite the issues these favelas are facing, there is the most incredible sense of community which I am very grateful to have seen and experienced. There’s nothing like seeing everyone gathering together dancing to music, sipping beer out of cups, laughing, and proudly saying how happy they are to call it their HOME.

It is definitely not at all the gun-shooting, drug-dealing, kidney-stealing ghetto everyone was trying to say. Seeing a completely different reality calls us to action. It enables us to look beyond the lavish photos we see on social media, giving our eyes a more detailed image of a city, dispelling our fears.

There will always be a fine line between the haves and the have-nots. I hope that what lies before our eyes gives us an insightful look into the social structure that exists in every part of the world, not just in Rio de Janeiro.

Have you been to any of the favelas in Rio? Have you experienced a similar kind of ‘travel’ before? What are your thoughts on ‘dark tourism’?

 

jnomarie

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