A Rocinha Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro

While tanned sunbathers soak up the sun on the infamous beaches of Ipanema and Cocacabana, the other side of Rio de Janeiro rises up into the surrounding mountains. An estimated 750 favelas, or shanty towns, are found inside and around the city – the poor, crowded masses that service the city’s wealthy elite and thriving tourism industry. Some 20% of the Rio’s population live in favelas, and in a country with one of the highest income gaps in the world, favelas are impossible for locals or tourists to ignore. Drug violence and poor social conditions inside have been likened to an urban civil war.

With the introduction of walking tours designed to expose tourists to this world, an increasing amount of visitors are heading into the slums, entering high crime zones where few locals would dare to tread. Some argue that these tours have merely created a human zoo. Others feel it is essential to truly appreciate the city. To figure out who is exploiting whom, I decided to go see for myself.

A row of moto-taxis greet us at the bottom of the hill. Rocinha, the biggest of all favelas, is also considered the largest and most infamous slum in Latin America. Narrow alleyways and open sewers separate square-shaped cement living quarters. Painted or plain, they are jammed atop one another, sprawling up the hill like a house of cards. Be-a-Local has been offering favela tours for six years, and is the only company that offers walking tours through the alleys of Rocinha. Other tour companies prefer the safety and ease of a minibus.

Each member of my group, made up of mostly budget travellers, gets on the back of a motorcycle, which promptly speeds off into chaotic traffic up the main road. It’s a white-knuckle ride, as the moto-taxis narrowly slip between trucks and buses. We are all unaccustomed to the speed, traffic, or riding without helmets. Five exhilarating minutes later, we are deposited at the top of the hill, and our guide Marcio tells us the basic rules. “If you see someone with a walkie-talkie or machine gun, please, no photographs,” he says. We do not need to be reminded. Rio’s favelas control a massive drug trade, with entire slums patrolled by armed gangsters, ruled by drug kingpins, and off-limits to even the police.

While favelas are largely a no-go zone for both tourists and locals, these group tours are deemed completely safe, operating under the protection and one would assume with the blessings of the ruling drug lords. “For ten years, I have been bringing tourists here,” explains my guide Marcio. “I know everyone, they know me, there has never been any problems.” He explains that some children might ask for money, but we should refrain from giving it to them. 40% of the company’s profits go directly into Rocinha community projects, and Marcio proudly points out day-care programs and schools sponsored by the company.

We cross the main road, the artery that feeds Rocinha, and slip single file into the alleys. The further the living quarters are located from the road, the cheaper they are to buy or rent. Hole-in-the-wall shops offer groceries, hair salons, Internet, and pharmacies. With an estimated 150,000 people, everything the local population needs is catered for by enterprising tenants.

I hear a firework, a sudden explosion that makes me jump. Young children set these off to warn drug dealers if any police or outsiders are approaching, an entry-level task for children entering the violent, bullet-riddled world of the favela. But amongst the drugs and crime, there are also hardworking honest citizens, living the best they can, sending their children to one of four schools. Huge knots of wires hang above us, the power largely hijacked by makeshift electrical engineers. Although Rocinha has open sewers, the community has its own garbage control, postal system, and governing authority. Compared to slums I’ve seen in India or Africa, conditions are not nearly as bad as I imagined they would be. People flash their famous Brazilian smiles.

When I told local friends in Rio I would visit Rocinha, they could not understand why. Favelas are associated with danger, not with tourists. “Some people say this is voyeurism, but it’s essential if you want to try and understand both sides of the city,” says a traveller on holiday from South Africa. “You can really get a sense of community here.”

We visit a local artist, who sells some paintings to an American in our group. Backpackers are not the only ones interested in favela tours. We stop off at a grocer who sells some pastries, one of which he calls a “Kravitz” after the singer Lenny Kravitz, who once visited his store.

Today, I don’t encounter any guns, and not once do I feel threatened. While some may challenge the ethical value of visiting a slum, there’s no doubt it sheds a fascinating insight on an important component of Rio, and South America in general. Anything that brings people together, across the income or cultural gap, can only be a good thing.