Before we arrived in Rio, I the travel nerd, was busy reading up on all the things you can see and do in Rio. One thing that caught my eye was a favela tour. Favela is the term used to refer to slums or shanty towns in Brazil.
It was a bit of a struggle to decide whether to partake in this type of tour. On one hand we did not want to feel like we were on a “zoo” tour. On the other I was curious to see what the favelas were like. The movie Cidade de Dues (City of God) clearly portrays the violent side but I couldn’t help but wonder what daily life was like in Rio’s famous favelas. So I called up Favela Tour (you save a few bucks if you call yourself instead of having your hotel do it for you) and booked us on a tour.
There are 800 favelas in Rio and 20% (about 1 million people) of Rio’s population live in them. A new government project “Barrio” (neighbourhood) has received 550 million dollars from the Interamerican Bank to start providing basic infrastructure like water and sewage lines into these areas. The goal is to integrate the favelas into the city.
Out of 800 favelas 4 are controlled by militia and the rest, all 796 are controlled by drug dealers. From what we were told the only difference between the two is that the militia doesn’t sell drugs. The drugs for sale tend to be marijuana, coke and crack cocaine. For a potentially very violent area, favelas have a surprisingly low crime rate and robbery is a rare occurrence. Why? Well with crime comes the police and the drug dealers don’t take to kindly to having the police poke around in their shady business. This does insinuate that drug dealers may take punishment into their own hands so those pondering performing criminal acts probably think twice knowing that consequences are much harsher coming from the dealers.
Rocinha is Rio’s largest favela and at 60,000 people its population is equal to that of Copacabana. It has the most people per square meter in all of Rio. According to our guide, living in Rocinha is like living in one of India’s slums. That is not a very uplifting thought however, for some, it is not all bad, in fact, you might be surprised to know that all these people living in one place has actually created numerous jobs and 91% of all business in the favelas is informal business (local shops, video stores etc). 8% of the inhabitants of this favela are considered middle class earning 1000 to 2000 Reals ($550 to $1100 USD) per month. Rocinha also has organized water, sewage (to some extent), health clinics and even a postal service without government assistance. There are 3 large banks, local radio stations and even a community newspaper found within the favela’s limits.
So, should you take a tour? For us, it was an eye-opening and interesting look at these neighbourhoods that envelope the city of Rio de Janiero. They are only minutes from the famous beaches and wealth of Ipanema and Copacabana and are a huge part of Rio’s culture. You won’t go far without seeing some painting of colourful shanty homes stacked sky high. The people who live in the favelas are like people anywhere – for the most part good, hard-working folk looking to create a better life. However, there is serious drug dealing in the favelas, weapons are often visible and YOU don’t belong so don’t kid yourself into thinking that the favela is a safe place for any foreigner to walk into. Taking a tour is a safer way to explore this part of Rio. Even better, the tours offered by Favela Tour help to support 80% of Para Ti a local organization that provides a place where kids from the Vila Canoas favela can go to learn, play and stay out of trouble.