Made (in)famous the world over through films such as City of God and the Elite Squad movies, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, or slums, are a source of both fascination and fear to visitors. And while recent police operations have seen power wrested from the hands of drug trafficking gangs in several of the city’s favelas, many locals would still warn foreigners to avoid entering these most notorious of communities.
But there is more to life in the favelas of Rio than drug gangs and gun crime, and favela tourism is very much a growth industry in Rio, with enterprising individuals keen to cash in on tourists’ fascination with these “off-limits” areas of the city. And while it is natural for visitors to harbour concerns about voyeurism and poverty tourism, the best examples of favela tourism can offer a valuable insight into how daily life functions in the favelas of Rio.
The first, and in my view still the best, tour to operate in Rio’s favelas is Favela Tour, a company set up by local resident Marcelo Armstrong in 1992. Expert English-speaking guides pick up guests from their hotel or hostel and take them on a tour of the vast Rocinha favela, offering a wealth of information about the history of Rio’s favelas, as well as an opportunity to see capoeira displays by local groups and buy artwork from talented residents.The tours are bound to challenge any preconceptions about favelas and those who inhabit them, and far from being a voyeuristic, drive home the point that Rio is not solely about sunbathing and sipping caipirinhas.
While tourists are not advised to wander around Rio’s favelas without being accompanied by a knowledgable local, entering their confines does not necessarily equate to an automatic mugging. The close-knit nature of the communities means that petty criminals are often more likely to head downtown or to the touristy Zona Sul to try their luck, and communities in which favela tourism is established will usually make curious visitors feel more than welcome.
Favelinha is one of the best of a number of hostels and guesthouses offering a chance to make your base inside a favela during your stay in Rio, and will offer a very different view of the city than can be garnered by staying in the relative luxury of Ipanema or Copacabana. Nearby, Projeto Morrinho is a perfectly produced replica of a favela in miniature, and makes a fantastic photo opportunity as well as helping to raise money for local community projects.