Favela tours are increasingly becoming a popular activity while staying in Rio de Janeiro. The history and cultural significance of these mini-communities go beyond the very essence of just being “slums.” Rio favelas originated in the late 19th century as former slaves – who had no neither land ownership nor work options – started settlements in these neighbourhoods. By the 1970s, Rio experienced a large rural exodus. That exodus combined with the ever-increasing prices for properties in downtown Rio due to a lack of availability, inevitably forced many of these lower to middle class folks to settle in favelas where rent was more affordable, but at the cost of stability and personal safety.
Before we go any further, let me explain here that by no means whatsoever should you visit a favela on your own! Many of Rio’s favelas are run by drug lords and criminal gangs. The levels of danger are so extreme here that not even the local police are willing to enter them unless they absolutely must. Therefore, you should always book a favela tour with a reputable tour company or local guide for your personal safety and protection.
My tour was booked with Be a Local who have been in operation since 2003 and are only one of three recommended favela tour guides in the Lonely Planet. Be a Local offers daily 3 hour walking tours to Rocinha from 10am – 2pm on weekdays and 12pm – 2pm on weekends for about 65 Reais (or $32.50 US) per person although we paid about 100 Reais ($50 US) simply because we were being charged “World Cup prices.” You can find out more about Be a Local here.
Be a Local arrived at our hostel around 8am to pick up everyone in our group, except for Kooks. She decided against the trip as she grew up in the Caribbean and saw similar scenes of poverty throughout Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Barbados. We stopped by a couple other hotels in the Copacabana and Ipanema Beach areas before we arrived to the top of Rocinha a couple of hours later.
The Artist Shop
Rocinha was selected as it was not only the closest favela to the popular tourist areas of Copacabana and Ipanema, but it is also the largest favela in Rio, and one of the few that have been pacified (i.e. patrolled by police). We had plenty of opportunity to learn some of the basic history of this favela, as well as to take some amazing scenery shots of downtown Rio from the rooftop of an artist shop that we visited first.
Blue pails of water dotted the rooftops of the houses below us to provide hot water for the people inhabiting them. We learn that the average rent for the dilapidated dwellings below us average around 2,000 Reais per month (approx. $1000 US). When the average person in a favela is barely making 30,000 – 35,000 Reais per year (approx. $15,000 – $17,500 US), you can understand why the residents of Rocinha choose to live here rather than make the daily 2 hour one way commute from the suburbs where housing and safety would be slightly better.
I was enamored with the scenery that lay before my eyes, which prevented me from really paying attention to what our tour guide was saying at the time. After about 15 – 20 minutes admiring the views, we head downstairs to the artist shop in search of souvenirs to take home with us. It was quite a feast for our eyes to take it all in. Many of the paintings displayed various scenes of Rio from all different angles and from all different colours.
Three pieces of artwork capture my attention. One was of the Brazilian flag riddled with bullet holes and blood dripping from them. It was an intriguing social commentary on the corruption and crime that still plagues Brazil. A stunningly beautiful painting of Christ the Redeemer facing downtown Rio de Janeiro caught my eye next. It cost 500 Reais (approx. $250 US), but I only had 250 Reais left on me to stretch out for the remaining two days we had left in Brazil. A black and gold silhouette painting of Christ the Redeemer caught my attention next.
At 200 Reais, I was tempted to get it for Kook’s parents as they are very religious. When our tour guide reassured us that he would take us to a ATM bank machine at the end of the tour if we did not have enough money on hand to pay for any of the paintings, I bought this silhouette without hesitation and a smaller painting of Rio from the viewpoint of a favela for about 60 Reais ($30 US). To say you a bought a beautiful painting in Brazil is one thing. To say you bought it in a favela from the original artist would be another, and I was happy to support these talented people.
About 30 minutes is all that is needed here in the artist shop. We were about to continue on with the tour when one of our group members decided to bargain for the 500 Reais Christ the Redeemer painting I had my eye on earlier at the last minute. He spent close to 20 minutes getting the artist down to 265 Reais and decided he wouldn’t budge at 250 Reais (a difference of about $7.50 US) because he was “almost out of money for the rest of the trip.” He quickly became ostracized from the rest of the group after this act of stupidity. Why would you waste everyone’s time bargaining when you knew all along that you didn’t have the means to pay for it? What purpose did this form of showing off really serve for you?
Rocinha Favela Dance Troupe
We proceed down the narrow alleyways of Rocinha as we continue our tour. The rule is simple – let locals have the right of way while you lean against the wall to your right so they can pass you. Our group begins to stretch out further and further, so I begin to admire the sights and sounds all around me.
We stop at a small canopy where several young men start playing their musical instruments while the children that surround them because dancing up a storm to entertain us. The energy and festivity displayed before us over the next few minutes almost made me forget how weird I felt that we were paying them a few Reais to dance for us as if they were like monkeys in a zoo. Almost made me forget, of course, but I didn’t.
The Bakery Shop
Our tour guide then takes us to a bakery shop so we can pick up some snacks. At this point, we all start catching on quick that this “favela tour” is increasingly becoming more of a money grab than anything else. We had already been halfway through the tour, and I would say about 85% of the time we were “encouraged to shop.”
The con of this is quite evident – we are being pushed into spending our money rather than learning about life in the favela as we initially thought that this tour would be about. The pro, of course, is that the more money tourists spend on these tours, the less likely the locals will turn to a life of crime and the less likely we would be hassled by the local gangs for “protection money.”
From this point forward, our tour guide stops taking us to more shops and begins telling us the history and significant points of interest of Rocinha. We become separated and largely spread out as the alleyways become narrower and I get stuck behind two guys carrying a couch down the steep path before us. I let them go ahead of me not realizing we about to enter an alleyway so narrow for the next 15 – 20 minutes that pedestrians can only walk one way.
At this point, my interest in the tour begins to wane, so I try my best to make the most of the situation. A friendly lady shouts out at our group, “Hola, Hola!” I look around for the mysterious voice calling out for me until she tells me to look up where she is standing on her balcony. I ask if I can take her photo, but she declines. Taking photos of people in the favelas is difficult to do unless you are willing to paying them a bit of cash or try your best to go stealth.
Meanwhile, our guide keeps plowing through the rest of the tour not showing any concern about the people in the back of the line with me. Some locals begin to ask for change including the guys carrying the couch in front of us. My interest turns to disgust at this point as I am pissed off at our guide for leaving us behind while at the same time feeling like I am now intruding in these people’s lives. Maybe Kooks was right. Maybe going on a favela tour wasn’t such a good idea.
Our group meets up further down the alleyway while the couch guys walk past us. We learn that some of the money that Be a Local collects on these tours goes towards redeveloping a Kindergarten class in the building in front of us. The children here learn some basic life skills, like gardening, and while we would normally be allowed in to watch this class in action, the Kindergarten was closed due it being a World Cup Match day. The one thing on this tour that seemed less likely to be a tourist trap and more of a result of our tourism dollars being put to good use in Rocinha, and we are unable to see it. Dang.
We finally make our way to the bottom of Rocinha. We cross the street using the pedestrian bridge. We look up to the top of the hill and are amazed by the amount of ground we had just covered in the past 2 ½ – 3 hours. I turn around 180 degrees and see the wealth of Rio only a couple of Kilometers in front of us in the form of condos and skyscrapers. Talk about a complete night-and-day experience. Ironically, my experience of this favela tour took a complete night-and-day experience, as well.
While I was initially gung-ho about going to see a favela, my heart began to sink the further downhill we went and the more we began to see the extreme poverty that these families every single day. To make matters worse, the asshole in our group – the guy who wasted everyone’s time in the artist shop – kept bugging me to take his portrait at every stop we made from the bottom of the hill to the pedestrian bridge. He was just so oblivious to the plight of Rocinha that it angered me to know he was treating this tour as more of a side-show rather than a trip in self-reflection.
Do I regret going on this favela tour? Not one bit, but I am glad that I took the opportunity to do it as I was shocked by the raw emotion it evoked within me. Would I ever do this again in the future? Probably not, but I guess it all depends on the situation. Nick and I had no problem visiting the Mayan village near Punta Gorda as we knew the tourism dollars would go straight to the community. So unless I am 100% certain my money will be invested into these impoverished communities, then I will think twice about doing this type of tour again.
How do you feel about favela tours? Would you go on one? Please share your comments below.