Visiting the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

Favelas are supposed to be what we would call ghettos, slums or townships. They are a large part of what Rio is known, and often feared for.  Visiting the favelas of Rio, especially the largest favela, Rocinha, is a very special experience.  Rocinha is built on a steep hillside overlooking Rio, and is located about one kilometer from the beach. As the largest Favela in Rio, Rocinha’s population is estimated somewhere between 150-300,000 people (not very accurate measurements should tell you something).

Rocinha favela - the largest in Rio

Just a small piece of Rocinha favela – the largest in Rio

A Touch of History

Brazil used to be little more then a prison colony for Portugal while simultaneously being exploited for resources.  In the beginning, the Portuguese never had the intention of settling it properly.  Millions upon millions of slaves  were imported to Brazil (more then anywhere else) and that has led to a strong African culture throughout the country.   Despite the Portuguese crown not taking the colony seriously in the beginning, they would later actually temporarily relocate the seat of the empire to Rio itself – moving the monarchy and everything – when things got bad in Europe.  There was even a time when they considered  making Rio Portugal and permanently moving the monarchy seat.

The streets of Rocinha favela

The streets of Rocinha favela

So Where Did the Favelas Come From?

When soldiers and slaves were freed from their consignment and had no place else to go in Rio so they settled in the surrounding hills of the city which were totally undeveloped at the time.  These communities were named after a flower growing in the hills, called a “favela”,  and they quickly grew into nearly self-sustaining developments largely out of the government’s control.

Favelas are not planned communities, they often times grew in a very haphazard and unplanned way

Favelas are not planned communities, they often times grew in a very haphazard and unplanned way

Are the Favelas Safe?

Everyone always wants to know if Rio is dangerous.  In today’s Rio, the favelas have become a center for the drug business and are largely run by gangsters.  We entered Rocinha without any issue but our guide used that moment to tell us about the recent police and military occupation that had taken place only about six weeks ago. Before this took place, Rocinha was run by the gangsters. They still ran tours during this time but would cross a checkpoint with heavily armed gangsters to go in and out.  Street justice was the law of the land in these places and this law prevailed in Rocinha for forty years before police took control.

Street justice is no longer the law in Rocinha favela - now the police and military roam the streets.  Somehow this does not make you feel safer.

Street justice is no longer the law in Rocinha favela – now the police and military roam the streets. Somehow this does not make you feel safer.

As the gangs were using the favela to run their drug business, they could not tolerate any sort of crimes taking place in the favela itself (except of course the drugs). So there was zero petty crime. Zero robberies. If you did something, you answered to the gang. Raped someone? You were executed. The gangs couldn’t afford to have the police or military come into the favela and if there was no crime taking place inside, they wouldn’t have to. This went on for 40 years and in fact over 600 of Rio’s 700 Favelas still operate in this way.  Now that military and police have taken control of Rocinha and driven the gangsters out, robberies and other crimes are already on the rise.  In a weird way you could say the gangster-run favelas were actually safer to visit – as long as you obeys the rules.

Favelas can be home to beautiful art - featuring paintings of favelas!

Favelas can be home to beautiful art – featuring paintings of favelas!

So What’s a Favela Like?

In my mind I was comparing the Brazilian Favelas to the South African Townships and expecting something similar. This was totally incorrect – at least in Rocinha. Where South Africa’s townships feel more like organized housing settlements, Rocinha felt like an entire, organically developed, city. It was bustling with life and looked like a modern, if not rundown, city. It wasn’t rows of housing followed by rows of shanties. Everything looked different, built by the community and connected with labyrinthine alleyways that are a maze to any outsider.

Favelas can be a lawless place - even free of blatant copyright infringement

Favelas can be a lawless place – even when it comes to simple copyright infringement

What’s To Do In a Favela?

Anything and everything!  We stopped and bought some crafts, then went to a scenic overlook to understand the size of the area and it’s proximity to the beach.  We went to a local pub, walked the tiny alleyways between buildings, went to the market and stopped at a tiny food stall on the edge of the favela and got something to eat. I had what could only be described as “a long falafel” (also a great name for an Arab porn) and a glass of sugar cane juice that was being made right in front of us.  Delicious.  This was my favorite part of the favela tour as we sat among locals, had something to eat and drink and for a moment experienced life in this place.

Cooking up a storm in the favelas of Rio

Cooking up a delicious storm in the favelas of Rio

Overall we were both extremely comfortable walking around in the favela.  It also helps that Brazil’s population is so diverse and mixed that you never really stand out too much as out outsider – until you whip out the camera at least.  If you want to visit a favela like Rocinha then a tour is a must.  I would highly recommend Marcelo Armstrong’s Favela Tours (the original since 1992!).  Ask for Ricardo to take you out and enjoy.

Dave enjoying a glass of fresh sugar cane juice to wash down his "long falafel" in the favelas of Rio

Dave enjoying a glass of fresh sugar cane juice to wash down his “long falafel” in the favelas of Rio

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