You will find ample information on what to see in Brazil, places to visit, beaches you cannot miss and so on, but information on favelas though numerous can often be misleading. Favelas are shantytowns that paint a colorful picture all over Rio de Janeiro – one of the major tourist hubs of the country. Favelas surround the city of Rio from all sides, climbing onto the hills that overlook the bay. For many decades favelas have been out of bounds for tourists and only the adventurous and daring ones’ ever went inside the dark, dingy alleys. However in recent years due to a concerted effort made by the local authorities, a trip to a favela is no longer unthinkable. You can actually plan to visit a favela but before you do so, you need to know a few things. According to the 2010 census over 1.4 million people lived in favelas, that is, about 22% of Rio’s population. There are 763 favelas in Rio!
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What are Favelas
Favela is the Portuguese term for a shantytown – a slum. Unlike other parts of the world where slums are invariably colourless, favelas have bright patchworks that sprawl the hillside and no matter how much you try, you simply cannot ignore them. In what can be called the strangest irony, favelas give the richest view of Rio where the poorest of the lot live. But the external, almost-glossy look of these shanty-houses cannot shut the dim reality of the place. In spite of much work and effort, favelas continue to be known for the continuous spurt of violence and crime. Among the many ills of the place, drug trafficking is a major scene here. While it cannot be denied that there have been numerous violent incidents in the favelas in the past, the crime rate is continuously dropping.
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Growth of Favelas
It is an important bit of history that points towards the “foundation” of favelas. Once the Canudos War in Bahia was over (around the late 1800s), the Brazilian soldiers marched towards Rio de Janeiro, the then capital of the country, demanding their payment. While waiting for their payments, they slowly started settling in the forested hillsides that surrounded the city. In time because the soldiers never got paid, they never left these settlements and slowly makeshift accommodations gave way to full-fledged, though haphazard, homes. Morro da Favela saw one of the first settlements of soldiers, a place that was named after the thorny favela plant that grew in Bahia – the place from where the soldiers came.
Eventually, favelas became the obvious settlement options for migrants who came to Rio in a search of livelihood. After the soldiers came former African slaves who after having found independence thronged to the then capital to earn a living. Since no new migrant could afford anything better they started settling in the favelas which grew over the years. Though the government considered these settlements illegal, they continued to attract more and more migrants. Building codes were openly flouted in the favelas, proper sanitation was hardly found within these areas.
The government tried to shift these settlements to better places but these settlements were never left empty as new migrants soon found a home in the favelas. Governments were particularly anxious because of the shrinking gap between the favela boundaries and tourist destinations. They tried removing some settlements but without any positive results.
Are Favelas Tours a Reality?
To put things simply favela tours are a reality, so much so that today it is an attraction for many tourists. But there is a thin line that separates such tours from simply becoming a mockery of “people tourism”. Going inside a favela can mean that as a tourist you are interested to see how the people live in these shantytowns, what are the hygienic conditions and how difficult life is for the poorest section of people. But by doing so you can be doing them more harm than good. Just as you wouldn’t like a stranger poking his nose into your backyard, it is only natural that many inhabitants of the favelas are wary of tourists. If you are not careful you can easily earn the ire of these people, something you wouldn’t want. It is necessary that you know what you are signing up for when you agree for a favela tour. Make sure that you book a trip only with a recognized operator. It would be wise to pick up a tour conductor who belongs to the community and by signing up a tour with him/them you contribute to their livelihood in some way.
What To Do Inside A Favela
The sights and sound inside a favela are not only interesting but can also be a learning experience. Once inside you can be surprised by the smiles and warmth of the people as much as by a gun-toting kid brazenly walking past you!
One of the basic things you should remember before going to a favela is never, NEVER to go alone. Though crime rates have reduced, it by no means has stopped. The drug lords are pretty powerful and they can easily harm than you can imagine if you overstep the line, even mistakenly. Always sign up with an operator and if you get a local one, the better the experience will be for you.
You are likely to find more people on the narrow lanes then inside their houses. Children will most likely be playing outdoors while women can be seen huddling together – either to hurl abuses at each other or show real camaraderie.
Never overdress while visiting favelas and keep most of your cash safely in the hotel. Do not wear expensive jewelry or watch as then you can easily be mobbed and robbed. Avoid flashing your expensive camera everywhere – just to capture the “essence” of a favela. Respect the people and ask their permission before you take a photograph. Follow your guide’s instructions and never step over the line. Do not talk to the locals unless your guide initiates the conversation.
Favelas That Are Worth A Visit
Since favelas literally surround the city of Rio, it almost goes without saying that there are many of them. You can visit more than one favela if you want to but first, you must check the itinerary with your tour operator. Some of the favelas that are worth visiting are:
- Rocinha Favela Tour – Rocinha is the largest favela and it is estimated that more than 70,000 people live within this mini-city. It is a steep, climbing favela offering a spectacular view of the city from the top. You can also see tiny houses that seem to pile one on top of the other.
- Vidigal – Vidigal is very famous among tourists as it is considered a foreigner-friendly favela in Rio. You will find guesthouses, eateries, bars and even sushi joints inside Vidigal. It is a comparatively small favela but nevertheless picturesque. An hour-long trail inside the favela will take you to the Two Brothers Mountain, locally known as Dois Irmaos.
- Santa Marta – Santa Marta’s claim to fame is that it is here that Micheal Jackson’s famous 1996 song “They Don’t Care About Us” was shot here. Even if then the locals resisted the idea of an international superstar shooting a song inside one of the infamous favelas, today they take pride in this association. In fact as soon as you enter Santa Marta a bronze MJ statue will welcome you. What was once considered the most dangerous favelas in Rio has today turned into one of the most tourist-friendly favelas. A concerted effort by the police in 2008 and continuous patrolling brought subsequent positive changes. Today Santa Marta has crèches, concrete roads, proper houses, and even public transport.
- Tavares Bastos – Taveres Bastos is a centrally located favela whose night-party scenes are worth a visit. Like almost all other favelas in Rio, the view from the top is spectacular and worth the hike.
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For many years a favela visit was unthinkable but today things have changed. Of course, the danger of entering a favela without a local still looms large and you would only be making a mistake if you do so. Many favelas in Rio are opening up to foreign tourists and you will feel welcome in them but there are also other favelas where you will be an unwanted guest. Since there are so many favelas around Rio, with one inter-mingling with the other, it is very difficult to know which one is safe and which isn’t. It is of utmost importance that you get in touch with a local tour guide who can show you around, give you a brief history of the place and also tell you stories about the favela. A visit to a favela will have a life-long impact on you only when you are careful and cautious.