Rio de Janeiro is one of the most intense and buzzing cities that I have had the pleasure of encountering. I visited during Rio Carnival and spent just over two weeks exploring the city and partying. There is so much to the city, but one of its most infamous facets has to be the Favelas of Rio. So I decided to take a Rio Favela tour.
These neighbourhoods make up the majority of the city and stretch from the beachfront to high up in the mountains that surround the city. Impoverished, manmade and a world within a world these communities are quite remarkable.
I first learned about these through movies and books about the gangs that inhabit many of these areas and which make them notorious. However, there is far more to Rios Favelas that guns and drugs as we learned from our Favela tour.
What is a Favela?
Favelas are in the simplest terms, neighbourhoods, but ones which have developed autonomously. The buildings are made from whatever material is available, electricity is sourced from the main power lines and waste management is organised on a person to person basis.
They began in Rio around the 1950s due to the promise of work in the areas and the reduction of labour needs in the agricultural sector. There are hundreds of Favelas throughout Rio with an estimated 1 million+ inhabitants.
Due to the impoverished nature of many areas gangs emerged which control the drugs and other criminal activity. To some extent, they also police their own neighbourhoods and protect them from rival gangs and the police. Though this also leads to deaths and increased problems for the peaceful inhabitants in Rios Favelas.
The name Favela actually derives from a plant which grows on the mountains around Rio and which is notorious for being difficult to uproot, just like the favelas themselves.
Rio Favela tour
If you do wish to visit a favela most definitely do it as part of a tour. Wandering around with valuables can be tricky enough in Rio. Walking into a favela with your nice expensive camera will definitely not go down to well.
Many of the guides are residents or have strong connections to the communities. They will be in contact with residents and those with power so they know the routes to take and if problems might emerge on the trip. Also without knowing the history of some the locations you don’t get a real understating of the growth of these communities and of how the people live within them.
Inside the Favela
I booked my favela tour through Books hostel along with a few others. We picked up people from other hostel along the way. We then drove to the base of Rocinha favela and began exploring the neighbourhood.
The winding pathways are just enough for you to walk in single and double file in some places. There is definitely no room for cars and I only saw a few motorbikes that may be able to travel through parts of the Favela.
We came across the ingenious sewage and power networks and buildings made from wood, corrugated iron and brick. The ingenuity of the people was quite amazing and I am sure those actually paying for the electricity are a little Peed off.
What you will learn
What was most interesting though was the stories of the favelas people and the history and growth of such neighbourhoods.
You will learn of the favela economy and how different businesses spring up within the community. There are restaurants, barbers, supermarket and more. If the density and other issues weren’t so alarming then a favela would be an ok place to live.
We also learned of the problems with gangs and the police. For the most part, residents seemed to side more with the gangs than the police. This is due to a huge amount of violence and corruption on the part of the police in Rio. They never came across as the friendliest bunch.
Our only warning in the Favela was to not take pictures of the gangs or drug dealing, but we didn’t see any during our tour.
I would be lying if I said this isn’t the part which interested me the most. I was kind of looking forward to seeing some gangsters but it didn’t happen. Our guide definitely was keeping track of our route and I am sure this was a tactful move.
Favela economy and tourism
During our trip, we visited a nice bakery, saw some kids dancing and visited the home of local artists trying to help in the community. The most awesome part though was visiting a daycare party funded by the tour company.
At almost three stories high and with modern facilities the daycare takes care of the young in the community. This occurs when their parents are working or not able to take care of them.
The tour within the Favela lasted about two hours and the driving back and forth took about an hour. So if you go early in the day you will have plenty of time to explore other areas within the city.
My thoughts on the Rio Favela tour
It was an eye-opening experience to see how the people live and how pacification and government initiatives are perceived by the community itself. The government tends to paint a picture of violence but I saw mainly a tightknit community living in exceptional circumstances.
Rochina from the outside
Rochina seems to be one of the success stories from government initiatives but only to a degree. The gangs still control large areas and there were definitely neighbourhoods I would definitely not have enter. The police presence alone made you aware of how serious some of the places can be.
That is why I recommend taking a guided tour.
What else to see in Rio?
Of course, doing a Favela tour might not be for everybody. There are safety concerns, poverty tourism concerns and simply an uninterest in seeing these parts of the city. Luckily there is so much to see in Rio you won’t ever get bored.
I have covered some of the other things you can do Rio here. I will just get through a quick rundown of things to do besides a Rio Favela tour.
Visit Christ the Redeemer
One of the most iconic images in South America is, of course, Christ looking over the city. I actually didn’t go here as I was preoccupied with Carnival though I am sure I will visit this city again in the future.
Visit Dois Irmaos
One of the most stunning hikes in South America and quite an easy one also. The Dois Irmaos hike will bring you through the Favela of Vidal close by Copacabana beach. With an early rise and good weather, you can have an unbelievable view of the city below.
Relax on the world-famous Copacabana
Of course, a visit to Rio would have to entail a visit to one of the stunning beaches, the most popular being Copacabana. Enjoy the waves with a tasty Caprihana in your hand.
Where to stay in Rio
For those on a budget like myself, you will be happy to know there is plenty of accommodation to find in Rio. Though during carnival you can expect prices to climb by three or four times the average price. You will find plenty of budget accommodation in Lapa and along Copacabana.
Lapa is the centre of the parties and nightlife in Rio from what I could see. I give a huge thumbs up to Books hostel, it might not be the cleanest but it is definitely one of the wildest hostels in South America. The owner loves Irish people, so that is a bonus for any of us from the Emerald Isle.
Close to the beaches, you will find a few hostels, most of these are a little more laid back but the prices are also higher.
Safety in Rio and the favelas
Although I love the city, it still necessary to mention safety in Rio and in the Favelas in particular. Due to the reputation of the city I know people who have avoided visiting or who tend to stick to ‘safe ‘areas in the city. What I found was, Rio is like anywhere else, just with a little edgier.
Don’t go where people have warned you about, don’t carry a ton of valuables and if it seems sketchy then walk away. While there I never encountered any issues although I know people who were pick-pocketed or who witnesses some incidents. But remember I was also there during carnival when the city almost becomes one single house party.
In Rochina favela, I never once felt unsafe. Crime is actually lower in many favelas as the gangs inflict harsh punishment for thieves or others who break the rules in the Favela. The police protect the perimeter and the gangs protect the internal balance of the Favelas.
The residents in the Favelas were also super friendly, especially the kids. I really don’t think it was intrusive, we spoke to those who wanted to speak to us, showed the kids their pictures and bought merchandise that the residents had made for visitors to their Favela.
Many of the residents were also proud of where they came from. A man-made community surviving on the fringes of a city. In some aspects thriving in terms of community relations and development of infrastructure within the community.
Rochina Favela tour key points:
- How to organise a tour: Through your accommodation is probably the easiest way. Most hostels will have a tour company number and you can be sure it’s reputable as they won’t send you off with some random people.
- How much did the Favela tour cost? 100 reals from memory. This includes your transport to and from Rochina favela and a guided tour through its streets.
- How long is the Favela tour? About three hours in total, one for transport and two for the tour.
- Safety: Perfectly fine, the guides are locals and most people welcomed visitors as far as I could see.
- Is it ethical? That all depends on your feeling, I believe I was totally fine. People visit Graves, the sites of mass murders and a host of other location that might not be considered ethical.
- Rochina is the largest Favela in Rio and possibly all of South America.