A Favela Tour in Rio – Interesting but Intrusive?

A Favela Tour in Rio – Interesting but Intrusive?

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Rio is (in)famous for its maze-like favelas which surround the city, climbing high onto the hills overlooking the bay.  Previously very dangerous and no-go areas for tourists, in recent years the police have made a concerted effort to pacify the favelas, meaning that tours around these fascinating places are now possible.  However, if you decide to take a favela tour in Rio there are several things to consider before you sign up.

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Is a Rio Favela Tour Ethical?

As a rule, I am always dubious about ‘people’ tourism.  Tourists can easily upset the delicate balance of life that exists in any given place, and I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t like streams of gringos trolling around my back yard and poking their nose into my house.  There is also the view of the ‘white saviour’ coming to help all these poor people, giving us a misguided notion that we are helping them when we are really doing more harm than good.

Be careful to research tour companies before you agree to join a tour, and pick one that is either set up by the community themselves, or contributes in some way to their lives – not just arranged to gawp at the people who live there.

I chose Be a Local Tours, recommended by another traveller I met at the hostel where I was staying in Rio.  I checked on Tripadvisor and they got good reviews too.  They claim to help travellers discover the sites of Rio through the eyes of local people, and a percentage of proceeds from the tours go towards maintaining a kids’ nursery school inside the favela.  I hoped this would actually help the people here in the right way.  They also arrange volunteer opportunities within the favela.

The view from the Rocinha Favela in Rio Favela Tour
The view from the Rocinha Favela in Rio

The Rocinha Favela Tour

I got collected from my hotel the next morning in a white van, and we drove to the top of the favela called Rocinha, where we were dropped off.  This is the largest favela in Rio, home to an estimated 70,000 people.  I was excited and nervous to see what it was like.  Not sure what to expect, I had images of dirty streets, drug dealers and gangs.  But what I experienced was quite different.

Our first stop was a home near the top of the favela.  We climbed up a narrow stairway to emerge on the roof, amid water tanks and surrounded by a wire fence.   The views from the top were stunning, better than any penthouse in the city.  We admired the view and our guide explained more about the favela, how to behave and how it has changed over the years.

The word favela comes from the name of a plant that grows all over the mountainside of Rio.  A tough, spiny, difficult to remove plant, the first inhabitants of this area had to battle to clear it.  The area where these immigrants from the countryside settled came to be known as the favela, after these hardy plants, and the name stuck – the people who live here being tough & determined to stay too.

Ramshackle houses in Rocinha on our Favela Tour in Rio
Ramshackle houses in Rocinha on our Favela Tour in Rio

We descended a flight of stairs where one of the apartments in the building was now an artists’ studio.  Works from four or five artists adorned the walls; colourful, bold paintings of the views over Rio and the iconic statue of Christ that we all know and love.  Most also featured Rocinha in the foreground, tiny blocks of houses piled on top of each other with the stunning city backdrop.  If I had enough money with me I probably would have bought one, but I had only brought the bare essentials with me, nervous about entering the favela and coming out with nothing.

The artist's studio in Rocinha on our Favela Tour in Rio
The artist’s studio in Rocinha on our Favela Tour in Rio

As it happened I had nothing to worry about; the residents viewed us mostly with a mix of apathy and curiosity – wondering why we felt the need to come and see how they lived.  With some I had the definite feeling that we shouldn’t be here, intruding in their lives, on their turf.  Others definitely welcomed us – the people whose businesses we visited clearly benefited from our small contributions, and I hoped that it would filter down to all those who needed it.

Our next stop was a bakery, where the owner had her delicious cakes and delectable donuts ready to tempt us.  We all bought something from her, and my toffee filled donut was more than worth the 5 reaies I paid for it.

A yummy (if blurry) treat on our Rio Favela Tour
A yummy (if blurry) treat on our Rio Favela Tour

We carried on through the streets and came across three ladies who had a stall selling handmade jewellery.  I bought a yellow and green bracelet made from telephone wire and wooden beads – there is always some way to make money once tourists arrive, and I admired their ingenuity.  It was obviously an agreement that we would stop here, I wondered how the tour company decided who to work with and how they came to a suitable deal.

Ladies selling handmade jewellry on our Rio Favela Tour
Ladies selling handmade jewellry on our Rio Favela Tour

Further down the hill, as we stepped over wiring and avoided the brown stream of water that ran through the alleyways, we met three young men playing home-made instruments – drums made from empty paint cans and oil barrels.  They put on a great show, and posed for pictures with us, and many of us left a donation for their efforts.

These guys put on quite a show for us in Rocinha! Favela Tour Rio
These guys put on quite a show for us in Rocinha!

As we wound our way through the streets, some people stopped and smiled, other people clearly had better places to be and tutted as they tried to get past our line of gringo tourists.  Workmen hurriedly pushed through with their trolley carts filled with packages of food, gas canisters, and flour sacks.

The tour also usually includes a quick visit to see the kids in the nursery, but being Sunday it was closed.  We walked past it, and I hoped our voyeuristic visit was doing something to help families here.

My Impressions of the Favela In Rio de Janeiro

I have to say it wasn’t as bad as I have envisaged.  The old shanty town that was once corrugated iron, wood planks and anything people could get their hands on is now mainly made of brick and concrete.  Most homes have electricity and running water.  Building standards remain poor though, and there is always a risk of walls collapsing and trapping people inside the ramshackle constructions.  Wiring is haphazard too, and bunches of thick black wires run overhead, fused together to catch the valuable resource where they can.  Dogs are plentiful here, as are cats – so watching where you step is vital, and the sewerage system leaves a lot to be desired, with a strange smell lingered in the air.  But the families have roofs over their heads at least.

Bundles of wires show the dangers of slum living in the Rio Favelas
Bundles of wires show the dangers of slum living in the Rio Favelas

Some of the older families here now own their homes, and can sell them on to other people if they choose.  The standard of living, it seems, is increasing, but it is difficult to know after such a short visit. There is still obviously poverty here, and the so-called pacification process was not as peaceful as the authorities had hoped.   Drug dealers and gangs are still here, but see, to turn a blind eye to the tour groups.  They must have families too, maybe their kids go the nursery here.  I wouldn’t want to be here after dark though!

The favela tour was certainly interesting but I’m still not sure if it was ethical.  I did feel uncomfortable at times, as if I was invading people’s privacy.  However, our contributions helped the people we visited, and it seems the nursery genuinely does benefit the residents and their families, so perhaps the intrusion is justified in that way.

What do you think?  Have you taken a tour like this, or felt uncomfortable as a tourist in a place like this?  Do you think it is ethical to take a tour to someone’s home?  Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear what you think!

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Colourful graffiti in Rocinha on our Rio Favela Tour

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11 thoughts on “A Favela Tour in Rio – Interesting but Intrusive?

  1. Reading a few of your posts to travel from my bed (currently saving money to go back to Latin America after a first year of travelling and spending too much, found your story very appealing ;))

    Just a thing I’d like to share from the few months I spent in Rio : there’s actually no need to book a tour if you want to visit one of the cities “comunidades” as the Carioca call them, even if you only stay a few nights.

    If you don’t feel comfortable walking there alone with no clear purpose, you can plan a hike (up to Vidigal for example, there are a lot of tourists doing that on their own, you can even go on a moto taxi for a few reais, just be sure to ask locals how much they really charge ^^) or pick a hostel to sleep there a few nights (I loved the one in Chapeu Mangueira with awesome views on Leme and Copacabana from the terrace on the roof:)). Or you can also go to bars/restaurants (at the top of Babilonia for example) famous for the view they have on the city, and mingle with Carioca and tourists that heard about it.
    Another solution for a nighttime discovery is going to local parties. With some people of my hostel in Lapa we went to “Black Santa” twice, on the morro dos prazeres, and even though we had a few obvious (blonde, tall blue eyed) “gringos” in our group it didn’t seem strange and we all actually had a lot of fun with the few other tourists and locals from the main city of from the morro (that could not have had a better name to me hahaha) , even when getting back down at 7 am on a burning Sunday morning in the favela haha 🙂

    Hope this could be useful in some ways 🙂

  2. I’m very ambiguous about this tours. Unless is something organized by the community with real return for them, it can be interpreted as the rich gringos going to look how poor people live. I don’t think any of us would appreciate to be in their shoes.

  3. Another of those ethical travel issues that plague so many. I guess like you say as long as it’s not intrusive and it does not upset the people who live there it ok. I love the view looking down the hill on the high rise hotels

  4. People’s Tourism is indeed a difficult topic, well Tourism in general is. I had some hard nights thinking about that and still haven’t come to a proper conclusion other than feeling bad from time to time. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I’m glad you were so honest about this. I often feel the same about these types of “excursions.” I remember being so horrified last year when a woman on my slow boat from Thailand to Laos took photos and videos of the children bathing and playing in the water once we entered Laos. Their community was quite poor and they came up to the boats begging. It was in such poor taste to video them! I’m not sure if I could do one of these tours, either.

  6. I have mixed feelings about these tours and I am not sure what the answer is. I did a slum tour in India years ago and it was interesting. I don’t remember it being too intrusive as we mostly visited businesses and not homes. I do agree that these tours are more justified if the proceeds benefit the residents which seems to be the case here.

  7. I share your mixed emotions as well. I’m not sure most of the time whether I would do any ‘good’ or invading their lives whenever I think or plan a village or a community tour. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable like once when I visited a remote village in North Thailand.

  8. You’re so right, it always seems like being too nosy, people are just trying to live there, right, it’s not a zoo… But it’s nice if you can find a balance! 🙂 Your story sound interesting. Was amazed by the number of inhabitants in the favela, my god, 70,000 people!

  9. When I was in Brazil I thought about doing this but couldn’t reconcile the concept of gawking with tourism. I think it would be fascinating and love your recollection of it but I would be uncomfortable with any hostility

  10. I havent been to favela, but did some local tours to African tribes and their villages as well as Albino family in Tanzania. From my experience I would never do it anymore, i dont find it ethical. I couldn’t get rid of a feeling I was in human zoo. For me no go.

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