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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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 seem 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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Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
The areas of Ipanema and Copacabana are popular areas in Rio for tourists. Lapa is great for nightlife and has lots of good value hostels too. Leblon is also great for being close to the beach and metro lines for getting around the city.
Hostels in Rio de Janeiro
Hostels are a great option for accommodation in Rio de Janeiro, especially for solo travellers as you can easily meet people to go out with. Partying in Rio is always better with other people! There are plenty of party hostels in Rio, but if you prefer something a little more chilled out there are options for you too. Take a look at the highly rated Kariok Hostel in Lapa or the Ipanema Beach Hostel for an idea of what’s available. Check all hostels in Rio on Hostelworld here.
Hotels in Rio de Janeiro
Airbnb in Rio de Janeiro
Alternatively, check the options on Airbnb in Rio de Janeiro, like this flat in Copacabana with a gorgeous sea view. If you have never used Airbnb before, use this link to sign up & get up to $40 credit to use on your first trip! Read more about the Airbnb first time discount code and my full Airbnb guide or click below for your Airbnb coupon.
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