There are other cities in Brazil where you can visit the favelas, but of course Rio de Janeiro has the most famous and most visited favelas. Rio’s mountainous landscape has meant that the steeper slopes were all left empty, even in and around the traditional noble boroughs of Santa Teresa, Laranjeiras and Flamengo close to the city centre. The first favelas sprung up close to the Centro as soldiers who fought in the Canudos campaign in Bahia travelled to the erstwhile capital for the payment and land they had been promised for fighting. While waiting, they settled on the empty hillsides, which reminded the soldiers of those in Bahia that were covered with the favela plant. The favela morro (favela hill) had been a common phrase for them and continued to be in Rio as well.
The word is often translated into English as ‘slum’ or ‘shanty-towns’ although neither are quite the same. The politically correct sections of Brazil now prefer to call these areas ‘comunidades’ (communities), the residents are still prone to call them the ‘morro’, even those that are on the flat lands, while we can still use the term favela without anybody really minding.
The basic idea of the favela is communities of illegal housing built on land not owned by the residents. There is nothing much more complex to it than that. Regular construction booms in Rio, Sao Paulo and other big cities have drawn people from the poorer areas of Brazil, generally the north-east, who have moved into existing favelas or created new ones. With no government help, little education, sanitation or medication, the favelas have had to develop their own methods of survival. This included appropriating the city’s water and power supplies, and also communication lines, and led to the favelas having their famous impenetrable muddle of cables and wires, hanging between each post like vines between trees in the thickest parts of the Amazon Jungle.
The favelas were always infamous for the salacious activities going on there, and became far more so once the drugs trade began to flourish in the 1970s and 80s. Millions of reais are made in the major Rio favelas such as Rocinha and the Complexo de Alemao every week, or at least they were until the recent UPP police project to pacify them. Alongside this grow communities just like any other, with organisations for social, religious and sporting bodies. The favelas can be very dangerous of course, but they are still home to many law-abiding citizens too.
The UPP project has left many of them much safer for residents, and a visit to a favela gives you an interesting look at life inside the ultimate Urban Jungle. Brazil is a good place to do this of course, with it being such a musical country, and with people known for their sunny outlook on life, and those Brazilians who live in favelas are no different. With such a bad reputation, it is good for visitors to see that other aspects of favela life exist too. The everyday activities, the shops, the trade, the music, the singing, the boys whistling at the girls, the kite-flying, school kids playing in the streets... or in the schools, depending on when you visit!
Of course, it is still best to visit with people who know the area personally, and that is where the Favela Tour comes in. There are rules that must be followed to ensure your safety, even with the pacification projects, although even before this, when the favelas were openly controlled by gangs, tourists could still pass through without any trouble at all as long as they behaved within the limits.
This kind of tour is clearly not for everyone, but those who want to take a look at another side of Brazilian life rather than just the classic tourist destinations are in for a fascinating time. Some people believe that this kind of trip is Poverty Tourism, although the tours are educational rather than a vehicle-based visit to take photos of poor people. Most people leave having benefitted from the experience, with the word ‘humbled’ being used quite often, and a general contrast ambiguous in emotions that fits in very well with Brazil, a land of contrasts itself. There are also projects within the favelas that benefit from receiving visitors, with part of the tour fee going towards helping the local schools or clinics.
The Favela Tour gives a surprisingly good view of Brazil and its contradictions in just a few hours, with much of the modern history of the country tied in with the story of its favelas, the wealth gap, the Brazilian jeitinho, and mostly that, despite the harsh living conditions of the Urban Jungle, the people who live in them can still be warm and friendly and very typically Brazilian.
Activity Information: The Favela Tours are open to everybody, although they don’t tend to have so many Brazilian tourists, and many Brazilians will look at you strangely if you tell them that you are going to visit a favela in Rio or Brazil! Guides will always explain what visitors must do and what they must avoid doing along the way in order to ensure safety. Cameras are safe to take along although at times care must be taken on where you point them. Before the UPP project, the better connected local residents did not appreciate photos being taken of them, while now the police involved in the project may not be so happy to make part of your snaps.