High atop the peaks that surround Rio de Janeiro, rust-hued rooftops and balconies jut out at all angles. Canopies of electrical wire tangled with clotheslines hang above kids playing pickup soccer in sandals. On narrow, graffiti-lined streets, pedestrians compete for the right-of-way with motorcycle taxis that zip through traffic over roller coaster roadways. On some corners, a wrong step could send you tumbling into an open canal filled with floating garbage.
A far cry from the famous Christ the Redeemer statue or the luxury Copacabana hotel, these crowded slum communities – called favelas – on the hillsides of Rio are becoming unlikely stops for visitors who are looking to get a glimpse of life beyond the bars and beaches in Brazil’s tourist hot spot.
Foreign tourists – and increasingly Brazilians themselves – are flocking wide-eyed to Rio’s favelas to spend a night at a bed and breakfast, sample local cuisine, take graffiti workshops or play paintball. In some cases, visitors are settling into these neighborhoods for weeks at a time at venues such as Casa Alto Vidigal, a favela home-turned-hostel that lures crowds with its bar and rooftop deck overlooking the city.
Most of the tourists come for just a few hours, long enough to see what it’s like to live in places that have reputations for crowding, crippling poverty and clashes between drug gangs and police.
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Home to millions of Rio’s poorest residents, the favelas have long been viewed as off-limits even to Brazilians. Made infamous by films such as “City of God” and “Elite Squad,” the mere mention of them sometimes provokes looks of apprehension and dread.
Those who call them home beg to differ.
“Rocinha is a normal place, an interesting place, an average place,” 22-year-old Erik Martins said of Rio’s largest favela, where he lives and works part time as a tour guide.
Until last year, drug gangs largely controlled Rocinha. But last November, authorities in Rio wrested control of the community through a process dubbed “pacification,” which has been under way for several years in other favelas across the city. Now hulking military police vehicles are parked on Rocinha curbs and men in bulletproof vests are scattered across street corners, weapons slung across their chests.
Martins – who spends much of his time working as a health aide, nursing neighbors with tuberculosis and other ailments – said he couldn’t blame people for coming into favelas expecting to find danger or misery, but he hopes that by the time they leave they find common ground instead.
“We have a story,” said 25-year-old Davila Pontes, who lives in Rocinha. “There are those who want to know us, but others who just want to pay and come and go out.”
She thinks tourism could serve as one tool to end the stereotypes that often are projected onto communities such as hers. But she worries about the kind of tourism that offers only a surface-level view of Rocinha, instead of promoting interaction between tourists and residents.
“Rocinha doesn’t need to change,” Pontes said. “What must change is the relationship between the community and the tourists.”
A veteran of the favela tourism industry, Marcelo Armstrong runs a twice-a-day tour. For about $35 per person, white, air-conditioned minivans pick up patrons along a stretch of hotels in the heart of downtown Rio, shuttling no more than 12 visitors to Rocinha and a smaller neighboring favela for a part-driving, part-walking tour.
Trained guides narrate the story of Rio’s favelas. On one recent tour, as the van full of tourists neared the edge of Rocinha, guide Leopoldo Chaves said that crossing into this part of town from a more affluent neighborhood was like traveling from Canada to Ghana. In the favela, he pointed out bullet holes on a nearby wall.
The three-hour excursion included stops at a craft fair, a terrace with a panoramic view of the city’s coastline and a nearby school that’s partially funded by revenue from the tours.
Tourists got an up-close look at police cruisers inching slowly through the main streets and an up-close smell of the mountains of plastic trash bags that pile up on street corners. It was a bustling portrait of daily life: people riding bicycles, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying groceries and toting backpacks en route to school. When the tour veered down back alleys past a row of open doorways, visitors were within earshot of kitchen conversations and could peer into the living rooms of Rocinha residents from only a few yards away.
Armstrong’s Favela Tour promotes itself as “informative and surprising, not voyeuristic,” and patrons such as Nigel Parker seem to agree.
“I was a bit interested when we went in and it was obviously very cramped, and everybody’s sitting on top of each other,” said Parker, who lives in Sydney but is originally from England. He said he’d been to such places in Sicily and Naples, Italy, “and didn’t really see that same kind of stuff.”
There’s another model found in the tours developed by Renato “Zezinho” da Silva, the 49-year-old son of a Brazilian father and American mother, who was born in Rocinha. Today he runs an independent tour company called Favela Adventures, which is operated by Rocinha residents and uses part of its profits to fund Spin Rocinha, a DJ school that offers free classes to local youth.
Zezinho, who has “ROCINHA” tattooed across his limbs in graffiti-style ink, also arranges individualized experiences such as martial arts or surfing classes, Portuguese lessons or a night at a party.
“I don’t receive the 18-year-old backpacker who wants to come and see guns, drugs and dead bodies,” he said. He scoffs at the thought of jeep tours, scripts delivered by non-“favellanos” and visitors more interested in gawking at the living conditions than getting to know the street vendors or sitting down at a restaurant.
“When you see a group of people riding in a van, it’s offensive,” he said. He added that he also has strict rules against taking pictures of favela residents without permission, saying, “People are not animals.”
Instead, he shows visitors the best places to eat rotisserie chicken or to sample a beverage made with Brazil’s native acai berry, and points out where he buys his shoes, shirts and cat litter.
“There are things you can’t hide, and I just think you need to tell it like it is,” Zezinho said. “I’m tired of people thinking I live in a (slum).”