Some call them "slums," other call them "beautiful," and some even call them "cheesy poverty tourism;" but there's no denying that if you truly want to experience the "real Rio," you'll need to see at least one favela with your very own eyes.
Favelas (or "shanty towns") are often portrayed as being hubs of violence, drugs and criminal activity, but today many of these favelas have been transformed into popular places to visit in Rio, so much so that they've had a huge influence in not only Brazilian culture, but its tourism industry as well. (Some would even argue that some of the favelas in the city are actually safer than other parts of Rio!)
If you're hoping to visit one (or more!) favela in Rio, here are some tips to keep in mind:
What are favelas, exactly?
Favelas (translated as "slum" or "shanty town" in English) first started appearing in Rio during the late 19th century as soldier settlements after the Canudos War (which ended in 1897). Over time, more and more of these shanty towns were being constructed in and around Rio's mountainsides, as they provided housing for both slaves as well as migrant workers.
Favelas started to grow even more during the 1970s when more and more people were moving from the countryside to Rio in order to get a job and make more money. Today, there are around 800 favelas in Rio alone, with approximately 1.5 million of the city's residents calling a favela their home. (It's even estimated that a whopping 11.4 million of Brazil's 190 million inhabitants live in a favela!)
Each favela has its own unique architectural design, which is typically a collection of colourful, box-shaped and flat-roofed houses all stacked up on top of each other on a hillside. These houses are made up of two, three or sometimes even four-storey houses, linked by maze-like alleyways and hundreds of small steps that lead up the side of the hill.
Because favelas didn't use any government services for so long, the communities often suffered from a lack of sewage or drainage which led to heaps of problems over the years; (not to mention the obvious danger of placing "shanty" houses on top of each other and so close together on a steep hillside).
Because these settlements were considered off-limits and relatively ignored by the Brazilian government for years, they were often ruled by organized crime groups or drug traffickers who set up their own set of rules for the community to follow. Because of this, the residents were usually protected from local robberies and violence thanks to these drug lords, but that's not to say the communities were totally immune from violence (especially where rival gangs were concerned).
It wasn't until the past decade or so when Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) slowly started kicking out the violent drug lords in these favelas, and established a sort of secure presence in the communities; (although some would argue that the police are less respectful than the drug lords who once ruled over the citizens).
Tips on staying safe when visiting a favela
There's no doubt about it: There are cases of crime in favelas, and tourists have been targeted from time to time. But with favelas slowly transforming into tourist hubs and attracting visitors from all over the world, chances are you'll probably have no problems at all when visiting a favela in Rio...if you know what you're doing.
First and foremost, if you really want to see a favela with your very own eyes, then don't tour it alone. (Not only for safety reasons, but also because it's incredibly easy to get lost in a favela's maze-like streets). Also, try to avoid going down any dark alleyways, and don´t wear any fancy jewellery during your visit.
Females should avoid wearing short skirts or revealing clothing (especially if you plan on attending a world-famous favela party), and don't give any candy or money to any of the kids in the neighbourhood.
Although you'll often see tourists pulling out their expensive cameras and mobiles to snap photos, always be aware of your surroundings if you want to snap a photo or two (because you know you're going to). Also, avoid taking pictures of any "sketchy"-looking people, and absolutely do not take any photos of the interior of a home; (if you're lucky enough to enter one, that is).
Also, depending on which favela you're visiting, you could head to a favela by mototaxi without even having to leave the car. (Be aware that these drivers are in intense competition with each other though, and normally drive at a very fast pace).
Favelas to visit, Favelas to avoid
Generally speaking, the poorest favelas tend to be located in northern parts of Rio, while the safer ones can be found more in the city's southern areas.
If you're very, truly worried about your safety when visiting a favela in Rio, then stick to the ones that have been "pacified;" (there are around 34 pacified favelas in Rio, and the number continues to grow each year).
But out of all the pacified and non-pacified favelas to visit in Rio, these have proven to be the most popular among past visitors:
- Santa Marta: Arguably the most famous of Rio's favelas thanks to its Michael Jackson statue (which was placed in his honour after he filmed his 1995 music video for "They Don't Care About Us" here). It was the first of Rio's favela to ever be "pacified" and is considered safe for tourists to visit; (even Madonna, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys have visited it over the years).
- Rocinha: This is the largest favela in Brazil, and while some consider it one of the safer favelas to visit, others recommend that tourists don't visit it on their own without a local guide.
- Chapéu Mangueira: Not the safest of favelas, but not the riskiest either. Past-visitors have even claimed this was their favourite favela to visit in Rio, so if you have the time (and a local friend), try and check it out.
- Morro da Babilônia: Another one that can neither be described as safe or dangerous, but offers stunning views over Copacabana and Leme.
- Vidigal: Often considered to be the most foreign-friendly favela in Rio, visitors can even stay in any of the guesthouses (or pousadas), and dine in some restaurants or sip cocktails in its many bars. (Vidigal is famous for its nightlife, after all, and is known to host some pretty happening house and samba parties).
- Cantagalo: This "pacified" favela has a popular bar at its peak called Gilda No Cantagalo (which can only be accessed by van or motor taxi), and hosts incredibly popular live jazz nights on Sundays. Plus from here you can enjoy unspoiled views of Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana.