A Guide to Rio's Favelas

By , Travel Insights Editor Brazil travel-safety

Friendly Favela

Rather than a place to avoid, the favelas are some of the most vibrant parts of Rio de Janeiro, both in colour and culture. They are the flipside of the city’s strange dichotomy. Exploring these communities is a great way to dive beneath the flashy veneer of Ipanema Beach and appreciate the depth of Rio’s charm.

Favelas are the bright patchwork of densely populated slum districts that sprawl across Rio’s hillsides. Their prime locations afford some of the city’s richest views to its poorest citizens. Often portrayed as hives of violence and criminal activity, constantly warring for control of the drug trade, the favelas and their residents are blamed for much of the city’s crime.

It is true that favelas can be horrifically violent places. In October 2009 a police helicopter was shot down and 12 people, including two police officers, were killed during a skirmish between two top drug factions. However, outside of these infrequent clashes, the favelas are actually safer than many parts of the city.

Locals say the same man who would mug you on Copacabana will shake your hand with a smile in the favela. Aside from occasional raids the police leave favelas alone, but they are far from lawless societies. Drug lords enforce strict rules inside their territory and surrounding areas, discouraging internal crime, especially against tourists (ask your guide about “micro-ondas”).

This is done to avoid police attention and make sure rich foreigners feel safe buying drugs in the district but there is also a sense of benevolence towards the community – the vast majority of which has nothing to do with the drug trade. Aside from the protection granted by this iron-fisted approach, a portion of the huge drug profits is often funnelled back into education programs and infrastructure – including maintenance of the crazy web of illegally tapped power lines and TV cables.

(Spaghetti junction - perfectly safe, NOT)

Lost in the Maze

Although the idea of paying to tour a poor community might feel uncomfortably exploitative, entering the favela alone isn’t recommended.

Although very safe, it is easy to lose yourself in the maze of tumbling streets and alleys. A local guide will be able to point you towards the best places for food and performance and can talk your way out of trouble if it arises. Plus, most tour companies use some of their profits to run charitable programs in the favela. The majority of hotels or hostels will be able to put you in contact with a tour company, or if you’re lucky enough to have a local friend, they may be able to show you around.

Don't Shoot!

Unlike most of Rio, you needn’t be too worried about flashing expensive cameras around in the favela, although kids may mob you in search of a photo. You do need to watch where you’re aiming the lens however. Gun-toting teenagers might be a tempting photo op but they are unlikely to appreciate the attention. It should be obvious, but your guide will let you know when the lens cap really needs to go back on.

Mototaxi Madness

The quickest way to get around the steep and winding favela streets is on the back of a mototaxi. At about two reais ($1.20) to go anywhere inside the favela, it’s cheap too. But beware, these guys love to show off and you’ll soon find yourself tearing through oncoming traffic. They’re competitive as well so if you’re travelling in a group you’ll probably find yourself in a race to your destination, whether you like it or not. Screaming or asking them to slow down will likely see them grin and gun it, so our advice is to just hold on tight and enjoy the ride. 

Kids and Lookouts

Kids in the favela are as friendly and playful as anywhere else in the city. Some will clamber for a photo; others invite you to kick a football, some try to earn money by selling art and homemade jewellery. The bands of kids giving percussion performances on plastic oil drums are a real treat.

But you’ll also see a few sitting atop buildings, watching intently. These are children who’ve been conscripted by the drug cartels as lookouts. They’ll watch for rival gang members or police, revealing their position using fireworks.

These large-scale raids are uncommon, police usually conduct their operations outside busy tourist times and the tour companies will know if trouble is expected. But if you do see or hear fireworks shooting up around the favela it is time to make a hasty retreat.

Favela Parties

Many tour operators offer tickets to “Favela Parties”, offering the chance to get amongst the real Rio youth and be introduced to favela funk or funk carioca, Rio’s distinctive sound. Don’t expect anything wildly different from other Brazilian nightlife, the majority take place in huge buildings hardly different from a typical nightclub. You’re better off going to a street party in Lapa if you want a unique experience.

Short skirts probably aren’t the best idea for these parties. The dance floors are cramped and Brazilian guys tend to be quite forward in their advances. If you’ve picked up some Portuguese, you might realise a lot of funk carioca lyrics are sexually explicit and misogynistic and some of the local dance moves match these attitudes. If someone tries on a move you feel uncomfortable with, clearly let him or her know you’re not interested or just walk away.

Drugs and Destruction

The hillside locations and slipshod construction of the favelas means heavy rains thunder through channelled streets, break apart hastily built houses, force their way into foundations and, as was the case in January 2011 and April 2010, cause devastating collapses.

The Brazilian government has a history of ignoring the rapid, uncontrolled growth of the favelas, despite the obvious danger of cobbling houses together on a steep hillside.

Lack of government infrastructure also means the cramped communities are often without proper sewers or drainage, which only exacerbates the problems. In Brazil the floods were described as “more man-made than natural” disasters for this very reason.

Government plans to build walls around many of the city’s favelas, focused on the massive Rocinha, were claimed to be intended to protect the environment and help prevent landslides. However many residents protested this as a move to further social divides, stop favela expansion and fence in the drug trade. The planned walls were eventually replaced with nature paths and “eco-barriers”, with concrete walls only to be built in areas of high landslide risk.

It is a complex social situation but for tourists the conclusion is simple. If it has been raining consistently or if heavy rains are forecast, stay out of the favelas.

Favelas and the Face of Rio

The upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio have spurred the police to try and break the drug syndicates’ hold on the favelas, particularly those near tourist sites. This means an increase in dangerous raids in some locations but in others they are trying a new tactic.

In 2008 the Rio government created established Pacifying Police Units or UPPs. These units now move into the communities, establishing protective outposts instead of trying to fight crime from the outside. Unlike previously indiscriminate operations, the UPPs help sort the criminals from the law-abiding residents, helping to build trust in the community and pacify the favela, driving the cartels out.

In late November 2010 police forces managed to claim Complexo do Alemao, one of the city’s biggest favelas, previously considered an impregnable fortress for criminals. While this was a significant achievement, it has yet to be seen whether this is the start of an unravelling of criminal dominance of the favelas.

The army are patrolling the district to ease the load on the police force. But despite government claims to have driven the gangs out of Complexo do Alemao, many residents argue crims have simply holed up in their houses. Others say they have been replaced by corrupt cops who wander through homes, taking what they please as they search for gang members.

It remains to be seen what lasting effect these initiatives will have on crime in the city and whether living conditions in the favelas will improve.




1 Comment

  • Gareth Leonard said

    I have been living in Rio de Janeiro for the past few months and the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio has definitely lead to increased tension here in the city due to the pacification attempts by the government and rising prices across the board. I'm interested to see how things will progress here in the favelas and across the city during and after the World Cup. Thanks for the information!

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