Rio’s Favelas

Rio’s Favelas

It was day two of our trip to Brazil, and our first night was full of good food and partying in Lapa. The next morning we woke up tired, but were instantly rejuvenated when we remembered that our day would start with a tour of two of Rio’s favelas and end with us throwing a party at the Para Ti School in the Vila Canoas favela.

Entering Rocinha
Entering Rocinha

Our tour started with a visit to Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela which at the time was run by a druglord. As we made our way into the favela, our guide explained the hierarchy of the gangs in Rio’s favelas. At the bottom of the pyramid are watchers who are tasked with memorizing the faces of everyone who enters into the favela. Next, are runners who make drug pickups and deliveries. Then, there are the soldiers, and their armed presence made the reality of the favelas very real for me. Teenage boys in bulletproof vests, armed with M-16s and all sorts of other weapons that you only see in places like Afghanistan, patrol the favelas, making sure to protect the turf from rival gangs. Next up on the pyramid are the managers who organize the sales and supervise security. Between the managers and the druglord are the owners who make arrangements with drug suppliers. And of course, the druglord is the head honcho.

Rocinha
Rocinha

Once in Rocinha, our guide warned us not to take pictures of anyone’s faces in the favela. At one point, as we got out of our minivan to walk through the neighborhood, we were instructed to put our cameras away altogether. Hey, she didn’t have to tell me twice!

As we learned, young kids are recruited to join drug gangs because they can make more money in the drug business than their parents can make working a regular 9 to 5. I asked if the favela residents live in fear with the gangs around, but surprisingly, our guide explained that people feel secure with the gangs because they provide more protection than the corrupt police. Also, the druglord looks out for the residents by helping them with their basic needs like food and medication, thereby buying their loyalty. We were told that the police rarely venture into the favelas, but when they do, it’s an all-out battle!

Another interesting point that our guide made is that tourists are welcome in the favelas because the druglords want to prove that if the favelas are safe enough for tourists, then they’re safe enough for the middle class to come in and buy their drugs.

From Rocinha, socio-economic disparities can be seen with views of luxury high rise condos in the affluent São Conrado neighborhood in the distance as well as an American school (pictured below)
From Rocinha, socio-economic disparities are visible with views of luxury high rise condos in the affluent São Conrado neighborhood in the distance as well as a wealthy American school (pictured below) located just across from Rochina
American school visible from Rocinha
American school visible from Rocinha

I thought that I would be afraid walking through Rocinha, but I wasn’t. I was fascinated by the drug gang’s presence amongst the everyday residents. I was also fascinated by the sustainability of the community – it’s full of restaurants, markets, a dental office, and even a church! While we knew that we were being watched, the soldiers seemed oblivious to our presence as some sat with AK-47s in their laps eating Chinese food as we walked past.

Dentist office in Rocinha
Dentist office in Rocinha
Church in Rocinha
Church in Rocinha
A local artist in Rocinha
A local artist in Rocinha

Our next stop on the tour was the Vila Canoas favela nearby. While many of Brazil’s favelas are run by druglords, Vila Canoas has never been a realistic turf for them since it lacks multiple entries and exits and since there aren’t sufficient lookout points high enough for them to keep watch of the police or rival drug gangs entering their territory.

Vila Canoas Favela
Vila Canoas Favela
Stacked houses in the Vila Canoas Favela
Stacked houses in the Vila Canoas Favela

Unlike Rocinha, Vila Canoas is a relatively small favela with confusing, twisting alleys. Fortunately, the alleys have street names so that if the residents get turned around, they have a point of reference to ask someone for directions.

A street sign in one of the winding alleys of the Vila Canoas Favela
A street sign in one of the winding alleys of the Vila Canoas Favela
Community playground in Vila Canoas Favela
Community playground in Vila Canoas Favela

Vila Canoas is also a sustainable community as it has everything from bars to beauty salons within its walls.

*Rocinha has recently been occupied by Rio’s Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in an effort to rid the favelas of drug gangs in preparation for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. However, many residents are uncomfortable with the police’s presence in the favelas as they have a reputation for being oppressive and corrupt.

NOTE: If this post looks familiar, that’s because it’s a re-post. During my recent website updates, this post somehow got deleted. It’s important that I re-post this one since the favelas are such a key part of local life in Rio and throughout other cities in Brazil. 

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Have you ever visited a Brazilian favela? Please share…

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  • Interesting post. When I went to Rio, I chose not to go on a favela tour because I felt like it was glamorizing poverty. I’m glad to see you didn’t take pictures of people and only the scenery (I’ve taken pictures of the favelas from afar before too!) it’s good to hear that the people who live there actually welcome tourists. I’m still not sure if I’ll ever go inside one, but it sounds like it was a good experience for you. Also a good way to experience the reality of a majority of brazilians!

    • Dana Carmel

      I totally understand what you mean, but I think it’s a misconception that favela tours glamorize poverty. I think it all depends on the tour operator. If you choose one that’s responsible, I think you’ll find that favela tours aren’t about driving past and snapping pics of people living in destitute situations. For us, the experience was so eye-opening, especially given the fact that many Brazilians don’t even venture into the favelas. I also think that if you have pure motives for visiting the favelas (i.e., learning about Brazil’s social issues/voluntourism/etc. vs. “ghetto gawking”), I think it can be a great experience. It definitely helped us to get a better grasp of what daily life is like for most people in Rio. So I’d encourage you to find a responsible tour company and go – I don’t think you’ll regret it!

  • I am now even more pushed to visit Rio! Awesome recap of the favelas.

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks! Yes, Rio is one of those places that you just have to see for yourself. Hope you make it there soon!

  • The housing in Rochina reminds me of the cliff housing in Shimla. Lovely read!

    • I meant Rocinha 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      I recall reading your Shimla post, and I definitely saw the similarities. Thanks for reading!

  • An interesting post, especially the part of drug lords allowing tourists in the favela to prove it’s safe thus encourage the middle class to venture in and buy drugs.

    • Dana Carmel

      Yeah – that point really struck me as well, Rachel. The funny thing is that a lot of locals don’t even venture into the favelas.

  • What an adventure! Seems like Rio is a bit of a walk on the wild side but you came out with great photos and some epic tales!

    • Dana Carmel

      Hi Kae Lani – Rio definitely offers an eclectic experience. The city definitely offers something for every kind of traveler. Thanks for reading!

  • I most definitely hope to make it to Rio someday! Yet, after my 30 year career I will have absolutely no desire to visit the favelas. I’ve had my fill 🙂 I so admire your brevity in jumping in with both feet and really getting involved with the culture, Dana! It’s a fascinating backwards law enforcement system and the corruption is absolutely horrible. There is ton of it in the country and I sooooo hope they get all of their ducks in a row for the Olympics! You guys better always stay safe or you’ll have Phoenix to answer to, ya know 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      The favelas aren’t all bad. We actually felt relatively safe there. But we will be sure not to put ourselves in any danger because God knows we wouldn’t want to have to answer to the wrath of Phoenix! *shivers* 😉

      • Ok, ok…you would have him wrapped around your pinkie in seconds. Idle admonishment 🙂

  • Drug lords? Gangs? Sounds scary! That said, I would love to go there and visit. My BF’s cousin lives there and he says it’s an interesting city!

    • Dana Carmel

      Next time I’m there, I’d like to actually stay in the favelas for a few nights to really get a sense of what life is like there. I think you’d love Rio!

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