Many people plan on visiting favelas when they visit Brazil, but too often a good intentioned aspiration can be ill informed. This is a full guide to visiting favelas responsibly for the best outcome for both residents and visitors.
Before we charge into favelas, bamboozled by the mass of precariously stacked buildings that seem by some miracle to all squash into a tiny space, it is important to understand what a favela is.
They are homes, neighborhoods of Brazilian citizens. When you are stepping on a “Favela Tour” you are going to see a place where people live that it is pretty different from your own reality. Sounds pretty dull put like this, though there is much more to a favela. To appreciate these communities you should have an understanding of its history and the story of the residents themselves. Hold your horses guys, I’m about to compress 600 years of history into 2 paragraphs.
Impressively Brief History of the Favelas
Brazil discovered by the Portuguese just 600 years ago, that’s 8 grandmas ago, was quickly inhabited by the colonialists. It was an untamed jungle where the navigators settled, exploited and sat their bums down forever, because let’s face it, Portugal just hasn’t got enough rainforests. Years pass, farming begins, mining begins and the main work force was African slaves. This is a sad time in the history of the world and we have the segregation of over half the population of Brazil.
During the 1800s the world came to their senses and slavery began to fizzle out. Brazil was the last nation to abolish slavery in 1888, which meant that a huge number of Brazilians were left finally free, but quite abandoned to fend for themselves. Originally favelas were squatter settlements in terms of being temporary, often poorly built shacks made from any available materials. They were built by migrants arriving in Rio de Janeiro, the previous capital, from various parts of Brazil. Nowadays, the houses are made of bring, resilient and there to stay.
Side note: when Paraguay declared war on Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina simultaneously (and lost dramatically), Emperor Dom Pedro II promised slaves freedom and the poor land in exchange for fighting off the invading neighbours. At this point in 1864, we see the initial emergence of these settlements in the urban centres.
In order to replace the slave labour on the plantations after slavery abolition, (signed by a Brazilian woman) free labour was introduced with immigrants working land in exchange for the means to cultivate products for subsistence. Now we get our Italians, God bless them, pouring in for the promise of work not available in Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Eventually there was just not enough work in the countryside and to the cities they marched.
So just like many regions in the world, the cities were now the place to be. No one was going to give these people their own houses, nor land and so these troopers began building their own neighborhoods right there on the hills of the metropolis. Just think, Brazil has more than 200 million people. That’s going to translate to a huge influx to urban areas.
On top of the precarious start, there are a gazillion reasons that many favelas became the playground of drug lords. From a refusal of authorities to recognize the presence of favelas; lack of infrastructure; not providing education nor sanitary services; to high levels of informal employment in Brazil.
Drug dealing just became an alternative form of money in a place where the public policing services never ventured. Though, I know the story is more complex. I wrote a whole thesis on it, but for the purposes of our article, Visiting Favelas Responsibly, this is quite enough to give you a taste of the favelas’ complex, intercultural and ingenious upbringing.
Updates on Favelas’ Situation
10 years ago the Brazilian government began a scheme called pacification. This involved sending in specialized community police units (UPP) to police the favelas. The main idea was to take away the alternative policing authority of the drug factions to make the favelas and the city safer. Like many new policies, this one was vulnerable to flaws. It was not all bad, in fact many favelas like the ones I will mention below are just fine to visit, most of the time.
In a great part, due to the economic policies of Lula’s Government, Brazil entered into the crisis later than the rest of the world. A crisis so deep that we are only just seeing glints of emerging out the other side. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and new drug lords emerged, new factions have moved in from the North and unfortunately some people have felt no choice, but to turn to criminality.
Therefore, overall we can see why it is important to visit favelas responsibly and not just bumble in on the first jeep that catches you at the hotel.
Thankfully, there are so many beautiful, generous and entrepreneurial people in favelas across Rio that you can definitely enjoy a responsible visit and maybe even give back to the community!
Next up are my top things to do in favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The list is short but sweet and I am free as ever to chat with anyone who wants to know more about these options. We also have a post on alternative things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Visiting Favelas for Food
Let’s start with the boss. You’re going to have to eat something anyway so let’s make sure it’s something fit for the queen that is your stomach. Bar do David, a little buteco at the bottom of Chapeu Mangueira.
BTW: Buteco, is a cute Portuguese word for a bar, with emphasis on beer and cachaça, that serves up nibbles and appetizer plates.
David the bar owner and resident of Chapéu Mangueira at the back of Copacabana has a passion for bringing quality, tasty food into the community. He won two years running the best “Comida de Buteco” food in Rio de Janeiro!
His bar is so popular now he’s extended a roof top, which has a stunning view over the back of Copacabana all the way to the ocean.
My favourite dish is the pork ribs with spicy pineapple relish. Remember this is a bar with nibbles not a traditional restaurant. All the waiters are super attentive and smiley, that’s the kind of people I want to be around.
Visting favelas for Hiking
At the top of Vidigal favela there is a mind-boggling view. I arrived with a handbag, cute top and shiny sunglasses. This was an error. It is a fairly amateur hike, but boasts a last stretch of steep, painful-on-the-hamstrings-incline. Not a walk in the park as it was pitched to me. Bring water (I didn’t) and snacks to sit at the top and lap up the views. Think about your life up there, on top of the world.
How to reach the trail: Go to the main square at the bottom of Vidigal community. There you can either catch a combo (an old hippy van), or a Mototaxi(back of a guy’s motorbike). Go in the daytime in a small group. Early morning is great because it gets hot hot in Rio. The taxi drivers will know where to drop you off if you say Trilha Dois Irmãos.
Not got anyone to go with? Send me a message and I’ll hook you up with a buddy!
Visiting favelas to Volunteer
I think that there are few things more rewarding than volunteering and traveling abroad is a great opportunity to give back, whilst learning about your host country and community. Personally I have worked with the favelas in the South Zone and thus, my recommendations come from those same ones that I trust.
Rocinha: Garagem de Letras (il sorriso dei miei bimbi)
A charity run by an Italian-Brazilian couple in the community of Rocinha. The organization has a daycare centre, youth centre for improving school grades and extracurricular activities and this Garagem de Letras.
The Garagem de Letras is a library and cafe aimed at providing a space to study, learn business and offers a safe space for social activities. They hold several different classes in all the 3 locations mentioned and prefer longer term volunteers.
If you have at least 3 months, this is a great way to get involved with the life in Rocinha.
Santa Marta: English Classes (Casa de Maria e Martha at Christ Church)
Christ Church is an English speaking church in the neighborhood of Botafogo and very close to the Santa Marta favela. Casa de Maria e Martha is a charity organization they support, which sets up daycare centre in the community.
Recently they have been holding weekly English classes in the church grounds (originally in Santa Marta, but unrest meant they have opted to bring it outside for the time being).
They would love English speaking assistants who have any sort of skills to add to the classes. If you want to know about more options get in contact with me and we can look through other appropriate and fun volunteer projects!
Last, but not least…
What NOT to do when visiting Favelas
#1 Wonder alone into any random favela, especially at night.
Favelas are like any other neighborhood in the world where you aren’t familiar. Robbery is principally opportunistic and you wondering around oblivious is an opportunity… for someone else to get a new phone.
#2 Go in those jeeps you book from the hotels.
You look like you are going on a people safari. In 2017, a Spanish tourist was shot in a vehicle touring a favela community. It’s a corporate money making scheme that doesn’t help the people.
#3 Pay lots to volunteer in a favela.
I paid a grand total of zero to volunteer 6 months in Rocinha. Ditto in Vidigal. The only money you should be handing over is donations for specific projects, materials that you will see being used. Supporting NGOs is swell and I 100% back this kind of altruism. I will help anyone to evaluate the legitimacy and efficiency of an NGO and I have plenty of recommendations too.
Just send me a message below.
#4 Disregard the news.
News is news, which is at least based on some truth. We have sensationalist news, we even have fake news, but if you hear that the army was deployed to a favela or there have been recent shootings, hover for the more weary side. You aren’t part of a War on Drugs so don’t walk into one without good reason.
Conclusion and Disclosure:
If you are heading to Rio de Janeiro you really must take a detour to a favela, hopefully doing one of the above. Now we have an opportunity to encourage businesses and charitable organizations if we take steps to be precautious when visiting favelas.
I met my fiancé teaching English in Vidigal and I took my parents to the Rocinha project. You have a lot to gain from going to the favelas!
However, my last point on watch the news is vital, because the situation changes daily. Avoid putting yourself at risk and if you think something feels dodgy, turn back.