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 40% hill, it is important to understand what a favela is.
They are homes, neighbourhoods of Brazilian citizens.
When you are stepping on a “Favela Tour” you are going to see a place where people live in Brazil. Favelas are brimming with culture and innovation.
To appreciate these communities you should have an understanding of its history and the story of the residents themselves.
I’m about to compress 600 years of history into two paragraphs.
Impressively Brief History of the Favelas
Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese just 600 years ago, that’s eight grandmas ago, and it was quickly inhabited by the colonialists.
It was an untamed jungle where the navigators settled, exploited and parked their lives forever.
Portugal just hasn’t got enough rain forests.
Years pass, farming begins, Brazilian mining begins and the main recruited work force was African slaves. This is a sad time in the history of the world with the segregation and exploitation 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. 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 for resilience and are 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 Italians pouring in for the promise of work not available in Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Eventually there was not enough work in the countryside and to the cities they marched.
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 neighbourhoods right there on the hills of the metropolis.
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 mountains of reasons that many favelas became the playground of drug lords. For example: a refusal of authorities to recognise the presence of favelas; a lack of infrastructure; not providing education nor sanitary services; and 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.
The story is more complex.
I wrote a whole thesis on it, but for the purposes of our article, Visiting Favelas Responsibly, this is enough for 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 specialised community police units (UPP) to police the favelas. The main idea was to remove 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.
There are favelas that are safe to visit and there are ones to steer clear of.
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. Until COVID-19 that is…
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 favela visit and even give back to the community!
Here is a short but sweet list of the top things to do in favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
We also have a post on alternative things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Visiting Favelas for Food
Food is life.
Bar do David, is a little buteco at the bottom of Chapeu Mangueira. After his roaring success David moved on to open another branch in the Copacabana neighbourhood. The original location in Chapeu Mangueira offers views from the rooftop veranda of the ocean and is perched on the front of the favela.
Bar do David won two years running the best “Comida de Buteco” food in Rio de Janeiro!
The pork ribs with spicy pineapple relish is delectable. This is a bar is for nibbles not a traditional restaurant. All the waiters are attentive and smiley and residents of the Chapeu Mangueira favela.
Visiting Favelas for Hiking
At the top of the Vidigal favela there is a mind-boggling view of Zona Sul. 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 for the incline and snacks to sit at the top and lap up the views.
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 to avoid the Brazilian sun’s glare. The taxi drivers will know where to drop you off if you say Trilha Dois Irmãos.
Visiting Favelas to Volunteer
There are few things more rewarding than volunteering.
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 a 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 three locations and prefer longer term volunteers.
If you have at least three 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 neighbourhood of Botafogo. It is in the shadow of the Santa Marta favela. Casa de Maria e Martha is a charity organisation they support, which sets up daycare centre in the community.
They hold 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 Christ Church Rio.
What not to do when visiting Favelas
#1 Wonder alone into any random favela, especially at night.
Favelas are like any other neighbourhood in the world where you aren’t familiar. Robbery is principally opportunistic and anyone wondering around oblivious is an opportunity… for someone else to get a new phone.
#2 Go in the 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 and residents of favelas.
#3 Pay lots to volunteer in a favela.
I paid a grand total of zero to volunteer six months in Rocinha.
The same in Vidigal favela.
The only money you should be handing over is donations for specific projects, materials that you will see being used. Supporting NGOs is wonderful and altruistic. You do need to evaluate the legitimacy and efficiency of an NGO and I count on plenty of recommendations from previous volunteers and project leaders.
#4 Disregard the news.
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 on being weary. You aren’t part of a War on Drugs, so don’t walk into one without good reason.
Conclusion and Disclosure on Visiting Favelas Responsibly
If you are heading to Rio de Janeiro you should take a responsible detour to a favela.
Tourists have an opportunity to encourage businesses and charitable organisations if we take steps to be precautious when visiting favelas.
I met my husband teaching English in Vidigal and I took my British 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.