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One very interesting and off the beaten path activity you can do in Rio de Janeiro is go on a favela tour.
Favelas in Brazil are known for having very tiny buildings, narrow streets, and being a hot spot for drugs and crimes. The greater area of Rio de Janeiro actually has over 600 favelas! Shootouts and other violence, though not necessarily frequent, do happen in these favelas. This is often between the police and the gangs, and sometimes between rival gangs.
Because of the potential for violence, it is unsafe to wander the favelas by yourself. However, going in a tour is a safe and, I felt, ethical way to understand and experience this part of life in Rio de Janeiro.
When looking at a map of Rio, the small buildings and close streets of the favela stand out distinctly. Check out the map below — the star is in the middle of the favela, and you can see how the buildings are much smaller and closer together than other buildings nearby.
History of the Term Favela
During the Canudos War of 1896 in northeast Brazil, military soldiers camped on a hill that was covered with favela plants – a spiky, itchy plant. These soldiers were promised payment in the form of houses in Rio, but after the war, the government did not deliver on their promise.
So they grabbed materials and built homes up on a hill near the city center while waiting and protesting. They named it Favela Hill after the hill they had camped at during the war. The name stuck and became the common name of all such hillside neighborhoods.
The Favela We Toured
We did a tour in the Santa Marta favela. This is one of the more famous, and safer, favelas in Rio. It is built on the Dona Marta Hill and is in a fairly central location in Rio de Janeiro.
I did extensive research before booking a favela tour as I wanted to make sure the tour was both ethical and respectful to residents.
The tour we booked was exceptional for many reasons, but particularly because the owner of the tour grew up in the favela, his parents still live there, and he is actively involved in the community. The guide we had, Pedro, lives near the favela, spends a lot of time there, and was obviously well-known and liked by almost everyone we passed. Part of the proceeds of the tour are reinvested in the community.
Beginning The Tour
At the beginning of the tour, Pedro discussed that it is important to be respectful of people as we walk through the favela – it’s not like walking through a zoo – and to be careful about taking pictures of people, particularly children. He also explained the general layout of the favela and what to expect in the way of buildings, roads, and conditions.
Then we started walking through! We learned a lot of interesting things, such as that the lower part of the favela is newer, has more services and shops, and is a more desirable area to live in (because it’s closer to these services and the rest of the city).
There is a community building near the front where mail is delivered, the favela president works, and people’s needs are addressed. Enrichment classes for children are also offered here. The president of the favela is the elected leader of the neighborhood and organizes things for the community and works with other presidents to advocate for the favelas.
On the Streets of the Favela
The streets of the favela are very narrow – in fact, they aren’t really streets in the traditional sense. They are more like alleyways or staircases. In fact, there are 788 steps in the Santa Marta favela. Because of this, no cars are able to drive through the favelas, you have to park at the bottom or at the top, where there is another entrance.
The Santa Marta favela did have one form of public transportation – a funicular (or cable train), which went up and down the hill.
While there were some areas that were pretty clean, we also walked by a lot of trash on the streets or under the buildings. This is apparently a big problem in the favelas, as there are not community trash cans available.
We visited the tour operator’s family home, where they were kind in welcoming us, offering us water, and answering any questions we had. The home’s interior was small, but homey and nice. It was actually interesting that while the outside of many homes looked quite dilapidated, the insides are generally well maintained, decorated, and furnished.
At the top, we came out to the road that connects to the top of the favela and went to a “secret” viewpoint between some trees that overlooks Copacabana and has a great view of Sugar Loaf mountain.
Michael Jackson Square
Then, back in the favela and on to a very famous spot – Michael Jackson square. In 1996, Michael Jackson recorded part of his music video for his song “They Don’t Care About Us” in the Santa Marta favela.
He recorded on the tennis court near the top, in some of the alleyways, and at this little square near the top of the favela, which today has a mural and a lifesize statue of Michael Jackson.
Later on, we stopped by a gift shop where the shopowner had the music video playing (and pointed out where she was in the crowd – I like those personal touches!). Sure enough, I recognized a lot of the areas we had just walked through!
Drugs + Guns
Also interestingly, as we entered the Michael Jackson square, our tour guide said, “Just take pictures this way (gesturing towards the statue), and not this way” (gesturing towards an alleyway with people).
I thought this was just to be respectful of the people there, but it actually was because there were drug sales happening down that street. Sure enough, when I took a closer peep, there were bags of drugs out.
Later on, as we were walking down the steps back to the entrance, he said the same thing again, “Don’t take pictures here.” This time, we walked past 4 different gang members carrying machine guns.
This was a very interesting (and soberingly real) part of the tour. A big reason the favelas are considered unsafe is because of the gang presence. Of course, there is a lot of nuance to the situation, and I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of all the politics surrounding favelas, gangs, and police interaction, but from what we were told, oftentimes the gangs buy their guns from the police, and the police are content to look the other way with drug sales… until they don’t. Shootouts and violence can often occur when police decide to do raids.
Wrapping Up the Rio de Janeiro Favela Tour
In a lot of ways, the favelas are safe enough, until they aren’t. They have utilities and services, and also have a lot of needs. The residents are proud of their community, but many would move if they could and there is a lot of disrepair.
Despite the bad reputation of the favelas, I was really impressed with the sense of community that we saw here, the services offered for the residents and children, the organization and ways the community members look out for each other, and how friendly everyone was. I felt perfectly safe on this tour and was not worried at all.
Pedro was an excellent guide – showing and telling us a lot of interesting stories, giving history and backstory and context. He even gave us some recommendations and went out of his way to help us out with an activity we wanted to do later in the day.
The tour was listed as lasting 2 hours, but we spent close to 3 hours in the favela in total.
Would I recommend doing a favela tour in Rio?
100% yes. I thought that this was an incredibly interesting and honest look at a difficult and tricky situation in Rio de Janeiro. I was both impressed with how nice and friendly the people in the favela were, and also taken aback at how narrow the alleyways were and how conspicuously drugs and guns were present.
I also loved the opportunity to chat more with the local man giving the tour, and learn more about Rio through his experiences.
In fact, I think a favela tour is a must-do activity in Rio de Janeiro.
The only reason I would hesitate to go on a tour is if you have issues with stairs (even with taking the funicular, there are a lot of steps), or if you have young children who you don’t want seeing guns or drugs.
Read My Other Rio de Janeiro Articles:
- A Rio de Janeiro Travel Budget: What Does a Trip to Rio Cost?
- 13 Rio de Janeiro Travel Tips: What to Know Before Going to Rio