Just like townships in South Africa, favelas in Brazil are basically slums. The first one was formed in the late 19th century when some 20.000 veterans of the Canudos Campaign had no place to live and so inhabited the Providencia hill in Rio giving it the name “Favela Hill” after the tree they found in the place and remembered from their fights. Not long after, with the big urbanization of Brazilian cities a lot of poor people from the countryside came to the big metropolis looking for jobs and better life. Since they had no money and no prospects they started inhabiting the area, living in the extremely bad conditions. The major growth in the number of favelas was notticed from 1940s, with the constant flow of whole families from poorer parts of the country, and right now it is estimated that in Rio de Janeiro itself there’re around 1.000 favelas with around 20% of city’s population living there.
While in other cities, like Sao Paulo, favelas usually are located in the suburbs, in Rio de Janeiro they can be seen all over the place, mixing up with fancy neighbourhoods. When looking at the city from amazing Parque das Ruinas in Santa Teresa the first thing you see are the crumbly houses of favela and then better neighbourhoods and Sugar Loaf in the background. Same goes for famous Ipanema beach – at the end of it there’s another favela – Vidigal – neighbouring with Sheraton Hotel. And that’s how the situation in Rio is – the city is so mixed up, so complex and with so many contrasts that discovering every angle of it is a must to properly understand Rio de Janeiro!
If you’ve seen the movie “City of God” you might have the idea how the reality in Brazilian favelas look like. But a lot has changed since the movie was made. Many favelas were pacified and the presence of police, holding big guns and looking scary, is widely seen on the main roads. The backstreet however are still a place where no one should go as they are still under control of gangs and drug dealers. Even if favelas seem to be safe these days (and they usually are), it’s better to use the common sense there and just avoid troubles. Places like Vidigal are opening to tourists more and more, with great hostels and best parties in town but still it’s better to be careful.
I visited two favelas on my tour, Rocinha and Vila Canoas. The first one is the biggest favela in Rio and it really is huge, stretching on the hills with amazing view over the best landmarks of the city – Christ de Redeemer, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and beaches of Sao Conrado. That’s one of the advantages on favelas – as they are usually located on the hills they offer breathtaking views, probably the best in the cities that a lot of people would pay thousands for!
When looking at favelas from away it looks like houses are made from LEGO blocks and it seems like all the buildings are crumbling, falling apart. While some of them are really in poor condition many are pretty decent and solid once you look closer. That’s because a lot of residents of favelas work on various construction sites and they really know their work. The law in Brazil says that if someone lives on a piece of land for more than 5 years the person becomes a legal owner of it. That’s how some people got rich in favelas, building big houses and then renting apartments. But usually it’s one house per family. As soon as kids start their own family they get a new flat on the top floor of the house – this is why the houses are so high and sometimes one floor doesn’t really fit the other.
What struck me the most at first was crazy electricity lines system! It was insane, endless cables mixed together. I’m still wondering what happens when one stops working, how they find which one it was. The reason that everything is so jumbled together is that most people don’t pay the electricity bills, they just plug in their houses illegally. A lot of the houses still deal with the lack of sanitary facilities but things are getting better and better. The same with permanent addresses – currently mapping projects take place in various favelas, Vila Canoas already have street names (after Brazilian cities) and house numbers!
There’s no place for being an annonymous loner in favela! The sense of the community is really strong there. It has to be as the life can get difficult and help of others – family, friends or neighbours – is much needed. Only around 20% of houses can be reached by car, 55% by motorbike and favelas are crazy hilly places! Just imagine you have to carry your groceries all the way up, or you are sick and need help. There is no way people would survive without the help of others! The community is there for better and for worse. Apparently the parties in favelas are pretty spectacular too as everyone celebrates together birthdays, weddings and every other success!
Even if favelas are considered very poor places the reality is much better. Inhabitants of this slums neighbourhoods are part of lower middle class, this is changing really fast and people can afford much more these days. Recently few banks opened their branches in favelas – a clear sign that things are getting, both with safety and wealth. When I walked around Rocinha I could see that just about everything is easily available there – grocery shops, restaurants, repair services. Inhabitants of favelas don’t really need to leave their neighbourhood, they can get all they need more or less around the corner!
Even if the two favelas I visited where located fairly close from each other they couldn’t be any more different! Rocinha was busy, bustling with life even at 10 in the morning. The favela was enormous, occupying the whole space between two hills. We went to the terrace of the repair shop (a hidden viewpoint and one of the highlights of the tour) and the view was breathtaking but all I could see around was Rocinha – that’s how big it was! We stayed only on the main streets but that was enough to give us a glimpse of the hectic life in the neighbourhood. Vila Canoas, on the other hand, was calm, quiet and so much smaller (with less than 5.000 inhabitants). We could wander a maze of corridors (calling them streets would be an overstatement) without being worried about our safety. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place like this. I usually have a good orientation but there I lost the track of where I am very quickly! In Vila Canoas we could also interact with locals as Rachel, our guide, seemed to know everyone there! Seeing these two favelas and how different they are was a perfect insight to this part of Rio’s life.
As for the tour itself – I couldn’t have chosen better! All the excellent reviews that Favela Tours by Marcelo Armstrong received are completely true. In these three hours I could learn a lot about the background of favelas and the life there, I could ask all kind of questions, I could see everything with my own eyes. Rachel was a great guide that knew all the answers and she really explained a lot, made everything much clearer. I don’t think I’d be brave enough to go to favela on my own and even if I did, I wouldn’t have known the context of the place and all the details that made me understand what favelas are all about. So if you go to Rio be sure to include the Favela Tour in your itinerary as it was the highlight of my stay in this city!
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One last word: a friend of mine asked my why I want to see poverty so much. Well, I believe that in order to fully understand the place you need to see everything it has to offer. That’s why I often go to random areas in the places I visit, I went to three townships in South Africa, I wandered around narrow streets of Kond in Yerevan… Sometimes these weren’t easy moments but I still believe it’s important to go to these kind of places, to have the full picture of the city / country and to be able to spread the words about how places like favelas in Rio really are!
Have you visited any place like favela? Would you go to one?
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If you think of visiting Brazil or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it:
- So Rio de Janeiro didn’t blow me away…
- Bohemian Rio de Janeiro – Santa Teresa
- Street art in Rio de Janeiro
- and more!
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