Favela, Portuguese for “slum”, is a word you’ve probably heard often whenever in or talking about Rio. Famous from movies such as City of God and Elite Squad, tourists have many preconceptions about these areas, and either avoid them as much as possible or are determined to explore them. In the past few years, police have entered and “pacified” many of the favelas around the main tourist areas of the city, so it’s changed quite a bit. (Pacification is when military police enter, set up stations throughout the neighborhood, and attempt to regain control over these areas that we previously controlled solely by gangs).
Favela tourism is can be a little controversial, but if you’re interested, you’re interested. The favela tours that cart gringos through in jeeps like a poverty safari are not cool. Please don’t do that. But it’s normal to be curious and want to wander up on your own, and don’t we travel to see the different ways people live? Hopefully, to gain a little perspective…
So, if that’s your thing, then go for it, just be smart and respectful about it. Finally, there are some local-run walking tours that will take you through, help you feel safe, and donate profits back to the community without the jeeps. Most hostals are now connected with these tours. Otherwise, you can also wander up on your own. Here are a few favelas that are easy to access, relatively quite safe, and have some interesting things to see. Because they’re always on hills in Rio, they also have some of the most stunning views of the city, and for that alone it’s worth the climb up.
*On safety: Some people say favelas are safer than normal streets in Rio, some say it’s much worse. Like any time traveling, avoid bringing things that you cannot handle having stolen. You’ll probably find many kind people and have no problems, but if it gives you peace of mind, leave nice things at home, there is not point in making yourself a target. On other kinds of danger, you shouldn’t encounter much in these specific favelas (exceptions are noted under Rocinha and Alemao), but always remember that these areas have a history of drug dealing, and your main concern is not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, you can bring your camera, but refrain from taking photos of peoples faces. This is where most tourists get into problems. Remember you do not know who is who around these neighborhoods, show respect and respond accordingly to the vibes you get. If you feel like you are intruding or somewhere you should not be, chances are you are right. Otherwise, explore, eat, drink and take in the views!
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Santa Marta, above the Botafogo neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, has a few claims to fame: it was the first favela to be pacified, Michael Jackson shot a music video there, and most recently, it became home to the painted houses of the Favela Painting Project by Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn. There is so much going on in such a tightly packed space, so many vivid colors, kids playing, foods cooking, and different types of music coming from open windows. I had to go back several times to take it all in. Even though quite a few tourists pass through, it isn’t built around the tourists like Vidigal, and it is such a visually stimulating place to just wander…And, on some Sundays, they have live samba and a feijoada dinner on the patio by the MJ statue.
From the Botafogo metro stop, walk up Rua Sao Clemente, the opposite direction from the beach, and stay on the right side of the street. Several blocks up, you will see a playground. Behind this is the favela, the streets behind lead directly into it. Veer left after the playground, and follow the next left to arrive at the favela painting project shown below.
Vidigal has gone from being a conveniently-located favela to a cheap place for any alternative foreigner to find housing or a hostel. It feels comfortable to explore on your own, and it doesn’t feel very far removed from the world around it like others. This is the gringo-fied favela, and the least intimidating. It offers stunning views over Leblon, Lagoa and Ipanema, especially at night, from the first Vidigal hostel’s patio (Alto Vidigal). It also has access to a hike to the top of the Dois Irmaos mountain (the iconic twin mountains towering over Ipanema), which is one of our must-sees for Rio and the perfect reason to visit. But to just explore, there’s a bit of hillside traffic and you have to walk on the streets instead of steps, so it’s not my favorite to just wander and get a feel for favela life. If you want to stay in a favela, you’ll feel safest here, but when the hostel isn’t full, you’re a bit isolated and simply inconveniently located. People do come up for Friday night parties at the hostel, which can be really fun.
It is easiest to either take a cab from Ipanema or bus along the beach that says Vidigal on it. From the base of Vidigal, you can take a motortaxi to reach the top. If you just want to wander, just start walking straight up. If you use it to get to the hostel viewpoint or the hike, simply tell them ¨Alto Vidigal¨, then you can ask people for the ¨trilha¨ for the hike, or Alto Vidigal for the hostel. People will point you the right way. Below is the first view from the hike, looking over Rocinha on the right.
The largest favela in Rio, Rocinha is perhaps the liveliest experience for a foreigner to have. Sprawling across the backside of the mountains towering over Ipanema, Rocinha is a world in itself. This is where most favela tours will take you, and is one we have learned from experience may not be best explored by yourself. Full of kind people, beautiful lookouts and buzzing city streets, it is very easy to get lost in and finding your way down is not always as easy as you expect it to be. We have listed several tour companies below, all of which offer great tours and are known by locals. Learning about the community through the guides is also a great experience. If you are living in Rio or feel comfortable enough to explore by yourself, avoid wandering to the top third- there are currently several disputes over territory in this area, and though the rest of Rocinha is occupied by police and generally safe, they have lost control of this area and you are going to find out very quickly that you are not meant to be there.
You can take buses from all over Zona Sul, and they will usually say Rocinha on the front. Ask your hotel or hostel which one stops closest to you or check on Google Maps. All buses going to Barra will pass here. Tours will all provide transportation.
Cantagalo, aka ¨the singing chicken¨, is just after Vidigal in being tourist-popular, and is located between Ipanema and Copacabana. In the past year several altercations between drug dealers and police took place, so it kind of dropped off the map for tourists. But it’s always offered stunning ocean views, hostels, and foreigner-friendly parties like Vidigal, so if that’s what you’re focused on, you can ask your hostel or hotel about it to learn what the current situation is. It’s long been a popular favela to visit, and is the closest located to the tourist areas.
Prazeres is great. It’s a bit more of a mission to get to, but we had one of our greatest nights in Rio there and more people should get to see it. The Black Santa parties are hosted here every month at Praca Doce Mel (you can find all event details here), and if you can, don’t miss it. Much cooler experience than the gringo parties in other favelas. The favela is just below the Christo, so you’re up closer to the iconic statue and have views of much different areas than the seaside favelas. At night I swear you can see more lights than from any other viewpoint. The parties are all locals (except you!), with a bunch of rappers, DJs and hip hop artists all night, strong drinks and condoms for sale at the bar, with plenty of beautiful street art. An authentic experience for sure. Downside- you may see police on the edge of the party with giant guns which takes a liiiiittle getting used to.
Enter Santa Teresa at the Gloria metro stop. From here you can either take a motortaxi all the way up (usually about 10 reais), or you can walk up to Bar do Gomes, straight up, and take a taxi from there (about 10-15 reais). You can also try to take a taxi all the way from the metro, but it will be double the price and you may have trouble convincing a taxi to take you that far. Motortaxi is how locals go.
Alemao is Rio’s largest complex of favelas. It’s in the North Zone, so it’s not where most people stay, and a bit further to get to. But it’s incredible when you see how massive it is, and it’s unique because the city has done something helpful and built a cable car that connects the complex. It was built as a way for residents to commute, but for just a slightly higher fare you can just take a ride in it for fun (about 5 reais each way). If you’re uncomfortable walking through favelas, but are curious to see them, this may be a good option because you can just ride in the cable car and return without exiting. Even for someone more comfortable, be aware that this favela has a reputation for being much more dangerous than the others on the list, and it’s not the best idea to stray too far from the cable car stations. However, we rode to the end, and hung out in the area around it, and met a bunch of kind people and had an interesting experience. They did warn us not to walk away from the cable car platform though. (As of September2014, the government is attempting to pacify Alemao. Shootouts between police & gangs occur multiple times a week. We are hearing it is safe to take the cable car without exiting but have not been back to see for ourselves.)
This favela above Catete offers amazing views of Guanabara bay and some fun, while difficult to find, nightly entertainment. The main attraction here are the jazz nights at hotel and bar The Maze. While difficult to find, the blend of people and sounds in this hidden favela location is an incredible experience. Every first Friday of the month you can find your way here, and for about 30 reais you can enter and enjoy the live music. While not a popular tourist destination (yet…), it has a strong following of Cariocas and expats so come early to make sure you get in.
Rua Tavares Bastos winds up from the main road Bento Lisboa, right next to the Catete metro stop. When the road takes you left before the favela, follow the arrows and look for signs, and you’ll be in The Maze.
This pair of tiny favelas right next to each other feels like the same one. Just above the Leme end of Copacabana, this is a much quieter and smaller community that can be nice to explore, and if you speak Portuguese, meet some locals. If you walk along Rua Gustavo Sampaio, just off of the giant Princesa Isabel one block up from the beach, you should turn left onto Rua Anchieta, and then follow the tiny street as it curves right. In the middle of the block, you will see the street leading up the hill, with graffiti of the neighborhood’s name. They have motortaxis, but it’s a short walk. When the road makes you choose right or left, this is where the dividing line is. Babilonia is to the left, and Chapeu Mangueira is to the right. If you go left, go at night to the Bar das Estrelas (Stars Bar), hang out or dance on the patio, and once again, enjoy an amazing view of Copacabana and the Christo. You can ask people to get in the general direction, and then follow the stars painted on the cement. If you go right, we recommend going for lunch to Bar do David. It’s right after the break in the road, and the food is some of the best in Rio. David speaks some English, and if you’re open, just let him order for you. After you eat, you can continue going right and explore the neighborhood. People are friendly, there are some local bars, a couple tiny hostels, and you can feel the sense of community.
From Ave. Princesa Isabel in Copacabana, nearest Cardeal Arcoverde metro stop, walk towards the ocean and turn one block before the ocean boulevard onto Rua Gustavo Sampaio. Take the second left and the first road on the left will have graffiti marking the entrance. You can take motortaxis, recommended for Bar das Estrelas, or simply walk up and veer right for Bar do David.
If you are looking for a tour, here are some popular companies that other travelers have recommended to us, however we have only explored the favelas on our own or with local friends so cannot speak too much on them. All are known for local guides and having a sense of social responsibility, in addition to offering great tours and information.
Isabell Edrmann– Private Guide
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