Finding a different side of the beautiful Rio De Janeiro by visiting the Favelas.

Visiting a Favela in Rio has been one of the best experiences I have had here in Brazil. While what I saw was only a small part of the broader issue Brazil faces with it’s more impoverished communities, it opened my eyes and gave me some insight into the complex and ongoing social undercurrents.

Rio now has a special place in my heart. It’s a great mix of beauty, flavour, movement and culture. Around every corner, something is going on, from small markets to groovy cultural street parties. Topping it all off, you have the gorgeous unending beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, overlooked by the one and only, Christ the Redeemer.

But amidst the fame and allure of Rio, is an unfortunate and less glamorous history.

View overlooking the Favela and the start of Rio city limits.

A very brief summary of how Favelas came to be:

Summarising the history could take thousands of words, but I’m going to do it a couple of paragraphs – this could mean I’ll be overlooking some details, but implore you to do some of your own research on the topic.

It begins with the settling of Brazil in the 1500s. The Portuguese arrived with their fleets and with it many slaves from Africa. Together with the indigenous people of Brazil, slaves were used to mine, build, farm and develop the country for the following hundreds of years. While there are many differing views on how many African American slaves came to Brazil, a local historian quoted by our guide puts the figure at a staggering 4 million throughout Brazilian history.

Consequently, Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery in 1888. But they didn’t do it by choice, they were pressured, due to the changes in the modern world around them. Hesitantly, the announcement for the ending slavery was announced to the public, and overnight millions of slaves were “freed” but they now had no job, no place to live, no education and no money. They may have now been “free” in word, but not in action.

All things considering, the cities still needed workers, so naturally, the now free slaved flocked to the city for opportunities. Unable to afford homes in the inner city and unwelcomed by the elite and authorities, they were forced to live in the outskirts of towns and began building homes in surrounding mountains to escape. Thus the Favelas were born.

Experiencing the favelas:

We kicked off our tour by walking up to a newish, but already run down street-elevator. Built in the last five years and funded by the government, the elevator was installed to help locals travel the long distance to the top of the Favela. While a step in the right direction, locals would argue it is merely token support and a way for the government to show they are paying attention. Inevitably locals will still walk than use this slow mode of transport – that’s their way of life. For tours, though, it’s a perfect mode of transportation to introduce the Favela and give a better view of its sheer size and scale.

Entrance to the Favela Street Elevator.

With no education, prospects, or attention from governments and wealthier citizens below, it’s easy to see how favelas can get to where they are. These are some of the things we take advantage of in Australia, and it’s shocking to witness what happens when such extreme, and in our lives, expected social economics are ignored by society.

Reaching the top, we met some excited children and were asked if we were up for joining them in a game of….you guessed it, soccer (football). We eagerly accepted and mixed with other people from our tour; the game began on a ran down grass laid court.

The field was small, the size of a basketball court. The government developed it, but like many things in the Favela, it is seen as ‘token government support’. It’s building still does not address the heart of issues in the area, such as promoting, ensuring and enforcing education for all children. More so, it has become a symbol as with a lot of things in the Favela, as a “set and forget” mentality.

Regardless, the game was so much fun! Although the locals played for keeps, our team, mixed with Germans and Britts miraculously came away victorious. Luckily they were pleased that we put on a show, rather than pity them and hand over a half-hearted false victory.

Football with the kids of the Favelas, Rio De Janeiro

Shaking hands, we kicked on with the tour, through the narrow walkways and streets of the Favelas.

The happiness was a surprising side of the Favelas for us. Despite the rough and what we would consider unsanitary living conditions (think open sewage system, rickety hodge podge buildings, rubbish strewn everywhere and animal feces covering the streets), these people held their heads high and rejoiced in the fun to be had. I could never imagine this same mentality existing back home.

This emotion continued even later into our walk when an armed local ran past us; pistol raised with an extended mag. Fear and surprise were in our Gringo minds, but our guide and the locals around us shrugged it off as just another day in their life. “Ignore it, and it will ignore us.” This moment will haunt me for a couple of days to follow. A gun was held metres from my head, and no one thought any different.

But below the smiles and playfulness is still a concern. Violence against women amounts to the worst and majority. I glimpsed a corner with a female who had bruises across her upper body, and I couldn’t help but press the issue with my guide. You could hear the shame in his response, a clear indication that among all the crime, this was one that was a constant challenge to address with the prevailing ‘machismo’ attitude.

Often it is the men who get mixed up in the worst of the crimes (no excuse), while women are trapped at home, looking after the families. Unable to escape from fear and love for their family, some are abused, raped and beaten. Where else can they go? Society rejects them, police dare not enter, and worse, they have no prospects elsewhere.

Typically police could step in, at least try to tame the violence, but just like the next dog feeding on scraps, we discover police fuel some of the turmoil that occurs here. Guns can’t be purchased at any local shop, so instead, some police take advantage of the fear and instinctual need to protect oneself by selling weapons to local gangs. The tour guide assured me, the armed man who had passed by earlier had likely a police-purchased-gun.

It’s crazy to think situations like this occur. Just recently in Australia, a Melbourne Police officer was put on trial for corruption, and this made headlines throughout the country. Here in Brazil, it’s known daily what the police do, and no one bats an eyelid. I still can’t even comprehend this notion.

Opportunity to improve:

But buried beneath the bad, a lot of good is starting to rise-up due to opportunities like tourism in the area.

Michael Jackson stature commemorating his visit.

Similar to the impact of Michael Jackon’s visit back in 1995, for his film clip “They don’t care about us”, responsible tourism is shedding light on the issues, pushing favelas into the media spotlight and helping provide much-needed funding for the local community projects.

A portion of the money paid to the tour companies is reinvested to provide community services such as daycare for kids, staffed by local women for local families. It also helps clean some of the streets and alleyways and sets up educational facilities or local cooperatives of artists and artisans selling their wares to visiting tourists.

It’s not much in the grand scheme of the issue, but every little bit helps. It helps to set up the next generation from falling to crime, sucked in by the desire to earn quick cash through drugs and violence or easily manipulated by gangs due to a lack of parental figures in their lives.

It helps create jobs and shelters for those without, and a place to heal when tough situations arise.

Furthermore, it puts issues like this on the radar. To tell the world (even people like us) to pay attention and that their governments need to step up and do something more to create effective and lasting change.

If not for the adults, then at least for the kids and their futures.

Looking up through the street entrance to the Favelas.

Booking a tour:

Our tour was booked through Santa Marta Favela Tours.

I highly recommend them and Santa Marta as a place to visit when you come to Rio. Hand in hand with their promotion of responsible tourism in the Favela, they are respectful of the privacy and dignity of all people who live there and don’t treat the tour like a safari viewing.

Make sure you check with your tour guide when/where is appropriate to take photos!

Here is a link to their page to book a tour.
(We make no commission/kickback from this link)