When I told people I was coming to Rio de Janeiro in the months leading up to my trip, I always got the same response – Isn’t it dangerous there? There seems to be a looming stigma about Rio concerning its safety, which can largely be attributed to the city’s slums, called favelas, which are built on the hills which are scattered throughout the various bairros of the city.
When a good friend of mine invited me to dinner in Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued. I was apprehensive at first, but my friend, an American volunteer here in Rio, lives in Rocinha and hadn’t faced any problems. Curious, I accepted his offer and hopped on a bus to to the top of Rocinha from my school.
To be honest, I was blown away by what I saw there. As we walked down the steep hill of the favela, people were blasting music, laughing, beers in hand. Children were playing on the sidewalks, in front of chain restaurants, major bank buildings, and boutique clothing stores. Street carts with food that smelled like a cross between heaven and a Brazilian churrascaria were scattered along the main road. There are even hotels and hostels in the favelas which are open to tourists, a sure sign that times are definitely changing.
Since my first visit, I have returned to Rocinha more than a handful of times. I’ve eaten at a quaint little sushi restaurant in the favela, bought açai in the marketplace, gone grocery shopping, and even met a few people here and there. The sense of community here is obvious in the interactions between people, both outsiders and inhabitants alike. Unlike the busy, impersonal lifestyle of Zona Sul, the favelas offer a break from all of that in favor of a different, more laid back culture. Some of Rio de Janeiro’s most amazing traditions, such as Carnaval, samba dancing, and funk music originated in favelas, contributing to the identity of both Rio and Brazil at large.
Let me disclaim this article for a minute – the stigma about favelas does not go completely unwarranted. Drug problems, violence, crime, and poverty often plague the city’s favelas, where people, businesses, and homes are all packed into very tight spaces. Open sewage and giant trash collection spaces sit on almost every corner, and many are still overridden with drug gangs despite pacification efforts of the government in recent years. Stray animals roam the streets and police corruption is extremely prevalent. Favelas are often dirty and crowded, and the violence has not yet completely disbursed.
But Rio’s favelas aren’t quite the same as the masses portray. Movies, news reports, and social stigmas highlight the worst of the worst situations in the favelas, deeming them as a sort of “no man’s land” where outsiders shouldn’t set foot. Many people, Brazilians and foreigners alike, are under the impression that visiting a favela equates being robbed or hurt, which is simply untrue. Visiting favelas can be safe, as long as you know who you’re going with and stay alert throughout the duration of your visit. Here are a few tips on how to do just that:
1. Leave your valuables at home. Want to take pictures? Don’t bring your DSLR, bring a smaller digital or disposable camera. Save the texting, calling, and 3G for your own home. Don’t bring incredible amounts of cash. Ironically enough, I would give this same advice for the city of Rio in general, regardless of where you are.
2. Don’t go alone. Better yet, explore the favela with someone who lives there or is familiar with the area. Not only is this safer, but you’ll learn more about life in the favela from someone who lives it first-hand.
3. Stay alert. Don’t be too trusting and keep on your toes.
4. Know how to get around. Know what bus you need to take to and from the favela. Don’t take any chances with being lost, especially if you do not speak Portuguese.
5. Watch your step. This one is meant to be taken literally and figuratively. The ground is dirty and often covered in animal droppings and rotten foods, so watch where you walk at all times. But also, watch out for what you’re doing. Don’t whip out your iPhone in the middle of the street. Don’t walk down a back alley without a guide. Watch out for motor taxis (because they drive fairly recklessly). Keep your common sense intact and your senses alert so that you don’t have any accidents while you’re there.
Since my first favela visit, I have had the enormous pleasure of seeing four different favelas first-hand: Rocinha, Vidigal, Santa Marta, and Cantagalo. I have never been robbed, hurt, or even confronted by someone I didn’t know in a favela. Everyone I have met so far in these communities has been extremely nice, conversational, and accommodating. They want to learn as much about us as we do about them. Some of my favorite experiences so far in Rio have occurred in favelas, and I am hoping to participate in a volunteer program in Rocinha by the end of the month. With great caution and an open mind, the favelas of Rio can offer a whole new part of this city to explore.