Should I Go On a Favela Tour?

When I first started doing research into Rio de Janeiro, I came upon something curious – favela tours. After much googling and blog reading, I soon learned that people were divided on the question of "Should I go on a favela tour or not?" 

Half of the popular opinion said that doing a tour through the favela was disrespectful, like being led around a zoo staring into the private lives of poor people. The other half said the experience was insightful and worth it. Keep in mind, they charge you about $30 per person, so it's not a decision one makes lightly. My deciding factors in favour of were:

1. City of God and Elite Squad, two of my favourite movies, are set in Rio’s favelas. It's not like I wanted to relive the movies exactly (they're super violent!), I just wanted to live them a little bit. 

2. Also, with 1000 favelas in the city of Rio de Janeiro alone, and 25-30% of the city’s residents living in one, it felt strange just visiting the privileged side of Rio. I wanted to see a fair picture of the city, and learn as much as I could about it. 

A few of our hostel friends were interested in the tour as well, so off we went to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. We got dropped off at the top of the favela, and then spent the next 3 hours walking all the way from the top to the bottom, making a few pit stops on the way down. 

Our first stop was a gallery with a beautiful patio looking out on the favela. One of the reasons why tourists are allowed to walk around inside is because of the money the local artisans and residents get from the tourists. Each stop we went to, we were encouraged to purchase something or to donate money/give tips. 

Another instance of this was the “samba show” when locals played on garbage pails and children danced in front of us. We were strongly encouraged to tip them – but honestly, I don't know for certain where any of that money went. I’m hesitant to believe that the kids got to keep any of it. 

Next we stopped at a bakery, one place that I was glad to buy things from. I’m not easily swindled into paintings or bracelets, but with a table full of fresh baked goods in front of me… here’s my money, take it, take it all!

The streets of the favela are more like claustrophobic inducing alleyways that twist and turn and wind down the hill. At times we saw sewage floating by, the holes in the ground left open and exposed as traps for you to trip over if you’re not careful where you step. There were dog turds left, right, center, and left again. Piles of garbage. Children playing with boxes and items that we place in the recycling bin. This is poverty –intense poverty – and with a pang I was reminded of similar conditions in India. 

The further down the hill we went, the more the streets opened up. At the bottom, there’s a public pool where kids can spend their days. The alternative to swimming lessons isn’t a good one – many kids and teens are involved in the drug scene. Even though technically Rocinha is supposed to be “pacified”, there are still large areas of it that aren’t police controlled, or the police are paid to turn a blind eye. 

At one point during our walk down, our guide told us to put our cameras and phones away. There was a young teen sitting in the corner of a dilapidated open-walled home, with a machine gun on his lap. He wasn’t ashamed of us seeing him, but rather looked back at us with deep, defiant eyes. 

Rocinha isn’t a place to wander into alone. Our tour guide said that just the day before, 2 Germans walked into the favela on their own and accidentally waltzed straight up to the drug dealer’s den. The German guys turned and ran – not the wisest thing to do, since the drug dealer’s thought there was a reason they were running. So, they shot them, and a bullet badly skimmed one of the Germans who then had to go to the hospital. 

Here’s the thing though – when I tried to look up this "incident", I couldn’t find any information about such an event happening. And I found it odd that the tour guide knew exactly when we had to put our phones and cameras away. Horrible things do still happen in the favelas, and tourists do get harmed, but from what I’ve read, it’s only in an accident or in crossfire. A part of me can’t help but wonder if they told us these stories and staged what we were seeing, a crafted view inside the favela, meant to alarm and shock the tourist. 

So, should we have went on a favela tour? I think it was worth it. It’s an interesting perspective into the lives of many residents in Rio, even if I did think that perspective might be slightly contrived. We kept an open mind, smiled at everyone we passed, and weren’t like the other obnoxious tourists in our group who posed for photos with the samba-dancing favela kids #whitesaviour style. 

On our last day, we headed to a favela minus the tour, Vidigal, a short taxi ride away from Ipanema. M and I came here to climb the Dois Hermanos, and at first I was super tripped out that we had to go through a favela to get to the beginning of the hike. I was still thinking about our tour guide's story about the Germans, but apparently Vidigal is the most "tourist-friendly" favela of them all. 

Honestly, it felt nothing like a favela, at least the parts that we were in. The road was wide and open, we felt very safe walking even with our cameras and backpacks, and we even bought some pastries at a bakery. No one stared at us awkwardly or uncomfortably – they just let us be, and we let them be.

One of the most exciting experiences in Rio was the motorbike ride to the top of Vidigal to get to the starting point of the hike. Since the taxi only took us to the entrance, we had a choice of walking up (not advised, since we didn’t quite know where we were going), or taking a white van up (they didn’t appear to be leaving).

As soon as we stepped out of the taxi, the favela residents spotted us white gringos in an instant. They called us over, passed us some helmets, and away we went. M filmed the whole thing – a crazy endeavour, since that means he was only holding on to the bike with one hand! It’s a wonderful memory to look back on now, and even though the fog at the top prevented us from seeing anything (ugh, Rio, your weather is so rude!) that motorbike ride more than made up for it. 

We also saw a monkey that heard us coming and made himself noticed once we were closer. We fed him some chocolate for being such a good photo subject!