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Favela Insight

June 28, 2015

Nestled in mountains above Rio are favelas — slums that exist outside of Brazilian law, populated by residents who can barely scrape by. In an atmosphere of fun and luxury — it is the marvelous city, afterall — favelas are a reminder of a political and social system ridden with corruption and indifference.

The Favela Community

Tour guides are quick to point out that favelas have an undeserved bad reputation. People living in favelas are often honest, hard-working cariocas — housecleaners, waiters and beach vendors. They say only 0.5% of the population is involved in the drug trade, and roughly 20% of Rio’s population lives in one of the city’s over 700 favelas.

When violence does occur, it’s usually aimed at police — who enter the favelas in an attempt to arrest the drug lords — or between gangs. Drug gangs are the de facto authorities in favelas, compared to the state police who patrol the rest of Rio. If you steal from someone, you may get your hand broken — so there’s not a lot of stealing by regular folks.

II Festival Internacional de Circo
© Flickr

Favela Tourism

Favela tours, along with disaster tours, are known as dark tours in the industry. It’s true that Favela tours walk the line between exploitation and raising awareness of a socially marginalized group. Those who believe tourism benefits favelas usually cite the following reasons:

  1. Many tours give back to the community through donating a percentage of the tour’s revenue to schools or community programs.
  2. Economic strength. Buying local arts and crafts can help support entrepreneurial minded favela residents.
  3. Awareness is better than ignorance. The upper-class neighborhoods bordering favelas are largely unaware and unconcerned with their existence. As outsiders, our awareness of the reality of favela life, and our willingness to talk about our experience, can help humanize their “dangerous” reputation with locals.

Our stance

At RealRio, we offer a tour of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio. We started offering the tour after long discussions with a guide who is born and raised in Rocinha, and who is passionate about educating locals and foreigners.

Our Rocinha tour is carefully planned, with precautions to keep our guests safe, while benefiting the community by visiting a popular local market and capoeira school.

We strongly believe this tour is positive for the Rocinha community and our guests. Our staff regularly speaks with Rocinha residents and guides to keep our favela tour safe and community-oriented.

Favela community
© Flickr

The Future

Over the last ten years, people we’ve spoke to feel that favelas are slowly becoming more integrated into Rio. Locals are beginning to stop ignoring their favela neighbors as outsiders are paying more attention.

Insider favela perspective
© Flickr

Most notably, there was the Haas&Hahn Kickstarter project that raised $116,655 in 2013. Haas&Hahn’s favela painting project that resulted in worldwide press. For many non-Brazilians, this was the first time they had seen or heard of a favela.

In reality, favelas are not as intimidating as they seem at first glance. The rest of Rio is catching on, and we’re optimistic about what’s to come.

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