This story is from Favela Rocinha, dating back to our first visit to Rio in the summer of 2009. For more info on what to do/where to stay/eat in Rio, read our Rio in Five Insider Tips post!
Rio de Janeiro is indeed a marvellous city. I once asked my grandfather, a globetrotter with 118 countries under his belt, which were in his opinion the most beautiful cities in the world. Without thinking, he said Rome, Vienna, Constantinople (after all, he was born in 1918), Sydney and Rio. By that time I had visited all cities except for Rio, and now I can’t help but agreeing with him on all fronts.
I am not here to tell you about the beaches of Copacabana, the beauties of Ipanema, the views from the Pao de Açucar and the Cristo Redentor. When I think about Rio de Janeiro, my memory goes back to Favela Rocinha.
Beautiful Rio, la cidade maravilhosa
After a few days of marvelling at the aforementioned sights and enjoying the sun-kissed Carioca weather, we decided to pay a visit to the favelas. Ironically, that morning the weather was cold and miserable, almost London-like. I found strange, nearly amusing, the possibility of experiencing similar sensations in two places geographically and conceptually distant from one another. Yet again, I wonder if my feelings about Rio would have been any different if we had glorious weather all the time. From Paradise on earth to a city like many others. Surely my experience of Rio would have been different, more naive, had I not visited the favela.
What is Favela Rocinha?
Favela Rocinha is the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro, with an estimated population between 100.000 and 200.000 people. Most of you will know what a favela is. Perhaps many will have ideas of how such place would be. Favelas are shantytowns that have developed over the last century, some literally cheek-to-jowl with affluent neighbourhoods in the Zona Sul of Rio. For instance, the entrance to the Vila Canoas favela is on one side of a road; on the other side there are grandiose gated mansions.
The origin of favelas can be traced back to the Uruguayan War in the mid XIX century, when land was promised to the soldiers in exchange for their participation in the war. When the promise was not maintained after the war, some soldiers occupied a piece of land where broad beans (fava in Portuguese) were grown.
Others argue favelas are the modern development of quilombos, communities of slaves who ran away from the plantations. Whatever the origin, the population of favelas swelled during the 20th century as a result of migration from the countryside to the cities. It is now estimated that up to 30% of Rio’s population lives in favelas.
Our Experience visiting Favela Rocinha
Many object to this type of tourism, considering it exploitative and voyeuristic. Others wouldn’t dream of visiting a favela, perhaps after watching the movie City of God which, funnily enough, was filmed in Rocinha. Personally, I beg to differ on both fronts. Firstly, considering the extension of favelas in a city like Rio, I find it hypocritical not to acknowledge their existence and limit myself to the charms of the Zona Sul. Moreover, revenue from the tour profits the community itself.
Our trip was organized by Favela Tours, the first operator to offer this type of tours in the city. Before signing up, we were assured that tour profits are kept in the neighbourhood. Indeed, when we ended our tour in the Vila Canoas favela, we visited a school built with tour proceeds.
As for the violence, we were told that favelas are indeed run by drug lords, but a precise set of laws apply to protect the residents: no unauthorized killings, no rapings, no muggings. At the same time, foreigners wandering through the favelas unaccompanied would also be perfectly safe. We experienced that ourselves. Going through Rocinha market we lingered taking pictures, and lost the rest of the group. Nick had a Nikon D700 around his neck. People smiled and helped us finding the rest of the group.
What stroke me first about Rocinha was the magnificent view its residents enjoy. It is the only place in Rio where one can see Cristo Redentor and Pao de Açucar at the same time. What remains in my heart about the place is the friendliness of its inhabitants. A friendliness that is not there to hide a purpose to exploit the tourist, instead a smile that is there to say ‘welcome to my home, tell your friends that here is not all about guns and blood, tell them and come back to see us’.
Now, I am not claiming that after a day tour in the favela I understand all there is to understand about how it is to live there. The tour we took was a window into the life of a community, a village in the heart of a big city. Little boys played football in the street, little girls played dolls. I had my picture taken with a beautiful little girl. I could see her from the corner of my eye that her hands were moving; only later did I realize that she was signing a love-heart.
I felt, however, that not all could be as golden as it looked. Memories of City of God came back to my mind and I found myself thinking whether one of the boys playing football would meet the destiny of File com Fritas (Steak-and-Chips), the 8 years-old boy who was brutally murdered in City of God.
I wondered if those children were also involved in the drug trade, whether or not their playing is as carefree as other children in the world. When we visited the ‘Para Ti’ school at the end of the tour, I read some poems written by the children. Nicole, 11 years, wrote a poem called ‘A minha Escola’.
So it went: ‘A minha escola tem sala para ler, tem sala para escrever. Ela e o maximo! Ela e amor. Ela e o remedio para a minha dor’.
‘My school has a room for reading, a room for writing. It is the best! It is love. It is the remedy for my pain’.