Before arriving in Rio I’d read a fair bit about the favela tours you could do. Thanks to films like City of God and Tropa de Elite, the favelas have a kind of ghetto glamour and it’s hard not be be intrigued by them. These one time illegal, make shift settlements that dominate Brazilian cities – especially Rio – are intrinsically linked to the country in the same way as Samba or football. That being said I did feel a little unsure about doing a ‘tour’ on ethical grounds. It does seem a bit tasteless somehow, a group of western tourists wandering around observing the poor in their ‘natural habitat’ – but having spoken to the girls on reception at CabanaCopa I was reassured that the tours were beneficial to the people of the favelas and given by a guide still living in Rio’s biggest favela.

Having signed up through the hostel, we met our guide for the tour – Marcelo – down by Copacabana beach. There were about 8-10 of us in our mini-bus and as we made our way to Rocinha (the world’s biggest favela), Marcelo told us some more about the tour and the history of the favelas. Marcelo speaks perfect English and having lived in Rocinha for all his life has incredible insight on the ins and outs of favela life. He stressed the importance of these tours as he feels more understanding about what favelas are, who lives there and why is vital to de-mystify them and remove some of the many stigmas that still exist. He explained how the favelas were now legal and accepted by the government after an intervention by the Pope in the early 80’s. This has allowed more infrastructure to be implemented in some of the older more established settlements and Rocinha even has two banks within it. He also explained how people there pay no tax, but now receive water and electricity for free and that many people who could afford to leave don’t as they feel safest and happiest amongst the people of the favelas (and not paying tax/bills is also quite nice).

Rocinha is huge, providing homes for more than 200,000 people. We arrived high up at the top of the favela and were treated to incredible views from a building that is known as the Rocinha Hilton as it’s owners keep adding more levels. As we looked out of Rocinha, Marcelo explained how the poorest people live way back away from the roads that lead through the favela. This is where ventilation is much worse and the houses are harder to get to. He also pointed out a development of apartments just beyond Rocinha. These are some of the most expensive in all of South America, home to celebrities like Brazilian football legend Ronaldo amongst others. That they existed right beside the world’s biggest favela seemed incredible and provided a neat little summary of Brazilian society as a whole I think.

After we’d been down through Rocinha – stopping briefly at the bottom where there are shops, banks and it all seems surprisingly developed – we moved on to a much smaller favela near by. Here we visited a small school community project which the favela tour helped with. Marcelo also explained how the people in this community had re-structured that settlement so it only had one way in or out. This was a successful attempt to stop drug dealers using it as a through route. We walked through around the favela, stopping to meet a few residents – before finishing with a Caipirinha (the best in Rio according to Marcelo) at a bar on the edge of the favela.

It turned out to be a fascinating and eye opening experience and almost certainly the most interesting activity in Rio. There are a few operators running tours, but I’d highly recommend going with Marcelo’s Favela Tour group as he has an unprecedented amount of knowledge and experience.

Phone: 3322-2727 / 9989-0074 / 9772-1133