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South America » Brazil » Rio de Janeiro
December 26th 2010
Published: September 30th 2017
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Geo: -22.9912, -43.2455

Favelas - Brazil is famous for them and for many foreigners, they are synonymous with the country. Known for crime, drugs, and poverty, for the average Brazilian, they aren't necessarily something to be proud of ... or are they? Can something that is viewed by so many as being negative, actually have qualities that turn out to be something positive? Don't get me wrong - life here is difficult, lacking basic services, the constant threat of gang-related violence, and there is definitely a stigma attached with living in a favela. Given a choice, most would never even dream of living here.

There are so many preconceptions about favelas and though many are true, there really is a sense of hope and community within these places that perhaps the outside world doesn't see, at least within Favela da Rocinha, the one I visited today. Given the recent headline-grabbing police raids on favelas, was it wise to visit a place like this? If anything, the favelas are probably extra safe after those eruptions of violence.

For the average visitor to a favela, safety is not an issue - crime against tourists draws unwanted police attention, which is bad for the business
Sprawling Favela ...Sprawling Favela ...Sprawling Favela ...

Mainstream Rio can be seen off in the distance. The tight and twisty streets, cramped accommodations, and trash strewn about actually reminded me of a Moroccan medina.
of drug-dealing gangs. Entering with a guide provides an extra level of safety as companies that provide favela tours have good relationships with the locals. In fact, I was told that it's simply not possible to enter deep into a favela without one, as strange faces would be escorted out by the local criminal element - outsiders are not welcome, as they could be trouble.

Our guide advised that we could walk around Rocinha with camera in one hand and a wad of cash in the other, without encountering any problems. We were told that we could take as many pictures as we liked outside of the drug-dealing areas, and to be aware enough of our surroundings so as not to snap any photos of people walking around with guns or walkie-talkies, as they were obviously gang members.

Favelas are often thought of as lawless zones where chaos reigns - this isn't quite true, as there is always some governing force. Sometimes it's the local police, sometimes it's corrupt police officials, but by far the most common governing authority in Rio's favelas are one of the three largest gangs - in Rocinha's case, it's ADA. Rio's gangs historically based their drug-dealing
Illegal Construction ...Illegal Construction ...Illegal Construction ...

Houses stacked on top of one another.
operations in the favelas because most are relatively inaccessible to police - drug dealing usually takes place in the lower portions of the favela, where it is most accessible by buyers coming from the mainstream areas of Rio. The average favela resident doesn't buy drugs and the reason is simple - most can't afford them.

Entering the favela, there are numerous lookouts keeping an eye out for rival gang members, police, and other undesirables. Each favela has its own set of warning signs to alert each other of intruders or to pass along messages - fireworks are commonly employed, the message dependent on the combination used. Ascending further and further into the favela, through winding and narrow passages, the gang leaders reside.

There are two reasons for this, the first being the fact that living higher up in a favela is more desirable - open sewers running downhill mean that waste collects further down, making for less than pleasant smells and conditions. But the more important reason is security - what safer location is there for the heart of the gang's operations, than buried in a maze of randomly-constructed buildings? It's a place that police could never reach ... or so
Shit Flows Downhill ...Shit Flows Downhill ...Shit Flows Downhill ...

A mountain of trash that keeps growing, since there isn't any trash removal in a favela.
everybody thought ... until the police raids struck at the home of the gangs.

The gangs never thought the police would attempt any incursion into the favelas, and the recent attacks left the gang leaders scurrying, with the police taking over the gang headquarters as their own. They will be there for several months, the time the police estimate is required to find all the drugs and clean up the favela. With the federal government's mandate to clean up the favelas within the next two years, well ahead of the upcoming World Cup and Summer Olympics, there's a feeling of uneasiness in Rocinha as residents think it's only a matter of time before their time is up ... the gangs are scared, as they can no longer conduct business with impunity.

So, the numbers - the latest estimate of people living within favelas in Brazil is 52 million, with over 4 million favela dwellers within the state of Rio de Janeiro, alone. Favela de Rocinha is the largest in the state, with the last estimate at over 300,000; however, this number is a few years old - the current best guess is over 500,000. An exact number will probably never be known,
Stolen Water ...Stolen Water ...Stolen Water ...

Water is supplied at the top of the favela and all long the way down the hills, residents steal water via these illegal taps. Near the bottom, there isn't enough water pressure for anybody to take further advantage.
as the majority of people in favelas essentially are unofficial citizens.

Rocinha is bursting at the seams with people - it is bounded on every side by either the city or hills, so there simply is no more space for expansion. With the average family here having six to seven children, one can only imagine how much worse the crowding will become in a few years time. Already there are severe problems with over-crowding as land in Rocinha gradually was used up - its boundaries spread as far outward as they could, so what happened then? It was simple - the favela started to grow upwards.

Land is essentially free in Rocinha - if you can find a piece of empty land, you can build yourself a house and call it your own. But once the land ran out, house owners started selling their rooftops to another person, who would build another house on top. The new house owner would subsequently sell their rooftop to another who would build another house, until multiple stories were stacked atop a foundation that simply couldn't bear the weight of the numerous structures above. Years of uncontrolled and illegal construction, poorly-designed homes built using low-quality materials ... it was only a matter of time before problems arose.

During a recent period of heavy rain, the soil in Rocinha became unstable and some of these houses collapsed. When a building topples in a crowded favela, it ends up falling on neighbouring buildings, causing further destruction. The local authority's solution has been to construct apartment blocks within the favela, properly-designed and built using construction-grade materials. Some of these apartments have been earmarked for these recently-displaced families.

However, critics say that this is no solution, only a band-aid - remember how free land in a favela is open to anyone who claims it first? Eventually someone will come in and clear away the rubble of the collapsed houses and re-build, then sell the roof to someone else who builds another house, and this will continue ad infinitum ... a never-ending vicious cycle as long as the illegal construction continues.

With so many problems, favelas appear to be a pit of despair - why would anyone want to live in such a place, with a low quality of life, a life seemingly devoid of any opportunity? Shockingly, many could afford to live outside of a favela, but choose to remain. Why? There are, rather surprisingly, some benefits to living in a favela.

In Brazil, employment laws dictate that companies must pay for an employee's transportation costs to and from work. While favelas themselves are not the most beautiful of places to live, they are often located immediately adjacent to upscale neighbourhoods - in Rocinha's case, it was only a 15 minute drive there from Ipanema, which is one of the richest neighbourhoods in Rio. There is a financial benefit for companies to hire employees who live close by, so Rocinha provides a large source of cheap labour.

Many Rocinha residents have unofficial types of unemployment such as doing odd jobs and selling drinks and snacks on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Much of Rio's money flows through these neighbourhoods, and the location of Rocinha makes it easier for them to tap into some of it. Having unofficial jobs means no taxes to pay - couple that with the cheaper rents in Rocinha and many people here actually manage to have a slightly better quality of life than if they lived outside of a favela. Each month, the people are able to tuck away a little bit more cash and can thus
Safety First! ...Safety First! ...Safety First! ...

I love how this chintzy little net is to prevent any further rubble from falling down below. I felt super safe.
afford such luxuries as microwaves, TVs, and video game systems - things that would probably be unaffordable if they lived elsewhere.



There's also a distinct feeling of community in Rocinha, where everybody seemingly knows everyone else. With so many people living in such cramped quarters, people are bound to know their neighbours well. It's widely acknowledged by outsiders that favelas throw the best parties, and many come here for the funk clubs. In fact, my hostel offered a transfer to a favela funk club but unfortunately, the schedule didn't line up with mine and I wasn't able to go. And what about Carnaval, Rio's most famous party, and perhaps the most famous in the world? It was born in a favela!

The Brazilian government is finally taking more of an interest in improving the quality of life in the favelas, by starting to introduce more basic utilities and services. It can't be easy, as the favelas have grown so rapidly and extensively without any rhyme or reason - coming up with a plan to fix what's wrong? Good luck with that.

Many of the locals are starting their own initiatives, as well - the company that offered the tour today prides
Bullet Holes .. Bullet Holes .. Bullet Holes ..

Cheap building materials mean that bullets can travel through a few houses.
itself on reinvesting a large portion of their profits within the favelas. They started a daycare within Rocinha, and fund its continued operation by bringing in outsiders for a glimpse of favela life.


In an effort to keep kids off the streets and give them a chance for a better life, there are also some creative initiatives, such as an art studio. Kids are allowed to come here and paint, so long as they attend all their classes and bring their report cards, showing good grades. Not only does it provide a creative outlet for the kids, but is also a potential source of income for them and their families, as the better pieces are sold.

Given what I had previously heard about favelas and the negative feelings many Brazilians have towards these types of tours, I wasn't sure if I wanted to have anything to do with this type of tourism. It seemed a lot like gawking at a train wreck, and it felt very disrespectful to the favela residents to even consider such a thing. But I'm glad I overcame that and decided to tag along - it's easy to see images of a favela and only
Water Tanks ...Water Tanks ...Water Tanks ...

For storing stolen water.
see the negative aspects, such as the crime, poverty, and squalor. But getting the inside story on life inside was priceless, and witnessing a sense of hope and future opportunity was even more so, making the visit to Rocinha one of the highlights of my time in Rio.


Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


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Getting Creative ...Getting Creative ...
Getting Creative ...

Bracelets for sale, made from telephone wire.
Safety Again! ...Safety Again! ...
Safety Again! ...

I love how the colourful ribbons are used to warm people about touching the rat's nest of bad electrical wiring.
Snack Time in Rocinha ...Snack Time in Rocinha ...
Snack Time in Rocinha ...

The chocolate-filled donut was tasty, but super sweet like most Brazilian desserts and pastries.
Cheap Sushi Close to the Hostel ...Cheap Sushi Close to the Hostel ...
Cheap Sushi Close to the Hostel ...

Ipanema is EXPENSIVE, but luckily next door is New Natural, a cheap and typical Brazilian buffet by the kilo. The sushi isn't great, but decent - a light lunch here costs about 11 Reais ($7 CAD).
The Coolest Street in Ipanema Because ...The Coolest Street in Ipanema Because ...
The Coolest Street in Ipanema Because ...

Seven hostels are located here, and everybody hangs out together in the street. Very familial vibe. Funny ... on the hostel booking sites, Lighthouse is higher rated than Harmonia, but I preferred Harmonia because it had a more comfy common area and better facilities. In fact, I went back there a few times to hang out with the peeps.
Kebab!!! ...Kebab!!! ...
Kebab!!! ...

Haven't found many so far in Brazil, but this one was pretty good, though different from the European ones. The lamb was wickedly flavoured, so tasty, and the wraps were freshly made on site, cooked inside a type of panini press.


5th January 2011

Great post - really interesting. :o)
9th April 2011

as somebody who lives in Rocinha, much of the information you posted here ius either exagerrated or wrong..water is NOT stolen but provided by the city as there is a watewr pumping station at the top of the hill. Also electricity is paid by
80 percent of the people. I do receive a light bill. There is a huge electricity grid right next to the cable tv station at the bottom of the hill. Maybe if your guide lived here they would have accurate information. I always recommend that if you are to takle a tour..go with somebody who lives here in the favela. The company you went with "Be a Local"...none of them are from or reside in the favela.And contrary to what they say, you could walk in here without a guide with no problems, just two words of advice...stay on the main street so you dont get lost and dont bring your camera..as there are places where you can not take fotos..they only tell you this so you will "need" to book a tour with them...the fault is not your own but to the wrong information given to you..you want to read about favela life from a local? go here:http://lifeinrocinha.blogspot.com thank you for reading..

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