Trail of the unexpected: Favela tours in Rio

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A visit to the shanty towns of Rio reveals a very different side to the city, says Jane Labous

A few years ago, you wouldn't have gone near Santa Marta, one of Rio de Janeiro's central favelas. This higgledly-piggledly jigsaw of shacks roofed with scraps of wood, cloth and corrugated iron tumbling down the mountain of Dona Marta, was a no-go area, hitting the headlines for gun battles between drug lords.

Now, arguably, you shouldn't come to Rio without visiting Santa Marta. In 2008, police raided the shanty town, evicting dealers and gangs as the first stage of an ambitious "pacification" project, whereby Peacemaker Police Units set up permanent bases in these shanty towns. The authorities want to clean up Rio in time for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Pacification is a polite, if rather unsettling, term for the controversial policy. Only 19 of Rio's most dangerous favelas have so far been subject to the enforced clean-up. However, one positive outcome is that these "communities", as they are now known, are safer for tourists to visit.

Rio is an undulating urban maze, with its glorious golden shore climaxing with the languid crescents of Ipanema and Copacabana. Look right from Ipanema, though, and Rio's unequal distribution of wealth is hard to miss: the Rocinha and Cantagalo favelas twinkle at night with the haphazard brightness that comes when you build house upon unplanned house up and up the slopes. There are thousands of these buildings, piling up across the mountain side, held up by hope and a collective determination to survive. They have grown from communities of fugitive – and later liberated – African slaves who sought refuge in the hills.

Poverty and rural exodus in the latter part of the 20th century combined to increase their volume. There are about a thousand favelas in Rio today, home to one in five of the citizens.

Gilson da Silva is 33 and has lived in Santa Marta all his life. Now he's been trained through a government scheme called Rio Top Tour, which encourages locals to become guides and teaches them English. His intention was to take me right up into the middle of Santa Marta.

"The fee you pay goes straight back into the community, helping schools and kids," he explained. "There are 4x4 tours now, run by big companies, but it's much better to be guided by the people who live here. We tell the truth, not a fairy tale."

After "pacification", a cable-car was installed at Santa Marta. Where once its 8,000 residents climbed laboriously up and down the mountain, now they ride to the top. We waited as a double mattress was loaded in, plus a couple of dogs and numerous children, before we swung up with a crowd of locals.

At the summit was a spectacular view down across the city via unsettlingly picturesque shacks painted pink, green and blue. Beyond, the skyscrapers of Zona Sul; the city pooling around mountains towards the ocean. And right above us, there were the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer, swathed in mist atop Corcorvado mountain.

"Ten years ago it was unthinkable that you'd be here," said Gilson, as we descended steep steps past open doors revealing floral sofas and flickering TVs. Brazilian pop blared from behind closed shutters; tiny bakeries and makeshift bars, cut through with open sewers, complex overhead tangles of unregulated electrical wiring and tropical vegetation springing through crumbling walls.

"Living in a favela completely excluded us from life in Rio. You couldn't get a job because when you gave your address they assumed you couldn't be trusted. Now we're part of it and we welcome tourists. But if people come they should buy water or a cake or a beer. It's about giving back when you come to find things out."

Slowly, favelas are becoming accessible. Real estate prices are soaring; ("squatters' rights" mean that favela dwellers own the houses and plots of land they live on). But where once you could buy a house in the favelas for 22,000 reals (£8,000), now there's little below R50,000 (£18,000).

Artists and musicians are moving in and there's a favela hostel in Santa Teresa, with one of the best views in Rio going for just R90 (£30) a night.

Cantagalo, Ipanema's once-dangerous favela, is now more accessible than ever – take the new elevator straight up from the metro station into its midst.

Later, I met Marcello Armstrong, a Carioca (Rio resident) who set up Rio's first favela tour 19 years ago. For years he attracted only backpackers. But now mainstream tourists join his four-hour tour through one of Rio's "unpacified" favelas, such as Rocinha, which lies smack in the middle of the wealthy Sao Conrado neighbourhood.

"People used to be shocked at tourists visiting favelas," explained Marcello. "Now there are funk and jazz parties and favela movie shows. A sunset beer on top of the favela was unheard of a decade ago."

On the tour of Rocinha I was joined by several American couples and two English ladies. "We're visiting the only place in town that the majority of local people don't know," explained our guide Marina Schulze, who has worked in the favelas for 11 years. She pointed out the "favela art" produced by residents out of scrap metal and ring pulls. "Don't expect to find misery here. You'll find poverty but not misery; it's very different."

The only main road was lined with shops; young men hung out in bars swigging Skol beer. Moto-taxis zoomed up and down, acting both as ad-hoc transport and "spotters", watching out for police. Whether it was Marina's commentary or reality, it felt edgy and slightly dangerous.

There's still an element of voyeurism about the exercise. Were we simply peering in at poverty? Yet walk through any city in any land and if you look beyond the monuments you'll find the sprawl of local life: poverty, hardship and the small wonders of human spirit and endeavour. The tour was so packed full of information about Rio's politics and social history that I couldn't help but feel that not to have come would have been a shame.

And certainly, the people I met were pleased to see us. Alex, manning a stand of paintings, was relaxed. He gestured at the scene: "People think it's all about bandits and guns up here, but it's not – now we have the chance to let tourists find that out."

Brazil facts

Population: 200,000,000
Capital: Brasilia
Area: 410 times the size of Wales
Year of independence: 1822
National animal: Jaguar
Opening lines of national anthem: Ouviram do Ipiranga as margens plácidas/De um povo heróico o brado retumbante (The placid banks of Ipiranga heard/The resounding cry of a heroic people)

Travel essentials: Rio

Getting there

* Rio de Janeiro is served non-stop from Heathrow by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and TAM (020-8897 0005; tam.com.br).

* Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) sells a week in Rio for £1,440 including flights from Heathrow, transfers and B&B accommodation.

Staying there

* Pousada Favelinha, Santa Teresa (favelinha. com). Doubles from R90 (£33), incl breakfast.

Visiting there

* Rio Top Tour can be found at the foot of Santa Marta. Prices start at 50 reals (£18) for a two-hour visit. Find more at riotoptour.com or email santamarta@gmail.com.

* The original Favela Tour of Rocinha can be booked at favelatour.com.br or call 00 55 21 3322 2727 (R65/£23, including pick-up/drop off at your hotel).

Marcello can also provide details of monthly jazz and funk parties in the favelas.

More information

* Brazil Tourist Board: braziltour.com

* Latin American Travel Association: 020-8715 2913; lata.org

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
scienceHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
News
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
scienceBumping fists rather than shaking hands could reduce the spread of infectious diseases, it is claimed
Voices
voices
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried