Doing a tour of the infamous Rio favelas (slums) is now relatively easy. With everything becoming touristy, for a certain fee you can get your fix of poverty porn in Rio de Janeiro.
The Rocinha favela is the biggest favela not only in Brazil but also the entire South American continent. It has three pubs, two radio stations, a separate cable channel, two schools, a church and a lot of people. This whole independent ecosystem reminded me of Dharavi, which is in Mumbai and is probably the biggest slum in Asia.
But let’s talk about Rocinha, which sits on a hill and is flanked by tall buildings thereby giving us a unique poor-rich divide. The favela has even been featured in movies like Tropa de Elite (1 & 2) and Fast & Furious 5.
There are various tour operators – the most popular among the gringos being Favela Tour and Favela Tourism. My CS host made a few calls and got an independent tour operator to meet us at the foothills of Rocinha. There’s a tunnel which goes through the hill and basically Rocinha slum occupies the entire hill. It used to be dangerous earlier as some thug elements used to come down the hill and block the road; there was stealing, carjacking but now things have improved drastically.
We met the tour guides at the Rocinha bus stop. While we were waiting for other people to show up, we were ushered into a nearby shop to buy souvenirs which were made by the locals. There were handicrafts and other quirky stuff made by artists from the favela. After spending a good 40 minutes there, we started our slum tour by foot.
At first I thought the favela didn’t look that bad, but soon it turned into a maze of extremely narrow lanes and open drains. After jumping over drains and squeezing ourselves through the claustrophobic lanes, we reached what was the ‘second level’ of the favela; meaning a second residential phase started here.
The inevitable chaos had some silver lining of organised structure. There are seven levels to this favela; the highest is on the top of the hill, where the relatively high income earners live. It’s dangerous (for obvious reasons) and is out of bounds for visitors. We spotted a few people on the rooftop; they might be acting as lookouts. Our guides asked us not to stare at them or at anyone and not to click people’s pictures without prior permission.
We were taken to a newly painted school. There some kids gathered around us, stretched out their hand and asked for “money”. They just said “money” and that’s the only English word we heard from them.
There were a few motorcycles with riders wearing yellow jackets. We were told that these were moto-taxis and for a certain fee they drop you at your doorstep – the fee, of course, differs from level to level. These guys know all the roads in Rocinha and are your best bet when you want to visit someone there.
The one thing I couldn’t help but notice is how everyone here resents politicians. The people of Rocinha blamed the current situation on them and almost everyone I met was of the opinion that the politicians only come here during elections with empty promises. However, they were quick to point out that, even without governmental help the people of Rocinha have achieved so much on their own that they are almost like an independent colony.
This especially holds true when our guides said that there are still certain areas in the slum that the police can’t penetrate and they have to call the military helicopters and the SWAT team if they have to raid certain key places of the drug lords.
Before our tour ended, we were taken to a house on the fith level. We entered the living room and climbed the ledge to the terrace and were treated to one of the most awe-inspiring views ever.
From that vantage point you could see the entire Rocinha, the swanky highrises, the hill on which the slum was built on and you can get an idea of how huge the place is. It’s the perfect point to take pictures and the owner of the house seems to have cut a deal with the guides. When asked, the owner said that she wouldn’t sell this house even for a million bucks. Okay then.
After that photo-op, we walked down taking in the sights, to the same point where we started off from. That is when we paid the guides – payment is cash only. The tour lasted for more than 4-5 hours and is highly recommended because without this you won’t get to see the other side of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.
About the writer: Vaibhav Wankhede (pictured above) hated traveling before he first stepped out. And now, even after backpacking across 20 countries he still can’t get enough of it. Otherwise he is a creative consultant + digital nomad. But it is seeing new places, meeting new people and sharing stories is what he yearns for. He blogs at Leaving My Foot Print.