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Favelas in Rio

What is a Favela?

Many locals here in Rio ask why foreigners want to visit a favela. Some don't see the attraction, others see it as a kind of safari but for poor people. But it isn't actually like that, people come and want to see a different way of life, most foreigners have never seen anything like a favela. Bringing a tourism trade to the favelas also brings benefits, locals make tours, sell merchandise and even provide award winning food if you find the right place! Almost 25% (1.5 million people) of Rio's population live in favelas, a large percentage of the waiters, taxi drivers and drink-vendors on the beach you will come across around the city live in them.

Officially a favela is a heavily populated urban informal settlement characterised by substandard housing and squalor, within urban areas. Most in Rio de Janeiro are built high up the sides of hills, often showcasing some of the best views in the city. Within the busy, bustling areas, the sense of community spirit is always noticeable. To really understand what a favela is, it's best to look at the history of favelas in the next tab.

The history of Favelas

The first favelas appeared in the late 19th century and were built by soldiers who had nowhere to live. Throughout the 1900's they continued to grow, following the end of slavery and increased urbanisation, a lot of people from the Brazilian countryside moved to the big city of Rio in search of a better life. Arriving with little or no money, these migrants coulnd't afford urban housing and began to build illegally on hillsides. Urbanization in the 1950s provoked mass migration from the countryside to the cities throughout Brazil by those hoping to take advantage of the economic opportunities urban life provided. Those who moved to Rio de Janeiro, however, chose an inopportune time. The change of Brazil's capital from Rio to Brasília in 1960 marked a slow but steady decline for the former, as industry and employment options began to dry up. Unable to find work, and therefore unable to afford housing within the city limits, these new migrants remained in the favelas. Despite their proximity to urban Rio de Janeiro, the city did not extend sanitation, electricity, or other services to the favelas.

They soon became associated with extreme poverty and were considered a headache to many citizens and politicians within Rio. In the 1970s, Brazil's military dictatorship pioneered a favela eradication policy, which forced the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents. During Carlos Lacerda's administration, many were moved to public housing projects such as Cidade de Deus ("City of God"), later popularized in a wildly popular feature film of the same name. Poor public planning and insufficient investment by the government led to the disintegration of these projects into new favelas. By the 1980s, worries about eviction and eradication were beginning to give way to violence associated with the burgeoning drug trade. Changing routes of production and consumption meant that Rio de Janeiro found itself as a transit point for cocaine destined for Europe. Although drugs brought in money, they also accompanied the rise of the small arms trade and of gangs competing for dominance.

Is it safe?

While there are Rio favelas which are still essentially ruled by drug traffickers or by organized crime groups called milicias (militias), all of the favelas in Rio's South Zone and key favelas in the North Zone are now managed by Pacifying Police Units, known as UPPs. While drug dealing, sporadic gun fights, and residual control from drug lords remain in certain areas, Rio's political leaders point out that the UPP is a new paradigm after decades without a government presence in these areas.

Favela Graffiti

Top Tips

You'll normally find there's a great community spirit in the favelas. Even if you don't know Portuguese, say hello to people, get involved, you'll find plenty of smiling, welcoming people.

Interesting Facts about Favelas

  • The term favela was coined in the late 1800s. At the time, 20,000 veteran soldiers were brought from the conflict against the settlers of Canudos, in the Eastern province of Bahia, to Rio de Janeiro and left with no place to live. When they served the army in Bahia, those soldiers had been familiar with Canudos's Favela Hill – a name referring to favela, a skin-irritating tree in the spurge family indigenous to Bahia. When they settled in the Providência [Providence] hill in Rio de Janeiro, they nicknamed the place Favela hill from their common reference, thereby calling a slum a favela for the first time.
  • Close to 1.5 million people – around 23-24% of Rio’s population – live in favelas.
  • Rio has more favela residents than any other Brazilian city and, all together, Rio’s favelas would comprise the ninth largest city in the country.
  • There are over 1000 favelas in Rio. They range from newer or more challenged communities with slum-like conditions and a desire to resettle, to highly-functioning, vibrant neighborhoods determined to maintain their qualities and continue developing in their own extraordinary ways.
  • Rio’s oldest favela, Providência, was founded in 1897 within a decade of the abolition of slavery, next to the Port that received 500,000 enslaved Africans (half the number taken to the entire United States).

Should I do a tour? Which favela to visit?

There are many reputable tour companies that will take you into the favela's and share some great local knowlege and will show you some of the great community projects they're doing. Some people don't like the idea of doing a favela tour, seeing it as a kind of "human safari tour", but if you go with a reputable company that doesn't just go in and out taking photos from a jeep, your experience will be much better and a real experience. It's possible to go by yourself but we recommend to go with someone with local knowlege of the area.

Most favelas in Zona Sul are now pacified (occupied by police and much calmer than in the past). We recommend going to the very tourist friendly Santa Marta (With it's very own Michael Jackson statue after he filmed the video for "They don't really care about us" there) or Cantagalo. Vidigal also is relatively tourist friendly and has stunning views and the route to a great trek. Rocinha is the biggest favela in Rio but still has a reputation for being on the more dangerous side of things.

Rochina, the largest favela in Rio
"Rocinha road 2010" by chensiyuan - chensiyuan. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

Rochina, the largest favela in Rio

Educational Favela Tour

The language school we recommend, Casa do Caminhos, have their own Educational Favela Tour that we also recommend, with a member of the Cantagalo community Agatha Rose. She takes students (and non-students) into the community every fortnight (1pm every second Wednesday, the cost is 60R - which is to be paid at reception of Caminhos) and teaches students about the communities nearby and how favelas originated. First stop is lunch with the famous Tia Maria in Cantagalo.

Bel Casson from Casa do Caminho says: "This is the best favela tour in Rio - we wanted to make sure all of our students learn about how a favela operates and what it’s like to live in a favela (huge emphasis on this being ‘educational’ not exploitive.). Agatha is our tour guide and one third of her family live in Cantagalo. She will take you through the community and teach you about how the residents get their mail, how to buy and sell houses in the favela, how to make announcements, how and why the favelas came about etc etc."

Any enquiries: info@caminhosbrasil.com

Music

Popular types of music in favelas include funk, hip-hop, and Samba. Recently, funk carioca, a type of music popularized in the favelas has also become popular in other parts of the world. This type of music often features samples from other songs. Popular funk artists include MC Naldo and Buchecha Bailes funk are forms of dance parties that play this type of funk music and were popularized in favelas. Popular hip hop artist MV Bill is from Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro.

Santa Marta

In recent years the colourful Santa Marta favela has become a bit of a tourist hotspot. In the nineties Michael Jackson filmed part of the video for "They don't really care about Us" there and the mosaic and statue of him draws tourists there on a daily basis.

View from Santa Marta Stunning view of Sugarloaf Bar in Santa Marta Bar in Santa Marta Bar in Santa Marta
Michael Jackson Mosaic in Santa Marta Michael Jackson statur Michael Jackson statur Michael Jackson statur Michael Jackson statur

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