STAYING IN A FAVELA IN RIO DE JANEIRO
Staying in and exploring the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro
By Anna Tiner
Staying in a Favela in Rio de Janeiro
Getting to our Hostel in a Favela
Joel and I had just taken the metro to General Osório. After several canceled rides, an Uber driver eventually agreed to pick us up, bringing us halfway up into the neighborhood before dropping us off. A police officer drove by flashing an AK47, one-handed, pointing to the sky with his elbow resting on the window sill. From here, we were on our own.
It was a warm day in Rio. We quickly grew sweaty under the weight of our backpacks and the steep incline of the hill ahead of us. Restaurants, eateries, and acai shops opened up around the corner and locals sat outside on plastic stools and tables, eyeing us warily. This was clearly a very different side of the city. A side that we had yet to see or understand.
As we turned a corner and huffed up a few more steps, Joel offered a bright, bom dia! to a mother sitting at the top, watching her kids play. He was met with silence.
We finally arrived at our accommodation, a worn looking building with “Yes Hostel” spray painted in yellow letters on the door. We opened it, walked in, and were greeted by a smiling Brazilian woman.
The building was shaped like a tower leading several stories upwards, and we were taken up a winding set of stairs until we reached our floor. We dropped off our bags and climbed two more stories to reach the terrace.
From up here, with much of Rio stretched before us, you could see the entire neighborhood in a single, sweeping view. Colorful and crumbling homes stacked haphazardly on one another, locals sitting outside on porches enjoying the afternoon. Directly below us, a Sunday BBQ was getting started, dozens of residents gathered around several tables, piling food onto paper plates and laughing boisterously. Brazilian funk blasted from the speakers and shouts of EDM echoed in the distance from several other homes. It felt a lot like being back in college, in the ever densely populated Isla Vista, where students would take to their backyards on a weekend afternoon and sit around drinking and laughing and playing beer games while enjoying the ocean views surrounding them.
Only we weren’t in California, we were in Brazil. And instead of spending spring break in Cabo or returning home to their parents' two-story homes in the suburbs of LA, life here stretched on in a never-ending string of poverty and violence.
We were spending the night in the Cantagalo neighborhood, one of the many favelas of Rio de Janeiro. While the area was considered pacified, we were still taking a risk.
There is a misconception that “pacified” favelas are no longer dangerous. While there isn’t a red-level threat of getting mixed up in gang affairs, robberies can still occur. The situation also changes by the week in Rio, an ebb and flow of rippling currents of violence throughout the city one moment, and peaceful days the next.
Do your Research!
Which is why it’s important not just to listen to TripAdvisor reviews, but to head close to local advice. Speak with hostel staff, hotel staff, that guy from the acai stand, or anyone else you can get a hold of, because they will have a better idea of the current mood, of what you don't have to worry about and where you should be warier. Any review you read of a favela that’s dated more than a month ago is outdated information.
What makes Favelas dangerous?
The problem with these communities is usually not the residents. The issue is the gangs that control them. Each favela (unless it has been pacified and taken over by the police) is owned by a local gang, and violence can often follow when police or rival gangs enter the territory. This is why it’s dangerous to drive through a favela with your windows up (they won’t know if you pose a threat or not).
Portuguese profficiency also makes a big difference in safety. Being able to read signs or understand orders to leave the area are key to stay out of trouble, as one woman learned when she was shot driving through a favela last year, as well as an older woman in 2015.
It’s important to keep in mind that the people who usually end up in dangerous situations in these favelas are ill prepared and haven’t done any research.
There are stories of tourists “accidentally” wandering into a favela and getting shot when they didn’t understand residents telling them, in Portuguese, that they should leave. Or they’re taking pictures openly, something that can be misconstrued as police activity, or just as plain disrespectful.
(Life tip: never treat a group of people like zoo animals (in general, but even more) when they have murderous overlords with massive egos willing to shoot anyone who crosses them.)
Tours through the Favelas of Rio
There are many tour companies that offer tours in pacified favelas (and some in unpacified) where the guide has a deeper understanding of the rules and/or pays a fee to the reigning gang in exchange for bringing tourists through. Even on these trips, tourists should be wary of taking photographs and it’s still possible to get caught up in gang violence.
And that’s what makes it so hard for visitors. These favelas have specific rules that are different from community to community, and non-Portuguese-speaking foreigners will have an especially tough time understanding what’s okay to do and what’s not.
How dangerous is Rio, really?
Rio is not as safe as say, Tokyo or Lisbon, but just like almost every major city, it’s important to know where you are going. And in Rio, this is even more vital. It’s not the kind of city where you can wander around and soak in the sights; you need to have a specific plan of where you are going and what route you are taking, and double check with a local (if you don't know anyone, this can be your host!) to verify that it’s okay.
The extra precautions needed for a place like this shouldn’t prevent you from visiting. Much of Rio is safe (especially the parts where a tourist would end up, like the beaches), but it requires a different approach and different tactic than just walking around and looking at things. All it takes is one step down the wrong street, and your life could be in danger.
The famous Lapa Steps are a prime example of this. These are the same steps once used in a Snoop Dog music video and decorated with an endless mosaic of colored tiles. The area is swarming with tourists and vendors on any given afternoon, a strict line of visitors piled up in front of the bottom step, waiting their turn to take a photo.
Walk further up these steps, and you’ll find yourself in an empty neighborhood and likely shot or robbed, even in broad daylight.
That’s all it takes, sometimes. A few steps.
How to prepare for a visit to beautiful Rio
So plan ahead. Don’t follow Google Maps unless you’ve verified the route already. Don’t take pictures and have your camera out unless you know you’re in a safe spot.
As someone who loves street photography and wandering around aimlessly, Rio was a difficult city for me to vibe with at first. But then we took a tram up to the top of Pan de Azúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) and I saw the entire city unfolding before me in the dim light of blue hour, twinkling between patches of hills and jungle. Towering skyscrapers and the jagged favela communities spilling out from under their shadows.
Rio is as diverse as its landscape—jungle, city, mountains, and ocean—and loving this city requires an open mind. It requires the understanding that just because you shouldn’t walk around with your phone in your hand, doesn’t make a place any less vibrant, beautiful, culturally rich, or worthy of your time.
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