Having a reputation of being plagued with drugs and crime, favelas (often referred to as ‘slums’) are neighborhoods in Brazil that many people, both Brazilian and non-Brazilian tend to avoid.
Between watching movies like City of God and City of Men, listening to news stories about the horrors that occur within the communities, and seeing documentaries about life in the favelas, it is easy to think that all favelas are dangerous, lawless, crime-ridden places.
However, this is not the case.
I knew that when I went to Rio de Janeiro I wanted to visit a favela. I wanted to get into the heart of the city, to go where many were afraid to go, and to meet the beautiful people that resided within the favela walls.
Unfortunately, I was unaware of how I could make my plans a reality. I scoured through message boards and numerous blogs in search of information. I became very disheartened to find that there was not much available.
My research led me to a volunteer organization inside of Rocinha, the largest favela in all of Brazil. I informed them of my wish to do volunteer work within the neighborhood, but unfortunately due to my limited availability, I was unable to secure a position, so I went back to the drawing board.
I ruled out taking a favela tour, because I did not feel comfortable with the idea of paying a company or a person to go and ‘look’ at how other people were living; I did not want to participate in what seemed to be a sideshow attraction.
Then I found it.
I came across the blog Travel Stained and read about a Canadian couple’s experience staying in Vidigal Favela.
Their experience staying Vidigal peaked my curiosity and upon further research, I found a couple of hostels located in Vidigal. Without a second thought, I booked a bed at Casa Alto Vidigal and looked into planning the rest of my trip.
In the bus from the airport in Rio de Janeiro on my way to Vidigal, I struck up a conversation with several people who told me that they very shocked that I was going to be staying inside of a favela. They were quick to inform me that favelas were not safe, but I disregarded their warnings as it was a story I had heard time and time again.
Upon arriving at the entrance of Vidigal favela, I was greeted by a large blue sign informing me that I was entering a pacified (police controlled) favela.
I approached a motorbike stand near some armed policeman and asked for a ride up to ‘Alto Vidigal’. I then climbed aboard the back of the motorbike of a female driver and we took off ascending through the mountainous favela at extremely high speeds.
That was the only scary part of my entire stay in the favela in which I thought I might actually lose my life.
During the week that I stayed in Vidigal, I felt right at home. I walked through the favela every day and no one gave me a second glance.
I shopped at the local grocery stores and ate at the local restaurants. I got to know the owner of the tapioca restaurant near my hostel by frequenting his restaurant daily. I was invited to a roof party overlooking the favela and the city. I rode in the community van with the elderly little ladies and school children and every day I had the opportunity of waking up to the most amazing sunrises every morning.
I truly felt like I was a part of the community and it was a great feeling.
Although the language barrier kept me from fully being able to communicate with the residents, I was able to greet them with ‘Bom Dia’ every morning as I walked to the bottom of the favela and ‘Bom Noite’ as I made the long journey back up.
There was not a single day or night that I felt unsafe or like my life was in danger in Vidigal.
I had a great and completely safe experience in Vidigal, however I am not going to tell you that each favela will provide the same kind of experience. There are numerous favelas in Rio de Janeiro that are still deemed unsafe and places where the police have limited control.
Currently, there is a great (and controversial) push to eliminate drug use and crimes within the favelas through pacification. Even though there are certain favelas in Rio that I would advise people not to enter, I want to make it known that favelas in general are not places to be afraid of, but places to experience and embrace.
Good for you for taking a risk during your travels! I love reading about people breaking down the “dangers” of traveling abroad. Often times, where we are at home can be just as dangerous. One more thing—major props for not taking a tour through the favela–absolutely disgusting that people profit from others’ misfortune, AND that people pay to go on those things.
Agreed! The biggest gang bust in NYC happened right across the street from me, so danger can be right at your own front door!
We actually went on a favela tour of Rocinha while in Rio, and it wasn’t at all like a sideshow attraction. Intimidating – yes, since at the time, the druglords, and not the police were running the favela. Teenage boys were walking around with military grade weapons and wearing bullet proof vests. The tour guide we used is well-respected for his favela tours and he seems to run them very responsibly. We learned a lot. Afterward, we volunteered in a neighboring favela. I’d love to actually stay in a favela the next time we’re in Brazil, but not too sure if my husband will go for it. The crazy thing is that when we were getting ready to leave Rio, we got delayed overnight because our pilot got stuck at his hotel, the IHG, which was overtaken by gangs from both Rocinha and Vidigal who were warring with each other. I’ve heard that the favelas aren’t much better off with the police running them now.
Hi Dana, I unfortunately didn’t make it inside of Rocinha during my trip as there were gunshots ringing out over there that I could hear from Vidigal so I decided to skip it this time around. I think that each favela is different in regards to police presence and the affect that they have had within the communities. In Vidigal they are definitely keeping the peace, I can not speak for other favelas but from what I am told by Rio residents, the police will never fully control all of them.
I was excited to read this post when I saw it come across my fb feed! Of course I’ve wondered about favelas so it was interesting to hear about your experience.
It was truly a wonderful experience, thanks for reading! 🙂
What an amazing experience and so brave of you to do as a solo traveler. Plus, that tapioca looks delicious!
Thanks Mindi and it was delicious! 😀
What an experience. These are the types of things that, as a perpetual traveler, I should experience more of, but there is still a level of fear that it looks like you have overcome. Congrats!
Thanks Amber! 🙂
Good for you! I’m all about seeking out authentic experiences that most other people are too afraid to even consider. We’d been given similar warnings about San Jose, Costa Rica – that it’s unsafe and all the tourists get robbed; use it only as a starting and ending point to your Costa Rica trip. We stayed in San Jose anyway and, guess what? We lived.
My first international trip ever was to San Jose and I loved it! 🙂
This sounds like a really cool experience. I also am often turned off by “tours” of neighborhoods as I don’t feel comfortable gawking at people, and most of the time these are just exploiting the locals as they don’t benefit from any of the revenue. Glad you found a way to see the favela without having to do one!
For this post. It is so refreshing to read about people daring going outside the beaten path. I love exploring countries which are not-so-popular as well.
I haven’t visited Brasil yet but when I do I shall follow your foot step. I would also like to try joining some volunteering work there. We shall see. 🙂
Cheers from a French globetrotter 🙂
Hi Myriam thank you for coming by! I love ‘off-the-beaten-path’ kinds of experiences where I can see how the people in an area truly live! Have a great time when you get to Brazil, I can’t wait to read all about it! Please come back and share your experiences 🙂
I love this post! The Favelas of Brazil have been on the top of my “places to go” list for a while now. Like you noted, It’s difficult to get information about visiting such places and I refuse to go with a guided tour. Thanks for the post!
You’re welcome! I am glad that you found it helpful! Have a safe trip!
I’m torn on how I feel about favela tourism, but it definitely sounds like a unique and interesting experience. City of God is one of my favorite movies too, btw. I love that you took an “off the beaten path” excursion when in Brazil. Thanks for sharing.
This is one of my favorite posts you’ve written. I too, often feel conflicted about “slum tourism” for lack of a better phrase…but I also don’t think we should just look the other way and not engage with certain parts of town or ways of life out of fear or barriers. I found a way to do so without intruding on people’s lives and privacy in Bombay, and it sounds like you did here. Great writing.
Have just nominated your blog for the One Lovely Blog Award! Check it out here: http://thepinthemapproject.com/2014/09/the-pin-the-map-project-one-lovely-blog-award-nomination/
I’ve read a couple of people writing about ‘slum tourism’ from both sides of the argument. Your solution sounds much more like a middle way – not a nosey tour, and not complete avoidance either. It’s great to hear that you had a positive experience 🙂
Hi Charlie, thanks for coming by and reading about my experience 🙂