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.