Favela Tour: Cultural Experience or Human Zoo?
The idea of taking a “slum tour” has never sat right with me. On the one hand, it’s a way to see a new side to a country (often, the side in which most of the residents live), but on the other, there is a “human zoo” aspect to it. I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of strolling with a tour guide, camera in hand, gawking at the conditions in which people live. But having been warned against entering the favelas of Rio alone, I decided to try a guided tour.
Our group, made up of various nationalities, took the bus from our hostel in Lapa to Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, and followed our guide through the busy streets.
As we walked, our guide, Mike, briefly outlined the turbulent history of Rio’s favelas. They started out as homes for freed slaves who couldn’t find work, and now are occupied by those who cannot afford to live in the richer parts of the city. The poor sanitation, outbreaks of disease, and high crime rate are a far cry from the nearby swanky beach apartments, and highlight the massive divide between Brazil’s rich and poor.
This divide is the reason I felt so uncomfortable taking this tour. Here we were, rich tourists (in our minds, broke backpackers, but in the global scale of things still incredibly privileged) taking a glimpse at how the poor people live. But the longer we walked the more I felt like maybe this was the wrong attitude to have, and that maybe thinking of the favelas as simply “the poor part of the city” rather than just another area of Rio is actually a bit insulting.
That said, I still felt a bit out of place walking as part of a guided tour. I would much rather have been exploring this part of the city independently, but, as I’d been told on countless occasions, favelas are very unsafe to enter alone.
Though Mike was quick to point out that the favelas are far safer than they once were, at least for visitors. The massive tourist draws of the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympics led to a massive police campaign to “clean up” the favelas, clamping down on drug trafficking and violent crime. Though, when I asked him if crime has really decreased, Mike shook his head. He told me that the drug lords are still very much in charge and police largely leave them to do as they please, provided it doesn’t interfere with tourism.
The further we climbed, the more our surroundings changed. We snaked our way through a maze of narrow streets, as our guide reminded us not to fall behind or get lost. It was a fascinating part of the city, with brightly coloured houses, painted murals, and the constant sound of samba music.
The people sitting on their doorsteps greeted us as we passed, and I began to feel more at ease with the notion that we were nosey tourists here for a glimpse into their lives. After all, surely the point of travel is to see other cultures and lifestyles. Aside from having a guide, it felt no different than exploring any other part of the city, snapping photos and taking in new sights.
Experiencing a taste of life in the favela had been worth the steep climb through the streets. As an added bonus, the struggle up the final stretch ended in one of the most spectacular views of Rio, taking in the green surroundings, the sea, the lake, and the iconic sights of both Christ the Redeemer and the Sugarloaf.
In the end, I would completely recommend a trip to Rocinha favela in Rio. But I’m still not sure a tour is the way to do it. On my last trip to Brazil, I had my first taste of favela life at one of the awesome bailes funk parties, where we danced the night away to a mix funk and hiphop, with the city lit up beneath us.
While a tour gives information about favela life, the visitors are very removed from the lives they are learning about. My advice- find a way to visit the favela with a purpose. Take in some lessons at a favela samba school, get yourself to a street party, or find some other way to experience this fun and fascinating side of Rio.