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An insider look at a favela in Rio

Today I will take you on a tour through Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas. A favela is basically a slum in Brazil, commonly recognizable by hundreds of illegally constructed, brightly painted dwellings on the slope of a hillside. You can spot these favela from everywhere in the city, driving through a highway, from a posh residential area, or even from the statue of Cristo Redentor. There are 950 favelas in Rio and home to 20% of the population.

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View of a Favela from highway

The first glimpse of the favela of Santa Marta is actually quite beautiful. It is a stark contrast to the modernized mega supermarket, busy roads with middle class motorists and college students dressed in designer jeans and t-shirts.

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Favela of Santa Marta

At Santa Marta, residents have a choice to climb the steep rows of staircases up the mountain, or take the free public tram installed by the local government of Rio. When you have loads to carry or make the trip home several times a day, this is your own feasible option.

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Stairs into the favela

On the other hand, the tram is extremely slow and you may need to wait for a while for the next one, where you may be in for a “sardine like” experience. The third leg of the tram is not operational (I hear it has never been since it was installed), so you would need to make that leg of the journey on foot.

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Waiting for the tram at Santa Marta

Favelas are notorious for crime and poverty. It is said that the land the residents occupy is illegally owned; many collect rent for homes they don’t own; and sale of drugs is quite prevalent. Gun shots are also commonly heard around the favelas, but recently the cops in Rio have done well in preventing murders and open air shootings. It seemed to me, the cops had established base camps at the top and bottom of the hill, monitory all corners of the neighborhood.

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Christ overlooking Santa Marta

On the other hand, some of the best views in Rio can be seen from the favela of Santa Marta. On one side, you will see Christ overlooking the entire area as if giving his blessing to the community. On the other, you have a 360 view of Rio’s skyscrapers, beautiful blue ocean, hills covered with trees, and everything in between.

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View of Rio from the favela

When you visit a favela, you have to keep in mind you are in a residential slum, not a tourist attraction. There are narrow dark alleys with one room homes adjacent to each other where people carry on with their normal lives. While electricity and cable are somehow transmitted in, sewage systems are still not in place. Apparently, the local government has put in many programs for garbage disposal, education and daycare. The Samba schools at the favelas are also famous for generating world class dancers who perform at the Carnivals.

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Interior of the favela with narrow streets and homes on either side

Guides offer organized tours of the favela for approx $40 per person. It is highly recommended that you don’t visit the favela on your own. Take a guide or go with someone who is familiar with the area.

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Sucheta Rawal

Sucheta is an award winning food and travel writer, who has traveled to 100 countries across 7 continents. She is also the founder and editor of 'Go Eat Give' and author of 'Beato Goes To' series of children's books on travel.

2 thoughts on “An insider look at a favela in Rio

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  2. I have taken a tour of a favela in Rio and also visited Vidigal on my own. There are several hostels in favelas which give the traveler an inside look at life in a favela. Most of the people living in favelas are there so they can be close to their place of work. Many have the misconception that a favela is a very dangerous place. Naturally caution always needs to be exercised when visiting areas where there is poverty, but most of the people living there are friendly (helped explain to me what I was selecting off a menu) and honest. However, naturally there will be petty thefts. Most of the serious crime is drug related and the police have cracked down on the cartels which used to control the favelas. There is a movement in the favelas to give the people legal title to the properties they occupy. As mentioned the views from favelas on the hillside are incredible so developers would like to get rid of the inhabitants so they can build condominiums and other types of housing. These are my personal observations so I cannot be 100% sure of their validity, but it is what I have been told by many. By the way, an easy way to get around in Vidigal is to take a moto (very inexpensive) up and down the streets to your destination. It is the most popular type of transportation I saw there.

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