By Oliver Bazely, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – For a foreigner in Rio, the search for accommodation is often concentrated on a select few Zona Sul areas. These famous neighborhoods undoubtedly offer the widest range of amenities and, for the security conscious, a less daunting stepping-stone to the rest of Rio, but with high prices and hordes of tourists, Zona Sul can quickly lose its shine, driving apartment-seekers elsewhere.
As a result, an increasing number of adventurous visitors and experienced travelers are finding their homes in the city’s favelas, though some are undoubtedly more appealing and convenient options than others.
The answer, according to Anwar Boyce, a Californian currently living in Vidigal, depends on the favela. “I tried Rocinha for a month or so, living with someone I met on couchsurfing.org (an online community for travelers), but for me, it was just too big, with too much going on. I decided to find a place in Vidigal, which has a small-town feel… a real sense of community.” Tracking down a place to stay is not an easy prospect, though. “I just walked up and down the street, asking everyone I saw if they had a place for rent. Everyone said no, until one guy, on the third time I asked him, said, “Actually, I do. I’m renting my place.””
Vidigal is the highly-visible favela perched on the seaward side of Morro Dos Irmãos, the hill at the end of the beach in Leblon. As with Rocinha, on the other side of the hill, the favela is currently un-pacified, and is reportedly under the control of the ‘Amigos dos Amigos’ gang though this does not necessarily mean danger and crime, Anwar assures; “Since I’ve been here, there have not been any shootings or anything.”
As well as spectacular sea views and easy access to the Zona Sul beaches, Vidigal has been a thriving cultural center since the 1980s. With a little help from Petrobras, the ‘Nós dos Morro’ (We of the Hill) theater group has grown into a major hub for acting with an international presence. The group famously provided many of the actors for the 2002 film ‘City of God’, and since then, “Lots of people come here to pursue their careers,” says Anwar. Young hopefuls can hone their craft at the bi-weekly talent show, or on the popular public-access TV station that is broadcast locally. “My actor friend came here from São Paulo” he continues, adding “Walking down the street here, you recognize faces from the novelas.”
But glitzy reputations aside, what is it actually like to live in Vidigal? For Anwar, “In my house the worst thing is the internet. It is really unreliable here. In terms of shopping, I can buy most things, although sometimes, when the shops shut early, I have to go to São Conrado. Transport up the hill is either van or moto-taxi. We sometimes get power cuts, too.”
There are not many official sources of information, but as an estimate, to rent a room will cost R$300 to R$500 per month, if you can find a willing landlord. Utilities are connected as standard, but servicing may not be as straightforward as in Zona Sul.
Beyond renting, those wishing to experience life in Vidigal have two options. Firstly, for short-term stays, it may be possible find a hammock or a mattress to call home. Andreas Wielend, a 32 year old Austrian who owns ‘Casa Alto Vidigal’ is hoping to cater for just such visitors by the end of the year. “We are planning a small guesthouse and bar, for now we have four rooms and a couple of hammocks – but we are not yet open to the public.”
A second option, for those determined to live in Vidigal, is to buy a house. “I bought two properties last year,” says Andreas, “and there are about thirty ex-pats living in Vidigal, some with their own houses.”
At the moment, integration seems to be no problem, but a phase of rapid growth is on the horizon, as many people would like to exploit the world class view and prime location. In recent years, German Rolf Glaser attempted to kick start the local housing market with an ambitious redevelopment project that included both social and commercial elements. However, his vision has yet to come to fruition, as bureaucratic setbacks have delayed the project indefinitely.
So, is Vidigal a viable option for those seeking accommodation in Rio? If you work nine-to-five and are fond of your creature comforts, then probably not. But if you are footloose, adaptable and in search of an exciting locale, then Vidigal might well be the place for you.