Touring Rio’s Favelas

By Martin Kocandrle, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – Favelas are Brazil’s reoccurring paradox. They have become so prevalent within large cities that presently in Rio they number around 950, each with its own composition and raison d’être. They are paradoxical in the sense that their very geography borders some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Rio, and despite the lack of police, are often ruled with draconian discipline by, ironically enough, drug dealers who break the law on a daily basis.

Tour guide Zezinho representing for Rocinha, photo by Martin Kocandrle.

Tour guide Zezinho knows Rocinha like the back of his hand, photo by Martin Kocandrle.

Favelas also present a paradox to the traveller coming to Rio. Despite the reputation and danger associated with these areas tourists feel an undeniable attraction to the myth of the hillside communities and the stories behind them.

Fortunately for those eager to broaden their understanding of this urban phenomenon there are various tours available each with their different take on presenting the intricate web of issues that surround favelas.

Depending on your goals and how much time you have, it is possible to either skim the surface or delve deep into these neighborhoods through your respective tours. Some are more prone to giving tour-goers a “drive by” introduction while others make a genuine effort to introduce visitors to the community and its way of life.

One option is to go through the company “Jeep Tour”. The controversial use of safari jeeps is not lost on many of those living in the favela, however, and from the back of one is not necessarily the most sensitive medium from which to observe the rich culture of some of these communities.

For a visit with a different flavor you should consider Marcelo Armstrong, a veteran Favela tour guide since 1992. He is credited with pioneering this type of tour, and his operation, “Favela Tour” has ten guides, offering two tours per day. “We are trying to change perspectives, making people realize that favelas are not a no-go zone,” says Marcelo. A three hour trip costs R$65 and includes hotel pick up and drop off at various locations. You will visit two favelas, and the “Para Ti” NGO in Vila Canoas which the tour company supports through direct donations that amounted to R$47,725 in 2009.

The folks at “Be a Local” have crafted a different personal experience where participants visit Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. With “Be a Local”, tourists enter the huge city-within-a-city by motorbike and then continue on foot, before being given the opportunity to see local craft workshops and to support a daycare centre through their visit. The company also offers a Baile Funk party, with manager Marcio stating that he hopes his tours will “…open people’s minds and try to show the city in a different way… not just in a drive down the main road.”

During the tour you will enjoy spectacular views that can only be seen from favelas, photo by Martin Kocandrle.

However if you are looking for a real local’s perspective you would do well to consider Zezinho from “Favela Adventures” who has taken a holistic approach that not only embodies his philosophy of living in a favela but supporting it as well. Zezinho prefers to call his tours “visits” as it more wholeheartedly embodies the principle of interacting with the community rather than seeing it on a superficial level. Expect to ride around on moto-taxis and to do lots of walking along the winding streets of Rocinha.

These specialized tours can be as short as three hours or as long as twelve and range from a restaurant bar hop to Jiu Jitsu and Samba classes, or an all night local Baile Funk party depending on the experience you are after. Zezinho explains; “Because we have an intimate knowledge about the community we can show (it) in a different way. If we walk by a bar or an event and the guests want to go in for a drink or listen to live music we go. I want people to see our community as one where people are for the most part happy and welcoming of visitors.”

Many consider a favela tour of Rio a must, and it is obvious why. They offer a totally different perspective on a widely misrepresented issue, and allow individuals to form firsthand opinions rather than imbibe them through the media or hearsay. It is important to consider which tour matches your goals when undertaking this type of adventure, and which will most benefit the community that is so willing to welcome visitors in to see their way of life.

14 Responses to "Touring Rio’s Favelas"

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  2. Zezinho  March 3, 2010 at 2:06 PM

    I do not find where I live to be controversial. That is soemthing the outsider world has done to stigmatize us. I am trying to change that idea that my home is a war zone or a bad place to live. I would never want to leave here as I love my life here. Why people try to think other things is purely the media trying to scare people.

  3. SirMarjAlot  March 3, 2010 at 5:39 PM

    Looking forward to going on a favela tour when I make my first trip to Rio this year.

  4. Geoff  April 30, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    The folks at TheRioTimes offer the most invaluable tips for first time visitors to RJ like myself. Keep up the awesome effort!

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  6. kt  June 7, 2010 at 9:09 AM

    Zezinho is a phoney, do NOT give him your business in rocinha! I travelled halfway across the world to get to rocinha only to find that everything he had told me he had “organised” for my stay in Rocinha was wrong or plain lies. hes “from” rocinha but thats total crap too, no locals really know him or have ever seen him there when he was a child (and trust me he would be hard to miss there) he cant speak portuguese properly or anything! most locals of rocinha are weary of him so if you enter the favela as his friend itll be hard for you to make real local friends, hes generally steered clear of. bad vibes as they say. my only regret in my brazil trip was calling him.

  7. yvonne pearson  June 23, 2010 at 1:41 PM

    Miss Kama Risos, As one of Zezinho´s representatives, from what I have been told first hand, you got involved in a situation that you were warned about ahead of time and you failed to listen. This is regarding NILDO! Instead of doing your research, you believed a drunk and drug user (Nildo), something that everyone knows that Zezinho stays clear of.

    To slander his good reputation here, will not do any good. You are promoting bad Karma here and it will only come back to bite you three time as hard. You need to think about the choices you made while you were here.

    Yvonne Pearson
    Toronto, Canada

  8. Jean  June 23, 2010 at 6:47 PM

    I have known Zezinho from both his time spent in the United States and in Brazil. Its too bad that one person can say such hurtful things.

    Zezinho was nothing but the consumate professional when I stayed with him in Rocinha. But he does have one rule if people stay in his house. There is to be no Drug use and that includes marijuana. Maybe this person was treated this way because they came to the favela not understanding this rule.

    Contraray to what KR says, everybody seemed to know him in Rocinha, so where this is coming from is way out there!!

    What you been smokin` dude?

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  10. kt  October 6, 2010 at 4:26 AM

    Are you replying to me!? who is Kama Risos? sounds like a girl id like to talk to!

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  13. Dan  March 6, 2013 at 12:49 AM

    Zezinho’s tour was fantastic! He and his fellow your guides were honest, forthcoming, and very knowledgable about Rocinha.
    I decided to use Zezinho after reading nothing but positive reviews on trip advisor. The other tour operators mentioned here had some good, but also plenty of negative reviews on trip advisor. I’d recommend checking out the reviews yourself.

    I highly recommend Zezinho and his tours!!

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