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.
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.”
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.