The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are world-famous. Even though you have never been to Brazil, chances are that you have heard of it. Positive or negative. These slums are connected to Brazil just like football or samba. It is also becoming increasingly popular among travelers to visit these favelas. But is that possible? In this blog, we share our tips about visiting the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
5 things you need to know when visiting the favelas of Rio de Janeiro
Everyone knows three things about Rio de Janeiro; the beaches Ipanema and Copacabana, the giant Cristo Redentor and of course the favelas. Tens of thousands of people live here, mostly the original inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro. The neighborhoods are all built in the hills and all overlook Ipanema and Copacabana.
# 1 History of the favelas
The favelas play a major role in Rio de Janeiro. Almost everything that Brazil stands for originated from the favelas. The original inhabitants of Rio also live here. Many football players, the best dancers and the best food come almost all from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Pro tip: Never enter a favela alone. Also, not the favelas declared as safe!
The first favelas first appeared at the end of the 19th century. They were built in by soldiers to solve the housing shortage, but they were also inhabited by former slaves. The growth of favelas reached a peak in the 1970s when many people moved from rural areas to Rio to take advantage of economic growth.
Many people who moved from the countryside to Rio had no place to live and little money. They went into the favelas. The word “favela” comes from the word “tree” in Bahia. The soldiers who originally built the favelas came from Bahia and named the first favela after the tree.
Merge with Rio
It is no secret that the favelas of Rio de Janeiro were known until recently for their criminal and violent nature. Violence in all forms was the order of the day. About 20 years ago, the government decided to take a positive approach instead of resolving violence with violence (which happened a lot). A process that lasted enormously long due to the deep-rooted crime in the favelas.
The idea was to integrate these slums with the city and that is finally starting to bear fruit. This was not only done for the inhabitants of the favelas but also to give tourism a boost. The 2014 World Cup has, of course, made a nice contribution to this development.
# 2 Are the favelas of Rio de Janerio safe to visit?
10 years ago as a ‘Westerner’ you wouldn’t have dared to show your face in the favelas. Today it is fortunately different, but it is not always 100% safe. For example, another British tourist was shot in 2017 when she took a wrong turn in one of the favelas.
Make no mistake in how many people live here. It seems that around 11.5 million live in all the favelas of Brazil! Favelas are therefore more ‘communities’ than neighborhoods. In Rio de Janeiro there are around 600 favelas, the largest and one of the safest favelas is Rocinha in southern Rio. More than 70,000 people already live here, which is the size of a smaller town. And just like in cities, it is not always safe.
Tours to Rocinha (Vidigal)
More and more tours are being offered towards Rocinha in particular. That means it’s safe enough to go there. In addition, the tour operators also claim that it contributes to a positive impression of favelas and that it brings more money into the favelas. The latter is doubtful.
Pro tip: Vidigal in Rocinha is one of the safest favelas in Brazil and many tours are offered. However, only visit Rocinha with a guide!
Security through UPP (Pacifying Police Unit)
Some prejudices of favelas are correct. For example, many favelas in Rio de Janeiro are (or were) run by drug traffickers or gangs. They determine the rules and monitor ‘their’ neighborhoods and therefore the inhabitants. The violence between rival gangs is a lot less than years ago, but it still exists.
UN in favelas
Many favelas in Rio today are occupied by UPPs, a kind of law enforcement and social services program, only locally. They guard the most favelas and prevent the most violence. Their goal is to reclaim and secure ‘occupied’ neighborhoods.
This is successful because the southern favelas of Rio de Janeiro are managed by UPPs and have become a lot quieter and therefore safer in recent years. However, most favelas in the north are still plagued by drug trafficking, firefighting, and gang violence.
Pro tip: Only visit the favelas in the south. Those in the north are still suffering from too much violence.
# 3 Can you go to the favelas?
That’s certainly possible. In recent years, tours to the safe favelas have become enormously popular. You can book tours anywhere in Rio de Janeiro. Whether that is at your accommodation or at one of the many tour operators in the city. Many tours can also be booked online.
Rocinha is the number one favela for the increasingly popular tourist tours. You are often taken in a jeep to experience the local life in the favelas. Often you also visit different sights in the favelas themselves.
Pro tip: We recommend you go with a local guide. Firstly because these guides often know the people in the favelas and secondly because they can tell a lot about life in the favelas.
You can also book Walking Tours where you walk through the favelas. You are closer to the local life, but you can also see less because most favelas are huge and cannot be explored on foot.
Prices of tours
The prices of different tours vary in price. It also depends on the length of the tour, the favela and whether you want to walk or go with a Jeep. Count on the following prices (subject to changes);
Walking Tour – $ 20 to $ 25
Jeep Tour – from $ 50
Most tours last half a day and you are often picked up at your accommodation except at the Walking Tours.
There are dozens of tour operators who offer tours. The choice is really huge and the quality of most tours is excellent. For a Walking Tour, you can look at Favela Walking Tour. Another good tour operator that also supports the local community is Favela Experience.
# 4 The safe favelas
As mentioned before, the safest favelas are in the south of the city. The most important favelas you can visit in the south are;
- Santa Marta
- Vidigal and Rocinha
The last two, in particular, are extremely popular with tours.
All of the aforementioned favelas can easily be visited with a tour and are largely safe. Remember that more than 70,000 people can live in a neighborhood. That is comparable to average-sized cities in the US. The chance of violence occurring is present, but comparable with cities in the US.
Sorted out on Rio
Vidigal is also known for the parties that attract tourists every weekend. The main reason that travelers come to Vidigal and Rocinha, however, is the amazing view of the skyline, the statue of Jesus and the beaches of the city.
Pro tip: We can’t say it often enough. Visit the favelas with a tour!
# 5 The unsafe favelas
While you will find the safest favelas in the south of the city, the unsafe favelas are mainly in the north. Vila Cruzeiro, Vila Aliança, and Complexo do Alemão are three favelas that react strongly to the presence of the UPPs, which in the past, as often enough, led to shootings and murders.
There is a lot of police present here, but it is still not safe enough for outsiders to come and visit these neighborhoods. Especially Vila Aliança is a favela that is currently struggling with a lot of violence and criminal gangs. And that is worse than in the USA since they are not afraid to use their weapons (and even bombs) here.
It is therefore wise to avoid the north of Rio.