Favelas are an inescapable part of the Rio landscape, and are synonymous with the city itself. They sprawl up the sides of mountains and stretch out across the North Zone, colorful patchworks of buildings that twinkle haphazardly after the sun goes down. They first appeared in the 19th century, built by displaced soldiers from Bahia who named them after a plant native to that region which irritates the skin and grows freely in the Bahian shantytowns. Favelas were later occupied by fugitive and then freed slaves, earning them the early nickname bairros africanos or African neighborhoods.

These communities were historically low-income and nowadays suffer from the stigma of being associated with the drug trade and violence. However, roughly 23% of Rio’s inhabitants, around 1.5 million people, live in favelas, and their importance to the identity of the city would be an understatement. Samba, one of Brazil’s most famous exports, was invented in a favela, and they are increasingly becoming known for being hives of creativity. There is a wealth of culture and art to be seen, such as the moon sculpture in Providência, the Maze cultural space in Tavares Bastos and the murals that line the walls of Cantagalo.

Following the pacification of the favelas that began in 2008, tourism grew in popularity and there are many companies that offer tours to visit them. The first company was founded in 1992 and since then a wide range of different operators have sprung up to cater for those who are curious about life in these diverse neighborhoods.

The issue of whether or not to visit a favela as part of a guided tour can be controversial, and there are strong opinions held on both sides. By understanding the different considerations, visitors to Rio de Janeiro can make an informed decision about whether or not to take one of these tours and how to select a reputable company.

Not all operators are created equal

Who benefits from Favela tours in Rio?

Favela tourism can be beneficial for the communities it touches. Many of the tour companies were founded within the favela itself and only employ guides that live there. Whilst this increases the safety and authenticity of the tours, it also ensures that the money is used to boost the local economy. These companies create jobs and drive alternative development projects such as the Museu de Favela or Favela Museum in Cantagalo. This project offers cultural events and workshops, as well as guided tours. Run by local people, the MUF empowers them by allowing them to take control over tourist initiatives rather than having tourism imposed upon them. Local, rather than external economic needs are the primary focus.

Reputable companies with a vested interest in the favela also ensure that tourists are introduced to businesses within the community should they wish to buy food or souvenirs. This serves the dual purpose of encouraging contact between tourists and the favela inhabitants and ensuring that these businesses benefit from the tourists’ presence. Increased exposure to the daily lives of the thousands of people that call favelas their home helps to dispel the myth propagated by the media that they are constant warzones to be avoided at all costs.

Are Favela’s safe?

The answer to that question depends on the audience. For many people living in these communities, violence is a real and present danger, whether it be from warring drugs gangs or the military police. For tourists, the answer is quite different. When tourists talk about favelas, they mean Santa Marta, Vidigal and a few others in the south zone of the city. These only make up around 2% of the total of Rio’s favelas.

These communities, such as Santa Marta and Vidigal, are Rio’s so-called “safe favelas”. Both have undergone drastic processes of urbanization and even gentrification, with poorer residents no longer able to afford to live there.

Santa Marta, in the neighborhood of Botafogo, became famous when Michael Jackson filmed his music video for “They Don’t Care About Us” there in 1996. Since then it has been visited by a number of celebrities, including Madonna, Beyoncé, and Alicia Keys, as well as being used as a film set for the fifth installment of the Fast and Furious film franchise.

Vidigal, on the slopes of Morro Dois Irmãos and in-between the swanky neighborhoods of Leblon and São Conrado, has also undergone significant urbanization and gentrification since the 2000s, with its superb views of the city and privileged location driving up the price of real estate.

There is no longer any significant drugs dispute there, and one of the biggest industries in these areas is, in fact, favela tourism.

Local people and tour operators have capitalized on people’s fascination with Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, and in Santa Marta, Rocinha and Vidigal they run a huge number of tours around the community, claiming they offer the “reality of the slums” and an “enriching cultural experience”. Inevitably, many of these tours end up as voyeuristic jaunts by class-tourists to see how the other half lives, which would be far more problematic were these tours not bringing more people to the neighborhood and thus stimulating the community’s economy.

Why do some people disagree with Favela tours in Rio?

There are many people that argue that favela tours have a negative impact on the communities. These arguments deal mainly with the ethics of ‘poverty tourism’ and suggest that tours to poor neighborhoods dehumanize the residents and can be exploitative. The voyeuristic quality of some tours is far removed from a meaningful cultural exchange and is met with apathy or even resentment from the people who live there.

Favela tourism has also been accused of implying a degree of culture shock. This is particularly focused on companies based outside the favelas themselves, which have less interest in presenting the communities in a positive light and encouraging an understanding of the specific challenges and rewards of those for whom it is home. The impact of this approach reinforces the negative stereotypes of favelas that are held around the world.

So, how do you choose a reputable company?

If you take the decision to visit a favela as part of a tour, it’s important to carefully research the company you book with. There are many companies that are not socially-conscious and are often considered to do more harm than good for the local communities.

A company that is based within the favela itself, and only employs local residents offers one of the most sustainable ways of doing a tour. Guides from outside the area are not able to speak authentically for the inhabitants about life within the favelas. Local guides are also able to delicately advise tourists on etiquette to ensure their visit isn’t too disruptive. This ranges from making sure tourists allow residents to take precedence in the bondinhos, the lifts that carry them to the tops of the hills, to preventing photography which might include people who would not appreciate it. This in-depth knowledge, tact and respect is what sets apart the best companies and is one of the most important aspects in minimizing the degree to which a tour becomes an annoyance for the locals.

One recommendation would be Favela Santa Marta Tours, a company that offers guided tours by people born within the favela itself. Founded by Thiago Firmino, a DJ and entrepreneur, he was rewarded for his social work within Santa Marta by being offered the chance to carry the Olympic torch in 2016. The tours are conducted on foot and usually culminate in a visit to Thiago’s home in Santa Marta to meet his family and have a photo taken with the torch, which sits in pride of place in his living room.

Another excellent option is Favela Walking Tour. Founded by a group of young people from Rocinha they offer multilingual tours with a strong focus on challenging stereotypes and educating their guests about favela culture. A monetary contribution from each tour booked is put towards social projects. There is also Favela Tour, run by Zezinho.

On the other end of the scale, it is wise to avoid the controversial ‘Jeep Tour’ companies which ferry visitors through the favelas in safari jeeps. Not only are they almost exclusively based outside the favelas, but they also align the visit with adventure tourism. Aside from being sensationalist, this has the potential effect of making residents feel like they’re in a zoo. These tours are satirized by Rio-based comedy group Porta Dos Fundos in this video entitled ‘Poor’.

Favela tours are not for everyone, and there are pros and cons which each visitor must weigh up for themselves. However, an appreciation of the importance of favelas as a part of the social fabric of Rio is vital to a better understanding of the city itself and its diverse culture. A traveler who takes a favela tour with an open mind will realise that there is much more to these communities than the media portrays. Attitude is everything.

For more information about Rio’s favelas, visit Cat Comm, an online new source, agenda setter, movement builder and research collaborative with the intention of supporting community-led favela development.

Elissa Rose

Elissa Rose

Staff Writer

Elissa is a freelance writer based in Brazil. With 5 years’ experience working for the News UK print and online publications in drizzly London, she decided to move to Rio de Janeiro to write about the cidade maravilha, mostly whilst sitting on the beach.