Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are continuously given a hard time in the media. If we play a game of word association, for many the word ‘favela’ is synonymous with ‘violence’, ‘gangs’, and the most prevalent – ‘slum’.
As a twenty-something, female traveller I was somewhat shocked by the reactions of others when I told them of my plans to stay in a favela. It made me realise that even within the open-minded, liberal-leaning backpacking community, Rio’s favelas still have a notorious reputation to live down.
What’s more, to the cariocas who live in Rio, this negative word association is not only offensive but also damaging to favela communities. Theresa Williamson, Executive Director of Catalytic Communities summed this up beautifully when she said, “don’t call them ‘slums’. That’s a lazy translation and it’s unfair to the people who live here. The word ‘slum’ implies that all favelas are the same… and the word ‘slum’ makes it easier to ignore these communities.”
There are over 1,000 favelas in the city, but I recently spent some time in one of Rio’s most famous favelas – Chapéu Mangueira, one of the first to be pacified – and my experience was completely different to how the media portrays these neighbourhoods.
Now, instead of thinking of gangs, drugs, and poverty, when I hear the word ‘favela’ I think of hope, vibrancy and community spirit. As I experienced firsthand, Chapéu Mangueira is home to proud, hardworking cariocas with strong community ties.
To understand more about Chapéu Mangueira’s success, you have to know a bit more about its geography within the city. Let me paint a picture for you: at the bottom of Rua Anchieta in Leme, an affluent neighbourhood only a stone’s throw away from Avenida Princessa Isabella and the world-famous Copacabana beach, you will pass modern gated apartment blocks, which stand like mini-fortresses on sidewalks.
Once you reach the bottom of the hill, you will begin to notice the constant Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) presence. For a few Brazilian Reals, you can be taken up the hill via a motor taxi. However, part of the fun is in the walking. A steep, ten-minute walk later, in the sweltering heat, you will reach the top of the hill and a fork in the road. Left takes you to Babilonia, right to Chapéu Mangueira.
To an outsider, Chapéu Mangueira can seem chaotic – the neighbourhood is a confusing mixture of brick, concrete, electrical wiring and corrugated iron roofs. Houses are built so closely together, they almost seem like they are on top of each other. Soon, the road ends and stairs begin, forming small walkways to join the houses that are clinging to the hilltop.
The buildings look only half-built, but on the inside it’s a different matter; decoration is simple but people are resourceful, and it’s usual to find everything that a ‘normal’ home would have – electricity, heating, water, the internet.
As a neighbourhood, Chapéu Mangueira has a lot going for it. For starters, its location has the luxury of being close to Sugar Loaf Mountain and, being in the hills, has first-class views over Copacabana beach. It also has great restaurants and bars, making it a culinary destination for Rio’s foodies.
The favela is home to Bar do David, which in 2012 won the Comida di Buteco Award for the best bar in the city. Owner David Bispo, when he won the award, commented that he is “representative of Rio’s favelas” and felt this would bring more positive media attention to favelas.
Another great eating spot is Bar do Alto which had its Carioca cocktail (a mixture of sparkling wine and açai) nominated for the ‘Best Drink in Rio’ by Veja magazine. Having put itself on the map as a culinary destination, this does not portray a ‘lawless slum’, but instead a vibrant, cultural and thriving community where hard-working people are simply trying to make a living.
I won’t deny that there are still gangs in Rio, and spotters – young children armed with walkie talkies – are still closely watching the area for who is out and about. But, it’s common knowledge that you are much safer inside a favela than walking around on the streets of Copacabana or Ipanema. Favelas have unwritten community codes, and committing crimes such as theft within the neighbourhood goes against this.
‘Favela tourism’ is becoming increasingly popular in Rio, and it’s great to see the tide of opinion is beginning to change. Tour companies such as Favela Phoenix provide tours around Rocinha – Rio’s largest favela. This walking tour supports the local economy by taking you to a traditional Brazilian ‘pay per kilo’ restaurant, and proceeds go towards the community’s English school.
So, I’ll say it loud and proud: I’m glad I stayed in a favela. Rio de Janeiro is a magical city, and one that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetimes. Part of what makes the city such a vibrant and diverse place is its favelas, which should not be ignored or feared by tourists.
The only way for people to overcome these negative connotations is to experience a favela for themselves. That’s why I challenge you to visit one the next time you visit Brazil. It’s a master class in learning about Brazilian culture, and provides a unique experience to meet people that you wouldn’t have otherwise. But, the most important thing to remember: whatever you do, don’t call them slums.
Elly is a British travel writer with a particular love for South and Central American culture. As an aspiring journalist, she also runs her own travel blog atwentysomethingstravels.com which provides original insights and practical advice about affordable travel for millennials.