One of Rio ’s and Brazil ’s most complex and pervasive social phenomena, favelas are far more complicated than their inadequate English translation “slums” would suggest. The first favelas in Rio de Janeiro developed in the late 1890s. The federal government had offered land to demobilized soldiers from northeastern Brazil so that they could settle on Rio’s vacant slopes. When the government went back on its word, the soldiers occupied the promised land and baptized it Morro da Favela — favela is a tough thorny plant native to the semi-arid Northeast.
Subsequent “favelados” were freed slaves who immigrated to Rio in search of work and settled on the hillsides surrounding Centro  and the wealthier commercial and residential bairros. As Rio grew, so did its favelas, as poor Brazilians from all over the country migrated to the city in the hopes of finding work.
Today, Rio has over 600 favelas, which are home to 20–25 percent of the city’s population. Unfortunately, they are growing at a much faster rate than the rest of the city.
Rio ’s favelas are notorious for several reasons. The first is their proximity to Rio’s most upscale neighborhoods. The largest ones are almost literally perched right on top of the wealthiest Zona Sul bairros (ironically, this means that favela residents enjoy far more privileged views than their rich neighbors below). Also, most are controlled by cocaine cartels.
The results are twofold. On one hand, the drug lords maintain order and security within the favela in return for residents’ loyalty. However, other consequences include easy access to drug use and to drug dealing as a way of life, as well as the violent shoot-outs between drug lords and the police who frequently invade the hillsides. Tragically, innocent victims getting caught in the crossfire is a common phenomenon.
Some favelas are utterly desolate places where entire families live in minuscule shacks cobbled together out of scrap materials, without electricity, running water, or sewage systems. Built precariously on steep hills, homes are easily destroyed — and residents injured or killed — due to rainstorms and landslides. However, over time, quite a few favelas have developed into highly organized communities with day care, medical clinics, and even Internet cafés and DVD rentals.
Rio ’s largest favela, Rocinha, even has a McDonald’s. Residents are not all destitute. Many have (low-paying) jobs in the surrounding neighborhoods. They live in concrete or cinder-block houses (some of them 2–3 stories high) with fridges, stoves, TVs, and air-conditioners. More importantly, they enjoy a sense of community spirit and engage in grassroots activism.
Historically, the government treated favelas as blighted areas (they weren’t even indicated on maps), and the elite and middle class guiltily ignored them (while employing many favela dwellers as nannies, cooks, and housekeepers). However, in the last two decades, with the realization that favelas won’t go away, this thinking has shifted significantly. Projects such as Favela Bairro have been instrumental in helping to begin integration of these communities into the city’s urban fabric. Favelas are increasingly included on city maps, and favelados are being given legal titles to their property.
More recently, favelas have started attracting tourists, who are curious to see firsthand how Brazil ’s very significant other half lives. While it’s dangerous to wander alone into a favela, tours are available with guides who know the lay of the land. Several companies have jumped on the favela tour bandwagon, but the most experienced and knowledgeable is Favela Tours (tel. 21/3322-2727 or 21/9772-1133, www.favelatour.com.br , R$65), run by Carioca Marcelo Armstrong. Armstrong speaks fluent English and offers perceptive and insightful commentary as he leads groups on three-hour walking tours of the favelas of Rocinha and Vila Canoas. Part of the tour fee is donated to community projects.
Although some might be scared of potential danger or leery of the voyeuristic aspects of touring a poor neighborhood, Armstrong is well known within the communities. He vouches for both visitors’ safety and the fact that residents appreciate foreigners getting a firsthand glimpse at a neighborhood that is about much more than the reductionist clichés of drugs, violence, and poverty. Furthermore, aside from pumping some money into the local community, if favelas become more of a tourist destination, police will be forced to diminish their often aggressive behavior towards their residents.
Indeed, favela tourism seems to be on the rise. In addition to offering trips into Rocinha with local English-speaking motoboys (delivery boys on motorcycles), Be a Local (tel. 21/9643-0366, www.bealocal.com , half-day trip R$65) also takes visitors to favela parties where they can dance the night away to the pounding strains of local funk. And in early 2005, the first favela hotel opened on the Morro Pereira da Silva, above Catete .
Pousada Favelinha (Rua Antonio Joaquim Batista casa 13, Laranjeiras, no phone, www.favelinha.com , R$75 d) offers five double and dormitory rooms, all with balconies offering spectacular views. Guests who show up with toys for the local children’s project receive two free caipirinhas, sippable on the rooftop terrace.