Rio de Janeiro and Favela Life

Our ridiculously long (but free!! thanks for skymiles) flight to Rio (with three connections!) was exhausting, but once we got in and settled, it didn’t take us a long time to get into the groove of the city and fall in love with it.

We stayed at Atlantis Copacabana hotel, located in a little area called Arpoador, right between Copacabana and Ipanema. Hotels in Rio are not cheap! I would say, price-wise they are pretty comparable to Chicago. Atlantis is on a cheaper end, they have simple rooms, good service, and, most importantly, a rooftop deck with a swimming pool and beautiful views! How can you not relax when you are greeted with this:

The first favela view was also from the rooftop deck of our hotel:
Rio (and Brazil in general) is hot and steamy. Both literally and figuratively, of course, but I am talking about the climate here. The humidity level is about 100%, and the tropical weather changes several times daily, bringing everything from sunshine, and all shapes of clouds, to rainstorms. I wish I didn’t pack any long-sleeved shirts or jeans though, because those just ended up being a dead suitcase weight.

We spent our first couple of days here just exploring Ipanema and Copacabana, and sniffing out good restaurants and getting a feel for Rio’s energy. Ipanema and Copa are the trendier and the most touristy neighborhoods of Rio, primarily because their prime real estate is located along the beautiful beaches. But population from many city corners comes here to enjoy sand and water (and for employment!), so people on the street are a truly diverse Carioca sample.

Cariocas, by the way, is what Rio natives call themselves, regardless of their skin color. And their skin color can be anything from pale to midnight black – but, as one local told us, all Cariocas are capable of getting a very good tan!!! (unlike us pale northerners who just burn and peel). Here, it was great to witness many different shades of skin living in such harmony. Of course, I won’t to make a blunt statement that Rio has no racism. But through the eyes of an American newcomer, it almost seems like it doesn’t! In reality, through, Rio suffers from classism, and often racism is its byproduct.

So, back to the waterfront. Rio is a total dressed down beach culture where people walk through high end shopping areas with surfboards. The beaches are lined with little kiosks where you can sit and relax with aqua de coco (coconut water that you drink out of a fresh coconut), cerveja (beer), capirinha (a mixed drink made with cachaca, liquor fermented from sugar cane), or a plate of fried seafood. We are not big beer drinkers, but here we had several every day – because they cool you down perfectly in such a hot & humid air. Brazil tends to offer only light beer – and darker brews don’t really work with this humidity anyway. At nights, especially on the weekends, some of the beach kiosks in Copa keep the crowds entertained with live music – mostly acoustic bossa nova performers (who also proudly sing American pop songs with their accents). Swimming here is just lovely. The water is perfectly clear, and its April temperature is cool enough to leave you feeling refreshed all day.

On Sundays the road that lines both beaches is closed off to traffic and open to bikers and pedestrians. You can also rent bikes here (something that we didn’t have time to do). In Copa, they here are several beautiful sand sculptures, impressive in their size and detail. They always guarded by a guy who sits near them and collects donations. The funny thing is, they are guarded 24-7. Many times we passed by them in a cab in a middle of a night to witness the “guard” in a chair next to them, sleeping.
The Morro do Leme (Leme Hill) in the end of Leme beach (next to Copa) has a hiking trail to the top behind it, but the trail is on the army territory and can only be walked with their guide during certain times of the day.


On Sunday, we went to Ipanema’s Hippie Fair, located in Praca Gen. Osorio, just a short walk from our hotel. Perhaps back in the days it was full of hippies, but now it is full of vendors selling leather goods, jewelry, souvenirs, food, and the center of the praca is lined with artists. I was very impressed with the quality of art!


We bought a painting and a wood carving from 2 different artists that both happened to be deaf and mute. It might be redundant that both of the artworks have Corcovado (the hill with the Christ statue) in them, but that’s ok with me. I also have to show off my new red jewelry purchase, made from Amazonian seeds (that cost a total of $7).
Our first couple of evenings here were rather quiet, we just explored Ipanema and Copa at night. These neighborhoods don’t offer much of the crazy nightlife (most of music and dancing are concentrated in Lapa), but we enjoyed its restaurants (where we had some excellent sea food and feijoada – a traditional Brazilian meat dish), always finishing off with a 2am capirinha at one of the beach stands (yes, many of them are still open then!).
After getting our feel for the beaches, we moved on. The first part of Monday we spent in a Rocinha Favela. Favelas are Rios shanty towns (slums), and favela tours is a controversial conversation topic amongst many travelers. Some say, favela tours are “unethical because you are looking at poor people as if you were in a zoo, while your tour guide is earning money for it”. But I happen to disagree!! Favelas are a HUGE part of Rio, and we came to Rocinha to INTERACT with people and learn about their life and culture, as we are always interested in learning about various social classes. Having said that, I want to point out that it was important for us to do a tour with someone who actually lives in a favela, not an outside agency. And we were happy we did!
Brazil’s favelas are quite unique. Most of Samba Schools (the samba-dancing participants of Carnival parades), capoeira, and many artists, writers, and musicians come from the favelas, so there is no shortage of talent here. But for the most part, favela residents are hard working people who can not afford to live on the expensive city lands but have to be able to live close to work. Favelas are now very ethnically mixed, and people live there for economic, not racial reasons. And although I don’t know exact statistics, I suspect that at least half of Rio’s population (or more) lives in favelas. Rio has over 700 of them, and Rocinha is the biggest and most visited favela of the city. Rocinha’s population is an astonishing 170,000 (or higher, depending on who you ask).
Many companies in Rio will give you a Rocinha tour, but here choosing a right guide really matters. To us, it was important to walk the streets with an actual Rocinha resident, so most of the money we pay for the tour goes back into favela’s circulation. We also were not interested in being a part of a big fat tourist pack getting out of a van and snapping photos (hey – most of Rocinha’s streets are not even vehicle accessible!). After doing some research, I came across forums on TripAdvisor and found Zezinho, who gives very personal tours, and takes only 2-3 people at a time. Zezinho, however, was out of country, traveling to raise money for DJ school in the favela, to he referred us to Carlos, another freelance favela guide who met us at our hotel that morning.
Carlos is a hilarious guy, full of energy, and speaks perfect English (and 3 other languages, besides Portuguese). We took a street van to Rocinha (a street van in Rio operates just like a bus, but faster and smaller, and much cheaper than a cab). Many (but not all) of Rio’s favelas are on the hills. The hills offer less transport options and are further away from employment – so here the higher you live, the poorer you are. Quite different from many other parts of the world, where the most prized real estate is higher up. Consequentially, the poorest residents here have the best views. This is what we saw from the top of Rocinha hill. In comparison with other less fortunate ones, Rocinha is a “high end favela”. Its residents enjoy proximity to water and the best neighborhoods of Rio – so there’s easier access for better employment. In fact, those waterfront highrise condos are priced in the millions – and that’s how social classes coexist in Rio. “So close, but yet so far.”
Exactly how a favela operates, is a complicated thing to explain (and to understand). According to Carlos, the 700-something favelas of Rio work in 700 different ways. Sure, there are drugs and gangs, and clashes with police, and occasional deaths and shootings, but most favela residents are so sick of the world media focusing only on that. Where are the international newspaper articles about favela’s culture and talents? 99.9% of the time, Rocihna is peaceful and safe to visit. It gets about 200 tourist visitors each day. It is such a close community, everyone knows each other, and even visitors are greeted by locals on the streets. It is unthinkable for a favela resident to not know their neighbors, or even people who live down the street. So, favela really works like a one big family. I am not glamorizing the favela life here, but I think many outsiders can learn from it, and get to know their neighbors at home.
We started our tour at the top (or, as Carlos says, “upstairs”), and slowly made our way down, chasing Carlos through narrow streets, and stopping to greet a million people he knows in the neighborhood. We visited some of his relatives, including a home of his mother in law (from one of his ex wives), a sweet old lady who loved having us over at her tiny apartment.
This photo is of Kurt and Carlos with the owner of Rocinha’s only ad agency. Run from another tiny apartment, they print booklets and flyers to promote various stores and businesses here in the favela.
Many streets, of course, do not have an efficient sanitation system here, and garbage can pile up in some corners, such as this. Also, take a look at the typical electrical system of the favela. Here in Rocinha,
most residents have electricity – unlike some unlucky ones in other,
poorer favelas. Also, according to Carlos, most here do pay for their
utilities (instead of getting them illegally through “gatos”).

We visited Rocinha’s church, right next to a hospital, where Carlos told us how his community battles various disease outbreaks, such as tuberculosis. When the neighborhood had a big outbreak, hospital assigned a worker to watch over each patient, daily knocking on their door, bringing them meds, and making sure they follow treatment schedules. Persistence paid off – Rocinha no longer has a TB problem. Hospital also distributes pamphlets (and condoms) in the community to educate and prevent other diseases.



In Rocinha, we were free to take photos of whatever and whomever we wanted with one exception – young men (most of them, boys), who are hired by drug gangs to work as lookouts while holding machine guns on street corners, do not want to be photographed. In the past, photos of them ended up in newspapers, and, needless to say, they do not want the world to know of their affiliations. We walked by a couple of such kids holding weapons, and I asked Carlos if he knows them – turns out, he does, mentioning that they come from good, hard working families but chose a wrong path to follow. In any case, we knew that they would never point their weapons at tourists or residents – thus, we did not feel threatened to share a street with them. Again, I realize that violence does happen here – but that is not the norm, and seeing someone just hold a weapon on a street is something I’ve witnessed in several countries before.



Drug gangs in favela are a complicated story and, contrary to common belief, gangs do not own and control EVERYTHING here in Rocinha. Rocinha elects its own officials (including a mayer), and runs more democratically than people like to believe. Residents here do not pay taxes, but the government is still involved in their lives (in good and bad ways, I suppose). If you want to build something, even a shack, you still need to obtain a building permit, otherwise the city will tear it down. (how the city would notice a new shack being constructed in this maze of buildings, is a mystery to me – but I will never claim to fully understand a favela).



We also stopped at a preschool that teaches one of Carlos’ daughters. Ladies running the school told us about various art and crafts programs and also about the school collecting money and donations to help the poorest of the poor in Rocinha. It was naptime, and most kids were passed out on their little floor blankets. And how cute is this view?



We ended our tour with lunch in a little cafeteria-style Rocinha eatery, and what we had there was some of the best food I’ve tasted in Brazil. Everything was fresh and beautiful. You pile up whatever you want on your plate (chicken, fish, many kinds of meat, veggies, rice, beans, etc). and they simply charge you by weight. My huge plate ended up costing about $3.
Over our meal, Carlos told us how much he can’t stand popular favela-themed films, such as “City of God”. “Why are they glamorizing f**ing blood and murder, when so many good things come out of favela? Why don’t they make a movie about me? I’ve lived in a favela all my life, and I am fluent in five languages. There is a blind 90 year old lady who lives here, and she has written 3 novels. Why don’t they make a movie about her?” I can’t disagree. Before saying our good byes to Carlos, we made plans with him to meet up on Friday night.


2 replies
  1. Zezinho
    Zezinho says:

    just to let you know, a few of us in Rocinha have form a small company to help give jobs to favela residents..please when you have time, look at the site..We have made a 2 yrs plan to either build or buy a building to make our Arts And Culture comunity center here in Rocinha..which yes will include the Dj school.
    A woman from Australia is coming to Rocinha to make a documentry about my lifebut i do not want only about me, but all the people in Rocinha doing great things here. The world need to know good people live here too..
    our NEW website:
    thank you,
    Zezinho da Rocinha!

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