Rio de Janeiro is a city of spectacular beauty, majestic hills, samba, bright blue seas, strong colours, hot sun, and both opulence and poverty all mixed together in a jumble. It’s a wonderful, interesting, contrasting and dramatic place to explore. But let me start by suggesting one way NOT to visit it.
An Unhappy Story
Since the 19th century, as successive waves of poor rural migrants have arrived in Rio, attracted by the bright lights and employment prospects of the city, shanty towns have spread across the steep hills behind the skyscrapers that now surround the bay. It hasn’t been a happy story. It is estimated that 6% of the population of Brazil – over 11 million people – live in these shanty towns, which in Portuguese are known as favelas.
In Rio, some favelas have for decades been notorious as impoverished no-go areas controlled by crime and drug gangs. However, as tourism develops and the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, both of which are taking place in Brazil, draw nearer, the favelas are being ‘re-discovered,’ generating a curious mixture of both positive and negative impacts. Among the bad things are property speculation and forced evictions.
Favela Safari Tours
Another growing phenomenon, called ‘slum tourism,’ is a new development and raises ethical issues that organisations like Tourism Concern have highlighted through their slum tourism campaign.
What we suggest you DON’T do is take one of the so-called favela safari tours. For a surprising amount of money, tour companies herd you into four-wheel-drive vehicles with an armed police escort and take you around the favela. You’ll certainly see it, but your point of view will be that of an occupying force, an outsider on a hurried and hostile patrol. What you’ll get is something like a soldier’s view of Baghdad or Belfast during the most troubled times in those two cities, which is not at all the reality of the favelas. Even worse, none of the money you pay is likely to reach the community through which you are driving.
As the World Cup and the Olympics draw nearer, the danger is that these ‘safari tours’ in Rio are going to go ‘mass market’ with negative effects. There could be more and perhaps less-responsible tour operators crowding in, more people passing through in large batches, higher prices and more outsiders profiting from packaged deals, not to mention any unwanted side effects, such as further property speculation. If this does happen, feelings of resentment among local residents will be understandable and may even be predictable.
A Better Idea
We have a much better idea: keep things to a small scale. You can tour the Comunidade de Santa Marta, a 75-year-old favela inhabited by around 5,500 people, and the first favela to be ‘pacified’ some years back – a controversial programme that involved the establishment of a UPP presence and the expulsion of criminal gangs. The UPP – Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – translates as ‘police pacifying unit.’
The big difference with small-group tours is that you can travel on foot and your tour guide can be someone from the favela itself, not an outsider. And you can be a warmly welcomed visitor. Why? Because you are seen as someone who is genuinely interested in the local culture and making a direct economic contribution.
It’s not like there’s no precedent for this. Under a state government programme launched in preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics, local residents have been trained as bilingual tour guides and can speak English, Spanish and French. The cost of the tours is modest and fixed by the municipality, and between 15% and 20% of the revenues must be reinvested in local social and community programmes. The guides themselves are asked to spend their earnings inside the community.
With their guidance, visitors can walk around, meet the locals, see the incredible views of the city and shop for locally made handcrafts at the market, including art made from recycled materials such as old tin cans.
A Taste of Santa Marta
Santa Marta has a long history and has seen many distinguished visitors, ranging from Queen Elizabeth (in 1968) to Michael Jackson, Madonna and Beyoncé. Who of these impressed the residents most? Well the clue might be that a Michael Jackson statue has been erected in the favela and a small plaza named after him.
The state government is encouraging all Rio residents to visit Santa Marta. In fact, the tours are relatively popular, attracting around 2,000 visitors a month (a small number when compared to other attractions!) of whom about 30% are Brazilians. The tours are advertised across Rio, and favela residents are incredibly proud of the publicity generated for their community. After years of being ‘invisible,’ they are now protagonists, eager to tell Santa Marta’s story and show off its facilities.
As in any city in the world, you of course need to be aware of your personal security, but the enormous difference is that the guide looking after your interests is a local, and that the community sees you as a guest and a friend. We think it is a better way to travel.