Positive Action in Rio de Janeiro, Not Favela Safari Tours

  • Felipe Zalamea
  • 24 June 2013

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.

view of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, including the Sugarloaf Mountain

An iconic view of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, including the Sugarloaf Mountain, as seen from the top of the Corcovado Mountain. Santa Marta is the favela on the bottom left. Photo courtesy of Sumak Sustainable Travel

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.

View of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Santa Marta favela

A view of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Santa Marta favela, as seen from the top of the favela. Photo courtesy of Sumak Sustainable Travel

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.

Michael Jackson statue in Santa Marta, a favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Michael Jackson statue on Michael Jackson Square, put in place in Santa Marta, a favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Jackson filmed the They Don't Care About Us video. Photo courtesy of Sumak Sustainable Travel

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.

Sumak Travel operates travel experiences that support local communities in a way that is socially, financially and environmentally sustainable. Its tour passing through Rio de Janeiro includes a small-group visit to Santa Marta in keeping with the motivations described above.

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Felipe Zalamea

Felipe Zalamea studied economics at La Sorbonne University in Paris, where he specialised in sustainability. He then spent a year researching community-based ecotourism initiatives and innovative social and environmental projects across South America. He saw how mass tourism threatens biodiversity, damages ecosystems and violates the rights of local people, in particular workers and minorities. But he also met social entrepreneurs and local communities launching sustainable tourism initiatives, acting ethically and protecting the wellbeing of local populations and the environment. Felipe founded Sumak Travel, or “good, sustainable travel,” a London-based tour operator/social enterprise, and Sustainable Pangea.
Felipe Zalamea
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Brazil, cities, ecotours, local knowledge, opinion, personal experience, poverty, responsible travel news, South America, whl.travel,

3 Responses to “Positive Action in Rio de Janeiro, Not Favela Safari Tours”

  1. Renan Ferrer says:

    I live in São Paulo in Brazil and know well the Rio. Rio city is a magical, but the center is not only that there is beauty. Our coastline is immense. The south coast and north of Rio are magical too. Angra dos Reis is a paradise, without violence and vandals. People think that only exists in Brazil, Rio city. We have thousands of miles of spectacular coastline for tourists to discover.
    Thanks for sharing with us!
    Cheers! Renan Ferrer

  2. Lauren Jones says:

    Rio de Janeiro is one of the best cities I have ever seen. The beauty of the city attracts me most.Can you post some impressive photos of the place?

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