Life Lessons from Rio de Janeiro’s Infamous Favelas

“You’re in my world, now. Follow my lead if you want to get out of here in one piece”, the tattooed guide said as he led us through the narrow alleys of one of Rio’s infamous favelas.

Soon, I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake by accepting to come here.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking “Why in God’s name did you book a favela tour, Raphael?”.

The Reason Why I took a Favela Tour

It all started with a movie: Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), a 2007 film about a group of brave military policemen who raided favelas (shantytowns) in search for crime lords, murderers, drug dealers and corrupt officers. Sure, the Western world soon labelled those guys as fascists but to the Latin world? To us they were true heroes.

Captain Nascimento, the leader of the Elite Squad, soon became the Chuck Norris of Brazil and millions of impressionable youths began to fantasize about doing the things he does in order to stop the crime and corruption in their own cities. I was one of them.

In the end, I decided to go for a more commercial vocation but once the opportunity of visiting a favela in Rio de Janeiro presented itself, I knew I had to be part of this adventure.

The colorful Rocinha favela houses of Rio

The colorful Rocinha Favela of Rio

Daily life in a favela: Myths and Facts

To be honest, I already knew beforehand that there’s no way a favela tour would take place in an extremely dangerous environment as the one presented in the movie and yet, the favela we visited (Rocinha) was definitely not what anyone in the tour expected. Quick question: What type of music do you expect to hear in a favela?

If your answer was rap music, gangster music, samba music or general songs in Portuguese…you’re WRONG. Turns out, people at the favelas are huge fans of Rihanna and Beyoncé. Quite a shock, isn’t it? I guess they should have put a ring on it.

And yes, while most people expect favela inhabitants to be dirt poor…you certainly wouldn’t imagine them paying for a premium dish TV service.

“So wait, why do they pay for satellite television instead of saving money to improve their living conditions?” I asked our guide. “You dense? Are you retarded or something? They do it because it’s their only way to escape” he told me.

As we kept on walking , I couldn’t help but think about what the guide said. Escape. Before my 18th birthday, I had already traveled to all of the wonders of the world thanks to the magic of television and a collection of Encyclopedias that my aunt gave me when I was younger.

To me, travel could never become a reality because of the financial situation of my family during that time. And yes, television was a way to escape the world I was living in since I could easily venture into the many fascinating worlds that existed beyond mine.

One hour I could be in New York City with the cast of Friends and the next one I could be in the middle of the Amazon jungle with Jon Voight and Jennifer Lopez. It was the best way to travel back then. It was the only way.

The view of Rio de Janeiro from Christ the Redeemer

The view of Rio de Janeiro from Christ the Redeemer

I don’t know if this is the same in all Latin countries but at least in Mexico, the reason why most lower class house wives and maids are obsessed with the telenovelas (soap operas) is because they are the perfect escape to their reality. They are the eternal love story of a poor girl that meets a rich man and how they are able to overcome most obstacles thanks to the power of love.

They are a weapon against the cruel reality of the world they live in. A reality that, as soon as the television is turned off, they have to endure and accept every single day: Domestic abuse, poverty and machismo. And that’s heartbreaking.

You know the only positive thing about a tour that exposes you to poverty? That you start to fully appreciate what matters the most in your life and to feel blessed because, let’s be honest, chances are that you’re richer than you think.

A foreword on taking a Favela tour

Two hours after arriving to the favela and learning about the daily life of its inhabitants, we left with a huge hole in our souls. How is it fair that some hard-working people have so few while others have so many? We knew we weren’t there to change their world but I think that we can surely change ours.

It’s time to break the bubble that we live in and start to empathize with those who have less. The only way to help other people is by comprehending their life and their daily struggles.

The favela tour of Rio de Janerio

The favela tour of Rio de Janerio

Have you ever experienced true poverty?

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21 Responses

  1. Caitlyn

    I’m heading to Rio next month and not sure if I want to book a favela tour. On one hand I would like to see the way so many Brazilians live but on the other hand I don’t want to look at the whole situation as if real people are almost attractions at a zoo. Nice to hear of your perspective. I’ll keep thinking about it :)

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      To be honest the tour was more about the history of the favelas and the living conditions of the people who live there, we barely met any locals since they were all busy going on with their daily lives.

      The only ones we actively did go visit were a souvenir salesman, a baker and a nurse in charge of a children’s orphanage (we were not allowed to see the children themselves).

      It is a very humane tour conducted by an inhabitant of the favela so it doesn’t really feels like a a human zoo.

  2. memographer

    Good article. Can’t wait for my trip to Rio… still considering Favela tour.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      You should give it a go, although I’m not sure how things have changed in preparation for the World Cup, I sure hope living conditions have improved for the best.

  3. Tim

    I spent two months in Rio back in the late 80’s and often went walking in the nearby favelas. I still remember it as being like a step back in time. Still though, all the shanty huts had color televisions which, like you, blew me away. I never felt threatened while in there but that maybe because of youthful stupidity or the hand of God navigating me; who knows. Rio is a fascinating city in a fascinating country and to visit every aspect makes you realize many things about your own existence.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      So the Television phenomena was already a thing back in the 80’s? Whoa, that sure opens up a whole new layer of analysis, thanks for sharing your experiences Tim!

  4. Allison Wilson

    Don’t about this place too much but it is awesome to read about and happy to see the colorful houses in your picture.

  5. Hannah

    What a great experience! I’ve been told the taking a favela tour is a ‘must’ when I finally get to Brazil. Can’t believe those satellite dishes though- who would have thought?!

  6. Lila Asnani

    I am headed to Brazil for the World Cup next month and would be interested in your thoughts about safety and sights to see in Rio. The Favela tour looked really interesting albeit tough. Great post.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Rio is very unique in the sense that violent crime can happen anywhere…even in the middle of the ocean!

      Sure, 99% of travelers never experience any sort of violent crime but that 1% can potentially happen anywhere in the city, sadly.

  7. Sharon

    I also did a favela tour when I was in Rio. Such an amazing experience! I highly recommend it and it was also not quite what I expected. It actually inspired me to watch a movie about favela life – City of God. Amazing movie, I actually bought it which is something I never do.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I tried watching it but I just couldn’t make it past the first 20 minutes. Truly heartbreaking film.

      Ps. You should TOTALLY download/rent/buy Tropa de Elite!

  8. Brianna

    Belize and eastern Guatemala are easily the poorest areas I’ve been to. I spoke with a girl who journeyed 10 hours by bus for medical care; in comparison I live within 2 miles of 1 hospital and drive by 2 more on my way to work.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Very interesting fact about Belize, specially considering that it’s one of the most expensive countries in Central America for foreigners. I’ll be there next week so I’ll definitely keep an eye on it!

  9. Elaine Schoch

    I drove through a favela in Brazil a few years ago with my friend who lived outside the area. We were picking up a type of stew for a party she was hosting; she had employed a local woman to make it. I was shocked to see how many homes were without roofs yet each had a satellite dish. It was a similar experience driving through an area in Chita, Siberia. While all the homes had roofs the walls were paper thin – you could see right through them. Mind you, I was there in winter and it was -34 degrees. COLD! Yet again, they all seemed “wired”. I feel very lucky to have a roof and warm walls each night…it’s something we take for granted all to often.

  10. Christine

    Interesting post! I did a favela tour in Rio as well and really enjoyed it. I was hesitant at first because I didn’t like the idea of taking a “tour of the poor” but I actually really liked seeing how real “carioca” lived!

  11. Victoria

    Wow! Very interesting. I’m not sure that I would be brave enough to do such a tour myself. Brazil isn’t even a place that I’m eager to go to, so I admire those who do. An intriguing thought about the satellite dishes, but understandable if you think about it, from a local inhabitant point of view.
    Thanks very much for sharing. :)

  12. Escape Hunter

    I’d love to take a trip to a favela, guided by local experts – for safety and for getting the most out of the experience!

  13. Dorian @ Objectif Voyage

    Really cool article, thanks… the favelas are still one of my most feared destinations, but I still plan on seeing them at some point. I should hit Rio next week, so I’ll try to learn from your lessons :)