Taking a favela tour in Rio de Janeiro is one of the most eye-opening things you can do in Brazil. It offers you a chance for insight into the local culture and the stark divide between the classes of the city.
When done correctly, it is an experience that will open your mind, and heart, as you connect to the people that call the favelas home. But how do we do this in a way that supports the residents of the favela we visit, instead of exploiting them as another tourist attraction?
Through responsible tours that are structured around creating, supporting and sustaining positive social impact in the communities they work with. Not all favela tours are created equal, so it’s important to know who you’re hiring to show you this unique aspect of Rio de Janeiro.
What Makes This Tour Different?
Working with the support of both Planeterra and G Adventures, Favela Experience was able to develop a new tour in Vidigal that directly benefits the community. This is done through the development of five micro-enterprises and community organizations.
In addition to providing an opportunity for travelers to have an inside look at life in a favela, their participation in the new tour creates positive social impact resulting in increased revenue flow for the community, promotion of local businesses and the breakdown of stereotypes.
The tours provide a way for travelers to be directly introduced to the people of the Vidigal Favela. To know them by name and learn their amazing stories of perseverance despite overwhelming odds.
Interaction with the micro-enterprises immerses you into the emotion of the projects as you not only learn the history but get to participate in them during the visit.
Lastly, touring Vidigal with Favela Experience means being guided by people that were actually born, raised and live within the favela. They are passionate about the place they call home and eager to show you how the favelas in Rio are much more complex and different than what you may see on TV.
Personal Thoughts on Visiting a Favela in Rio
Before I get into sharing with you the wonderful projects that are part of the favela tour we took in Vidigal, I wanted to share some of my personal thoughts and opinions from our experience.
I want to level with you and be real because deciding to take a tour into one of the most notorious areas of Rio de Janeiro, a city I was admittedly intimidated to visit, ended up opening my already open eyes a little wider. If that makes sense.
David and I are well-traveled, we’ve been to almost 100 countries on all 7 continents. We have mingled with the people of the world on all levels, from shocking poverty to the top 1%.
Yet, I find myself sometimes contemplating stereotypes – never out loud but sometimes in the depths of my mind, it is unfortunately hard-wired into us with the constant media sensationalism that is everywhere.
Prior to our visit to Brazil, I thought a lot about Rio de Janeiro, favelas, culture, economics and politics. Ultimately, I couldn’t wrap my head around what I would possibly encounter on our favela tour.
I’ve seen poverty, I am no stranger to it. I thought a lot about the ethics of ‘human-based’ tours and wondered how this one would be different.
We went to Brazil. I fell head over heels for Rio de Janeiro, yes a city I had previously been anxious about and walked away from our tour in the Vidigal Favela with a vow to myself to stop watching the news. (Is that even possible?)
Life in the favelas is hard for the people that live there. They are poor, so damn poor, but they live despite so many ongoing struggles.
I had visions in my mind that the favelas were places that had nothing and were overrun by drug lords. That gunshots rang out on every street corner and violence was part of everyday life. I was wrong.
Drugs do have a place in the favelas and violence does happen but this is not the only thing in the favelas. They have a community, they have hope and the people that live there have worked together to build their own city within a city.
I was surprised to see that the favelas have built their own economies and they have stores, restaurants and service shops that support that economy.
Kids play together in the street and adults go about their daily hustle to make a living. Life in the favela is far from perfect but the key here is that it is still life. It is not a void in an otherwise thriving city.
It’s a place that people call home, raise their children in and dream about their futures.
Our tour with Favela Experience brought the life of a favela to light in a personal way. It was unexpected and an experience that will serve as a reminder to me of why I choose to travel the world and open myself up to other cultures and ways of life.
Micro-Enterprises that Change Lives
The essence of this favela tour in Vidigal revolves around the social impact projects that have been set up with the support of Planeterra.
The walking tour, that starts at the only entrance and exit to the favela, not only includes time spent on the streets but also visiting a few of the micro-enterprises that have been put in place to change lives and help the favela community thrive.
Guided by someone who lives in Vidigal
From the moment we met Russo, we knew we would like him. He was a very real-world approach to guiding tours in the Vidigal Favela, a place he has called home since he was born.
He has no interest in glossing over what life is like for the people that live there and enthusiastically leads his guests up hills, down back alleys and to each stop on the tour.
After years of watching tours being led through the favela by outside tour companies and people who were not local, he formed his own company called Vidigal Trails.
He now leads tours through his home, telling his own stories about growing up in Vidigal and opening travelers’ eyes to the fact that life in the favela isn’t much different than their own.
Sitiê Eco Park
After entering the favela and taking a community bus to the very end of the road, we made our first tour stop at the Sitiê Eco Park. Located on the edge of the favela, the eco-park treats you to some pretty impressive views. Although, the views don’t tell the whole story.
Facing an overwhelming issue of too many people in a small space and no waste management services in place, the people originally designated this area on the edge of the favela as a place to dispose of trash.
Years of using the area as a dump came to head in 2006 when a massive landslide came through the area. The effects were devastating, spreading trash through the favela and resulting in loss of life.
That event promoted a couple of concerned community members to start a project of cleaning up the area and retaking the land. They were able to remove more than five tons of trash over the three years that followed.
A large portion of the trash that was recovered during the project was able to be repurposed and used for landscaping within the park. During our visit, we followed paths shaped my pallets and metal slabs, walked upstairs made with recycled tires and admired a variety of items, such as old toilets, being used as planters.
Today the Sitiê Eco Park is used as a community space for leisure, education and environmental awareness. The park also acts as a community garden, where local residents can plant vegetables and herbs.
Entering the building we walked up a spiral staircase before arriving into a room that resembled a modern-day dojo. Mats lined the floor and the room was empty with the exception of a large bench on the opposite side of the room.
We would soon learn that this building houses the Vidigal Capoeira school. A place designed to preserve the cultural art of capoeira dance as a significant part of the country’s Afro-Brazilian history and culture.
The school provides an opportunity for children of all ages to learn teamwork and discipline through the sport of Capoeira. Resembling the practice of martial arts, Capoeira is an elegant fusion of dance, acrobatics, and music that was brought to Brazil by enslaved Africans in the 16th century.
Taking a hold into the culture of Brazilians, Capoeira is at risk of becoming a lost art among the next generation. This is mainly due to a lack of resources for providing the teachings of the sport to today’s youth.
During our visit, we not only got to witness the beauty of Capoeira at work through the performance of some of the top students at the school but had the chance to try our hands at it as well. I can’t say it was pretty, but we did our best.
Support from Planeterra has enabled the school to clean up the building and provide a comfortable, safe place for children to learn and study Capoeria. The skills they learn from the sport have to lead to better performance in school and a heightened opportunity for scholarships to attend higher-level schools in Rio de Janeiro.
One thing is for certain, the energy that project leader Isis exudes is infectious. It took me all of 5 seconds to realize why people are drawn to her and why she has had so much success in her projects.
Stemming from her childhood passion for playing the drums, she has always been a performer and passionate about sharing her love for percussion. People are drawn to her and her music, leading her to start a percussion school in the heart of Vidigal.
Youth come to her out of interest for the music and stay with her because she makes learning fun. She applies the fundamentals of life to her percussion teaching and is able to help at-risk youth find their purpose in life.
Admittedly, it was hard for us to imagine the concept of a craft brewery operating within a favela. That was until we arrived at Vidigal Beer, our final stop on the favela tour.
Founded by Luciano, Vidigal Beer embraces the very principles that allow micro-enterprises to thrive.
During our visit, he explained to us that his vision is much larger than just brewing beer. He adheres to a low impact structure by abiding by three self-enforced principles within his business.
These include social impact by bringing world awareness to the really like inside the favelas. He strives to show people that life in Vidigal is different from what they see on TV. Economically he supports small businesses and entrepreneurs inside the favela so they do not have to seek work outside the community.
Lastly, he promotes environmentally sound practices by using all recycled bottles. He never buys used bottles for Vidigal Beer. He also uses local ingredients that are produced from within the favela, including fruits that come from the eco-park.
Sourcing local ingredients means production is slow but I feel that is a fair trade-off for promoting the sustainability of Vidigal.
Why Social Impact Matters in the Favelas
Rio de Janeiro has 1.5 million people living in it. Almost 25% of those people live in one of the thousand favelas that are scattered throughout the city. The living conditions of these favelas vary greatly, with some closer resembling a slum while others operate as high-functioning communities similar to what you’d find in lower-class suburbs.
Despite the variance of conditions, none of the residents live in conventional housing. The people in these communities spend lifetimes of wages constructing concrete homes to live in and unfortunately, formal sanitation systems are not part of the budget.
People that come from the favelas in Rio are often associated with negative assumptions, the drug trade, and crime. This leads to a lack of opportunity and exploitation when they try to find jobs to better their lives.
This assumption has a ripple effect that filters all the way to the youth and in many cases lead them down the exact path they were trying to avoid due to lack of opportunity or other options.
The recent rise of interest in favela culture by travelers has led to a surge in opportunity for people to thrive within their communities by being part of and helping to develop social enterprises.
By taking a tour with the Favela Experience, that is operated in partnership with the community, you are directly contributing to providing an opportunity to people that have struggled to find it elsewhere.
Important Things to Know Before Taking Any Favela Tour
It is important for me to point out that no matter what favela tour you end up taking in Rio de Janeiro, the same rules should be applied. You are entering a community where real people live, work and play. They should be treated with respect and empathy.
If you wouldn’t be comfortable with something in your own community at home, don’t do it while taking a favela tour in Rio.
What a Favela Tour in Rio is:
- A way to connect: Despite your obvious differences, you’ll meet people with similar interests and passions. You’ll meet people that want the same things in life as you. Smile, wave and be friendly during your visit.
- A way to learn: You’ll see that favelas are not all crime and that life inside them goes on like any other city in the world. You’ll learn to see past assumptions and media sensationalism.
- A way to grow: The knowledge you gain on a favela tour will change the way you think about poverty. It will arm you with new knowledge to share with others and a passion to contribute to projects that can make this world a better place.
What a Favela Tour in Rio is not:
- A gawking tour: Taking a favela tour is not about keeping you separated from the people that live there. It is a tour meant to tear down barriers, give insight to life in other places and for you to make connections with the people you encounter.
- A model session: Being able to take a tour that will get you up close and personal with the residents of a favela is not a free pass to take photos at will. The people you will encounter on your tour are not there for your personal photography needs. Most people prefer that you do not take their photos.
Following these basic principles will enable you to connect with the local people and be accepted during your visit.
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