Walking through a Rio de Janeiro favela I was told by my resident guide that the order from the most senior gangsters is to not lay a hand on visitors. She said I could navigate the Cantagalo favela’s steep maze of pathways, streets and stairs safely with a Brazilian or even alone, something more people are not afraid to do. Because of this Cariocas often say you’re safer from being robbed inside them than near the beaches. Bringing in money to an economy once off limits to outsiders means police and media attention are bad for everyone’s business. Justice at the traficantes (drug dealers) hands within this parallel urban universe I’m told is far worse than from the authorities.
Still, most locals steer clear from them if they don't live there as decades of newspaper headlines and the sound of gunfire echoing from them do not fade from the collective consciousness so easily. Prejudices, stigma and fear still exist.
A few weeks after my tour I went back with a Brazilian friend to a bar converted from a house in Cantagalo, Gilda no Cantagalo, which has sweeping views out to the ocean and throws Sunday jazz sessions.
Located within Ipanema in Zona Sul, the South Zone, where most of this year’s Olympic Games visitors stayed, the community typifies how the city’s poorest have its most jaw-dropping views. And hostels and bars are starting to trade on them with great success, bringing in new people, money and changed perceptions.
Cantagalo's fringe lies on the doorsteps of wealthy neighbours and their security guards, their entrances sharing the same snaking street - a typical Rio contrast.
The pacification of the south zone’s favelas since the late 2000s has been the best example of the government’s efforts to introduce police, stem violence and connect their communities to the beating heart of Rio to supply education, health and sanitation.
Middle class Brazilians and bus loads of backpacking gringos now unload in places like Vidigal for their funk parties - Rio’s popular Afro-style electronic music born in the favelas - or to set off on hikes up Dois Irmaos, one of Rio's natural wonders.
Of course basic caution and respect is required, there's still crime and these are communities home to people's lives and not a zoo.
Perhaps AirBnB sums it up best: "Vidigal is emblematic of Rio’s challenging contrasts. Perching along the coast of the Atlantic, this artistic seaside neighborhood claims some of the world’s most sought-after real estate.
"Although Vidigal’s beauty is next to none, its hardships are real - the neighborhood is notorious as the site of illicit activities, turf wars, and dense disenfranchisement. Awash in color and burgeoning with potential, exploring Vidigal is best suited for savvy travelers."
The largest favela in South America, Roccinha, is located on the other side of the mountain to Vidigal and it is truly a sight to behold.
Pacification in Zona Norte, the North Zone, has been less successful, and is where the nightly news get most of their stories from. Scenes akin to urban warfare with machine gun fire and explosions are not uncommon, gunpoint street robberies and carjackings too.
During the Olympics a carload of soldiers not far from Rio's international airport took a wrong turn off a highway into the Vila do Joao favela and were sprayed with bullets, one hitting the driver Helio Vieira, 37, in the head killing him. These are strictly non-tourist zones.
But the mountain-hugging favelas overlooking Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches are now visited, stayed at and lived in by travellers - unthinkable a decade ago.
But unmissable now.
Extra photo credits above to Gilda no Cantagalo, Patrick Gomes and Creative Commons
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