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If Madonna can do a Rio de Janeiro favela tour so can you

Normal one day, crazy the next.

This would be the honest slogan for Rio favela tours, ripping off Queensland's era-defining "beautiful one day, perfect the next" tourism campaign. Like a dormant volcano, random eruptions of violence between rifle and grenade toting gangsters and police happen with unexpected but inevitable (in)frequency, the uncertainty in the last word really depends on your perspective. But despite these sporadic outbursts, tours of ‘pacified’ favelas, which have police forces and are considered relatively peaceful, fascinate foreigners.

Late last year Brazil’s largest favela and unlikely tourist hotspot, Rocinha, was in an on and off state of civil war. With drug trafficking gangs battling for control over 900 army troops were sent in for a couple of weeks to restore calm to the coastal mountainside community, home to over 200,000 people.

Even though it's only a small fraction of the population causing trouble, it has ramifications for everyone in the community, from how they live their daily lives, their reputation, to the tourism dollars coming in.

Amidst this heightened tension a Spanish tourist, María Esperanza Jiménez Ruiz, 67, was shot dead by a police officer as she sat in the backseat of her favela tour car with tinted windows as they whizzed through Rocinha. Her Italian tour guide accidentally drove them through a police checkpoint before an officer, presumably thinking they were gang members, fired at the car. He was subsequently charged with homicide.

It was an all-round tragic incident which led to a host of reforms for the industry and showed the at times dicey nature of favela tours, leaving the question hanging in the hot Rio air - how safe are favelas for tourists?

Favela pop appeal:

The answer, as alluded to in my opening line, is it depends on the day.

Just days after Ms Ruiz’s death pop stars Madonna and Diplo, both in town separately, posted photos to their millions of worldwide followers showing off their visits to Rio’s favelas. It wasn’t either of their first times paying them a visit as well, having gone in years past just like the king of pop did before them, Michael Jackson.

With publicity like this Rio’s favelas have a global reputation completely at odds with their standing in Brazilian society.

According to Rio de Janeiro’s Ministry of Tourism there are thousands of guides operating tours through the city’s south zone favelas for everyone from backpackers to rich tourists being whisked in jeeps from their five-star hotels to take in the mazes of streets, humble houses and tangles of electricity cables overhead. While some Brazilians bemoan “poverty tourism”, residents and charities see them as invaluable for the money they bring in and awareness they drive for social projects.

Speaking to me from his home during one of those random days of violence, Zezinho, 55, a passionate Rocinha local and owner of sustainable tour company Favela Adventures, said when gunshots rang out he called his tours off.

“If somebody was running a tour today they would be putting lives at risk of a stray bullet, very stupid,” he said.

“I love Rocinha so much and enjoy showing my life here, but money is not more important than the safety of my guests.”

He acknowledges that Rocinha is going through tough times but says this sort of violence leaving him and many others trapped in their homes this day isn’t normal. Having also lived 15 years in North America prior to returning to his beloved birthplace, Zezinho’s tours show the friendly face of life in Rocinha whose name he has proudly tattooed across his arm. His glowing five-star Trip Advisor reviews show a man who is smashing preconceptions about favela life.

“We are tired of the media only showing the negative side of things, there are lots of positive things here,” he said.

“The people are what make this place awesome.”

He tells the story of two young local men who found a foreign tourist’s wallet stuffed with $10,000BRL ($4000AU) on the footpath outside Rocinha at the start of the year - equivalent to a year’s minimum wage. They got word of their find to a popular daytime Rio TV show and eventually tracked its Argentinian owner down to a nearby hotel. He gave them $100US ($320BRL) as a reward, but instead of blowing it, they donated it to a family whose house recently burnt down.

“Even with these problems I will not leave here, Rocinha is my home, I will not abandon her,” Zezinho said.

"People are nice, friendly and help each other, I never felt this love in the US or Canada."

Eye-opening tours

Gangs are a highly-publicised part of favela reality, but in Rocinha most days are simply life as normal.

Australian honeymooners Nat Dalmasso, 29, and her husband Ricky Dunn, 33, from Sydney saw this firsthand when they went on a favela tour of Rocinha recently. Learning about the ins and outs of favela life and Rocinha’s history, they took in the unique Rio vista of favela houses, craggy mountain cliffs, luxury apartment buildings and the ocean from the top before walking down its narrow winding streets.

Throughout the walk their guide implored them to take photos to put on social media to change the negative reputation movies like City of God have brought upon favelas. A stereotype he said didn’t stand up to the reality of everyday life.

“I thought the tour was eye-opening,” Nat said.

“I was surprised by the number of shops I saw, the favela has everything a person might need without needing to leave.”

In the lead up to their Rocinha tour and following Ms Ruiz’s death, tourism and security officials put new regulations on favela tours. They included that police be informed of all tours going on, only local guides are hired, cars are clearly marked and written warnings are given to customers beforehand with information about where they are visiting.

“I had expected to feel slightly unsafe in the favela but I actually felt very safe the entire time,” Nat said.

“The people were very kind and friendly, almost everyone said hello as we passed.”

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