Only 15 minutes away from the world famous Copacabana beach lies the neighbourhood of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is not listed as an attraction in any guide book and a visit to this part of Rio is not recommended by any local. In fact, in many cases, Rocinha is described as one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods, one you should probably avoid during your stay in Rio.
We weren’t looking for trouble in Rochina. We were looking for a taste of real Brazil, but as we drove up Estrada da Gávea, the main street in Rocinha, our adventurous spirits were filling up with hesitation and anxiety.
“Was this whole adventure into the favela a good idea?” – I thought to myself, looking out of the window and snapping my first photo of the street.
We drove further and further into the favela in search for our hostel.
After reading a few reviews on Tripadvisor and exchanging a few emails with the hostel staff, we booked a night at Hotel Nossa Senhora da Boa Viagem in hopes of getting a first-hand experience of life in the Rocinha favela.
We rounded yet another corner and were now stopped in traffic beside 10 fully armed policemen. It’s great to know that the streets of Rocinha are heavily patrolled, but is it really necessary to have 10 police man guarding every corner? Is this what they mean when they say this favela has been pacified?
“Does this “hotel” even exist or is this all just a big scam?” – we wondered 10 minutes later.
According to Google Maps, we were well past the hotel location. But we didn’t give up and to our joy, another 400 meters (15 minutes) up the road we saw the hotel sign. Underneath it, a group of 5 gringos (i.e. foreigners) with their noses in their phones. Well at least we are not the only insane foreigners staying at this hostel.
Within a few minutes we were checked in and on our way to our room. 4 steep flights of stairs later, we arrived in a very basic 4 bed dorm room with one hell of a view.
After locking our valuables inside the lockers in our room we were ready to get out there and explore the streets. At first I was hesitant. Should I be hiding my camera, so it doesn’t get stolen? Can I take photos or will it offend the locals? Should we see what we can while its still day light and then stay in our hostel after dark?
As we walked up and down the streets of Rocinha, watching locals go about their daily life, our fears and hesitations started to ease up. Shops and restaurants lined the main street of the favela.
Rocinha also had a descent transportation system. The residents could get to the main street of the favela by bus and then switch to one of the official favela taxi motorcycles that could take them deeper into the steep narrow streets of Rocinha. The taxi drivers wore fluorescent yellow vests, had and extra helmet for the passenger, and each had their own license number, giving the residents confidence of their safety on these bikes. Koodos to the government for implementing this!
Rocinha even had a gym…
…although many of Rocinha’s residents preferred this type of exercise.
Everywhere we went we were greeted with a smile. The kids playing football on the streets waived their hello’s, as I snapped away with my camera. The ladies at the local convenience shop took us for locals as they chatted up Max about the upcoming Argentina vs Germany World Cup Final. A group of men playing cards and enjoying a beer after what must’ve been a long week of work, gestured for us to join them in front of a tiny TV in a kiosk bar on the main street.
We continued to explore the streets, peaking into alley ways decorated with beautiful graffiti, poking our heads into shops, enjoying a freshly made delicious pizza in one of Rocinha’s restaurants, and following local’s advice to try what turned out to be the best dessert we had in Brazil.
“It doesn’t feel very dangerous here now” – I said to Luiz, the front desk staff at our hotel. “Do you feel safe living in Rocinha?”
Luiz, who we met upon check in, was born in Rocinha and has been living and working here his whole life. He spoke great English, thanks to his mother’s employer who years ago put him through private English school.
“Generally, it is safe yes, but it depends where you go. There is still a war between drug lords and police going on in the background, so if you don’t know where you are going and you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can get in trouble”
“Where is this war? Can you see signs of it on a daily basis?”
“Yes, sometimes they are shootings. Police shoot the drug dealers, they shoot back, so there are some areas where this happens. People in the favela know where those areas are and just don’t go there. Mostly it happens in small streets, deep in the favela”
As the evening went on we continued to explore the favela with Luiz by our side. We walked around little alleyways, that we weren’t brave enough to explore ourselves, sharing more stories about his own life growing up in Rocinha. This was exactly the experience we were after. A way to explore the favela and learn about the lives of its residents in a way that’s not demeaning or intrusive.
“I f****** hate when the tours groups come through the favela. You know those tour companies that come on their jeeps taking people around the favela. They don’t know anything about life here” – said Luiz when I asked him about his opinion on Favela Tours.
I knew he was right. Even the tours that claimed to be run by local Rocinha tour guides and promised that all their proceeds will go back to the Rocinha community could not be compared to our contributions to the favela that night. The money we could have spent on a favela tour were instead truly distributed throughout the community: from the hotel and the pizza restaurant, to the acai kiosk and the beer shop.
Rocinha was exactly what I expected. Many parts of this favela still lack proper housing, sanitation, and electricity …
…and its residents work hard to survive day in and day out, many on only $1-2 a day.
Its streets are filled with rubbish and the houses are built on top of each other.
But compared to other favelas in Rio, Rocinha shows glimpses of hope. It has better infrastructure and hundreds of established businesses that allow its residents, like Luiz to earn and save for the future.
Despite the gloomy preconception of favelas in Rio, I encourage you to consider visiting a favela during your stay in Rio. This experience in Rocinha helped me gain a perspective on life in Rio, away from the stunning beaches in Copacabana, great restaurants in Leblon, or amazing samba clubs in Lapa and I hope one day it will do the same for you.
If you have any questions about my experience in the favela, please leave a comment below.