To visit a favela or not to visit a favela: it’s a controversial decision many travelers to Rio will ponder at some point or another.
Critics call it poverty tourism, proponents say it de-stigmatizes and brings income to marginalized communities. Even amongst my own peers, there’s discord. Friends from South Africa have made me cross my heart that I’ll never take a township tour, and some of my Brazilian friends strongly discouraged me from visiting a favela as well. Their concerns were not for my safety, but rather that tourists create a “human zoo” by paying to ogle at the darkest side of economic inequality. That, I wanted no part of.
And yet, pretending favelas don’t exist also seemed cruel in its own way. I desperately wanted to be educated, to be exposed, to experience multiple sides of Brazil. After much research and reflection, Heather and I decided we were going to visit a favela in Rio de Janeiro — and that the most respectful way to do so would be to take a walking tour with a small, locally owned company. (Big, drive-by tours in armored vehicles were out from the get go, obviously.)
There are many favelas in Rio. We chose to visit Santa Marta for several reasons. First, it was literally within walking distance of our hostel in Botafogo, and we were eager to explore the neighborhood we were staying in. Second, as artists, we were magnetically drawn to the popular mural project at the base of the favela and were excited to see it in person. Third, we found a locally-owned, ethically-run and reasonably priced walking tour with Tour Santa Marta.
We met our guide at a petrol station across the street from Santa Marta. We were pleased to learn we’d lucked out with a private tour, which meant we’d have no distractions from the bajillion questions we were planing to pepper our guide with.
And Pedro was more than happy to answer them. When he first approached us, we did a double take at how young he appeared to be. Later, when Pedro was flipping through his backpack I noted several textbooks, and he confirmed he was attending university nearby using his earnings from tour guiding. Based on his amazing English, I could only imagine his studies were going well.
Pedro explained we’d start the tour with a ride up to the top of the favela via cable car, and wind our way slowly back down on foot. Chiago, the owner of the small tour company, met us briefly to say hello and invite us to stop by his home in the favela on our way back.
As we approached the cable car, I noticed a small piece of street art and reached for my camera, only to realize I’d made the day’s massive face-palm: I left the battery charging back in our hostel room. To my surprise, Pedro translated that Chiago was a photography aficionado and had offered to quickly run home to see if he had a spare on the same size. A favela-dweller with a dSLR camera collection? Our misconceptions were already being broken down.
After an initial bout of the blues I realized it was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Heather, with her journalism background, is much more comfortable and skilled at taking photos in sensitive situations. Frankly, I’d been stressing even before we arrived. Freed from my discomfort and my obligation to take photos, I could focus fully on the experience. So with the exception of a few iPhone snaps, full credit for the photos in this post go to the talented Heather Holt.
As we disembarked from the cable car, a gift from the government to the favela upon pacification, we marveled at the amazing views over the city. Pedro laughed when we commented what high real estate prices vistas like this would command in the US, and countered that the top of the favela was actually traditionally the least desirable, as pre-cable car, it was a difficult slog up the steep hill on foot.
Santa Marta was the first of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas to be pacified back in 2008. Pacification refers to the government’s plan to wrest control of the favelas from drug dealers and gangs and hand it to a special police force known as the UPP, or the Pacifying Police Unit in English. The results have been mixed, but in Santa Marta, once one of the most violent slums in Rio, it’s almost impossible not to see the changes as positive.
Favelas have been a part of life in Rio since the late 1800’s. The word favela comes from the favela tree, a plant that, ominously, causes skin irritations to all those who come in contact with it. The moniker stuck for the communities mushrooming up all over Rio, populated by former slaves, poverty-stricken squatters, and soldiers who had nowhere else to go.
With 22% of Rio’s population living in them, favelas are an unmistakable facet of Brazilian life. At 8,000 residents, Santa Marta is on the small side.
Pedro’s fascinating stories were regularly paused to greet friends and acquaintances as we walked. From tiny tots calling his name and running over to ask for help finding their cats to the local barber stopping him to discuss football scores, it truly felt that Pedro knew every single person in Santa Marta.
And we weren’t left out. One of my favorite moments of the day was when we walked by a street-side barbecue and an older gentleman called Pedro over to try some, and translated through him his absolute insistence that Heather and I have a taste as well. With Heather being a vegetarian, I thought it only polite to eat enough for both of us!
Pedro explained that Chiago had created the tour company to change the conversation on favelas. Born and raised in Santa Marta, he wanted to show the world the energetic, vibrant community that he loved and continues to live in to this day by choice.
That spirit we were starting to understand was introduced to many in the world when Michael Jackson and Spike Lee traveled to Santa Marta in 1996 to film scenes for Jackson’s controversial music video They Don’t Really Care About Us. The government initially opposed the project and they pushed forward regardless, hiring residents as extras in the video and making Jackson a hero to the community in the process. Pedro proudly showed us the football field where Jackson’s helicopter had landed for filming, and the mural and statue the community built in his honor after.
Around the statue there were a handful of ramshackle souvenir-shops with locally-produced art and gifts, as well as a few small bodegas and snack shops.
Knowing that Santa Marta was the first pacified favela and continues to be one of the safest in the city, I frankly didn’t have any security-related qualms whatsoever about visiting. However, we got a serious reality check when, moments after stepping into a local shop to browse, we heard shouting and commotion out the door. While the owner of the shop smiled and tried to distract us, our hearts pounded as we pressed our faces to the window and saw military police with assault rifles aggressively shoving a local resident to the ground.
Just drug related, Pedro later assured us.
It was a reminder that yes, Santa Marta was once one of the most violent slums in the city and many people died here in bloody shootouts. In one of the most poignant physical symbols of change, bullet holes still dot the colorfully painted walls of a former day care center, now HQ for the Pacified Police Unit.
As our heart rates returned to normal we continued to ply Pedro with questions. In turn, he volleyed them right back at us, asking everything about where we live, what we studied, our travels, and beyond. Soon it felt like we were being shown around by a friend.
That feeling was only reinforced when we arrived at Chiago’s house. He offered us juice and showed us photos of famous visitors he’d welcomed to the favela, big names from Madonna to Vin Diesel to Alicia Keys and beyond. I marveled at how lucky we were to be seated in that cozy living room, invited guests in world that seems so mysterious to so many.
As we continued our descent down the hill, I reflected on how the day was different from my expectations.
I’d read so many posts from my fellow travel bloggers about their favela experiences before arriving that frankly, they’d all started to run together in my head and I’d even started to feel blasé about the entire experience. After reading about nightclubs and hostels opening in some favelas, and the growing concerns of gentrification, I think I half arrived expecting some sort of hip facsimile of Bushwick. Um, yeah, guys — I’m guessing you don’t need a spoiler warning for this, but Santa Marta is no Brooklyn.
So while many visitors to favelas seem to have their eyes opened to the fact that these are tight-knit, supportive communities with a lot to be proud of, I kind of already went in expecting that. Instead, what humbled me were the bullet-hole riddled reminders of gun violence, the relentless smell of open sewage, and walking paths carved out of mountains and rivers of garbage. Having just come from a morning of hang-gliding over some of Rio’s plushest ocean-side manors in São Conrado, it was quite the contrast. I’ve been exposed to poverty many times in my travels. And yet, my eyes were wide open to it here.
The further down we traveled in the favela, the more “cleaned up” it felt. Soon, we were almost back down at sea level, and we found ourselves face to face with the mural project that had partially inspired us to visit Santa Marta in the first place.
Just look at this beautiful work! The project was pioneered by two Dutch artists who lived in the favelas for some time and eventually hired local youths to bring their paint-swatch daydreams to life. The project energized and made proud the local community, Pedro assured us with a smile. In fact, the same favelas that residents were once dying, literally, to get out of, have become desirable real estate that some are actually moving into by choice.
Earlier I mentioned that Santa Marta was within walking distance of our hostel. Santa Marta is in Botafogo, which felt like an entirely different city than the one we’d later experience in Copacabana and Ipanema. We loved our time there and I was sad to learn that our hip hostel, Oztel, has permanently shuttered — so I won’t be writing a full review of it. Admittedly, we had several issues there that in retrospect didn’t look promising for its future, but shucks — isn’t it cute?
Had we had more time at Oztel, I would have happily returned to the base of the Santa Marta for dinner or drinks. We’d actually booked a favela nightlife tour for later in the trip to see yet another side of favela life — with a different company — but had to cancel due to travel burnout and the worst hangovers of our lives (ugh). While I can no longer recommend Oztel specifically, I highly recommend considering a few nights in Botafogo, which is the perfect base for exploring Santa Marta.
Favela tourism, I predict, will only continue to grow. If you are coming to Rio, I gently encourage you to do some research to find the right fit for you. I never feared for my safety, just for the possibility that I was being unintentionally disrespectful or voyeuristic — however my concerns were quickly assuaged upon arrival.
I believe Chiago had amazing intentions of supporting his family and his community when he started this business, and that Pedro is a fabulous tour guide and all around cool dude to hang with. He even invited us to a football match the next evening with his friends, which we regretfully had to decline because we had other plans. How many tour guides have you ever had that are so friendly?
So, do you need to do a tour? We did see two girls who appeared to just be wandering around without a guide, which in Santa Marta is totally possible to do. However, we felt the most respectful way to visit was to be led by a member of the local community, and had we just gone for a stroll we never would have left with such an informed understanding of the social and economic dynamics of the neighbhood.
Tour Santa Marta offers two hour tours twice a day, at 10am or 2pm, for a minimum of two person, at a cost of 100R per person ($32USD).
What I took away from this experience, in addition to a profound respect for people who manage to live with dignity regardless of their external circumstances, was a reminder that the world is so very small. From Brazil to Bangkok to Brooklyn, gentrification brings both the blessings of stability and de-marginalization but also the curses of scrutiny and rising prices, and people everywhere are just trying their darndest to find a balance between the two.
Only time will tell what the future holds for the community of Santa Marta. But in this present moment, I feel grateful for the opportunity to have been welcomed into it, if only for an afternoon.
What do you think? Would you visit a favela in Brazil?
Thank you again to Heather Holt Photography for the photos in this post. We paid full price for our tours and I was not compensated for this review.