Slumming in Rio

Travel Stories: Slum tourism is on the rise. But are the guided tours educational or exploitive? Rob Verger joined one in Rio de Janeiro's impoverished favelas to find out.

06.23.08 | 3:15 PM ET

Rio FavelaPhoto by Rob Verger.

Creeping through traffic in the heart of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest slum, our van hesitated beside piles of trash cooking in the sun. I watched a man pick through it. The air was thick with the smells of exhaust and garbage.

As we inched forward, our guide Alfredo told us about the last police operation against the drug gang here a week earlier. There was a shoot-out. Someone threw a grenade. “About six policemen came,” he said, with a slight Brazilian accent, over the microphone in the van, “and one of them ended up being killed.” The tour he was leading that day didn’t visit Rocinha. “Occasionally, we cannot come here,” he added. “It’s too dangerous.”

But today, apparently, was safe enough. I was there, in the van, as a tourist. I had signed up to take a tour of two of Rio’s favelas, part of the controversial travel phenomenon known as slum tourism.

About 20 percent of Rio’s population lives in favelas, and there are about 750 of these slums in this city of six million people. Each one is a distinct community where the overwhelming majority of residents are trying to live their lives: working, going to school, starting families. The favelas are virtually off-limits for all but those who live there or have business there—in some cases, the drug gang in charge decides who enters, and in others, it’s just not safe to wander around—but if you want to visit, you can sign up with one of Rio’s half-a-dozen or so favela tourism companies, which operate with the permission of the communities they visit. The one I used, Favela Tour, charged $39.

In the weeks before, I had talked to several friends, both Brazilian and not, about favela tourism. Most were uneasy with the idea. How excited can one be about a tour that essentially shows relatively wealthy people where poorer people live? I felt uneasy, too, but I sympathized with both sides of the debate. On one hand, it seemed like the worst kind of voyeurism. On the other, I thought the tour might offer some insight into a part of Brazilian society I knew little about. So, with mixed feelings, I signed up.

On a gray morning, Alfredo met me in the lobby of my hotel in Copacabana. I hopped in the van, joining a driver and three couples: one from the U.K., one from Portugal, a third from Italy.

“I have great news for you,” Alfredo said as we motored off. “There are no robberies in favelas. Not at all. Any kind of trouble-making is avoided by the drug dealers.”

As our van bounced down the road towards Rocinha, he continued: “Who is in charge of the security? Well, here in the city we have the police in charge, and the government is pretty much present. In favelas it’s different. Although we see the police presence there, who is really in charge are the drug dealers. They’re the ones controlling the community, although in a way, things are starting to change.”

Alfredo has been leading favela trips for about eight years. The company, Favela Tour, was founded by Brazilian Marcelo Armstrong, who later told me he got the idea while working for Club Med in Senegal, when he began taking guests beyond the resort’s boundaries to hang out with locals.

Slum tourism isn’t new. In the 19th century, touring a New York City slum known as the Five Points (the setting for the movie “Gangs of New York”) was popular. Tyler Anbinder writes in his book, “Five Points”: “Touring Five Points became an international attraction, drawing such notables as Charles Dickens, a Russian grand duke, Davy Crockett, and Abraham Lincoln. ... Indeed, the American concept of ‘slumming’ was probably invented there.” Whether or not slum tourism began there, it has taken off around the world in recent years, from Chicago to India to Kenya. In 1992, it arrived in Rio. By all accounts, it has been growing there ever since.

Approaching Rocinha, we climbed the curving streets at the settlement’s edge, then pulled over to take a look at the view of beachfront Rio. There, under cloudy skies, orderly and linear hotels and apartment buildings clustered in the flatlands near the still water of the harbor, and behind them rose dark green, rounded hills.

We bumped up the winding paved roads, past homes packed together in a Picasso-like jumble of angles and lines, until we stopped at an apartment building at the hill’s crest. Hopping out, we climbed a flight of stairs and emerged on a flat rooftop to take in the scene. About 56,000 people live in Rocinha—although that number might be much higher. It’s a city within a city, spilling down and following the contours of the hillsides over more than half a square mile. Our view was striking: red bricks and concrete houses, sheet-metal roofs, blue water-storage tanks, clusters of trees, the steep gray and brown rain-soaked rocks of the mountainside.

Another tour group from the same company joined us on the rooftop, and there we all were, like tourists anywhere. Click. Click. Click. It felt familiar: looking out over a vista, taking pictures. Except, of course, we were photographing a slum. Alfredo spoke over the sound of car engines, horns beeping and a rooster’s crow, telling us that children flying kites used to be a common sight in the favelas. It was “a way to communicate with drug dealers,” he said. “Now they don’t need to rely on kites anymore, because they have cell phones, radios and firecrackers. Firecrackers are used as the first warning signal. People hear the noise, they know something’s going on. Then they use radios or cell phones so they are ready for any kind of situation.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the level of violence found in Rio, much of which is focused in and around the favelas. The Economist has reported that over a recent six-year period, Rio averaged one murder every three and a half hours. And according to the 2005 documentary Favela Rising, the favelas have been statistically more dangerous for minors than Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Both the police and the drug gangs—essentially rival armies with a fragile balance of power—are known for brutal tactics.

Back in the van, we motored on to another favela, Vila Canoas, which was quiet and tiny compared to Rocinha. We stopped at a community school largely financed by the tour company and administered by an N.G.O. in the favela. The school was perched on the hillside and was partially open to the tropical air. In a computer lab, a few boys played video games; in two classrooms, children were walking around, or studying, or working on crafts. We were led up to a rooftop store, where we were encouraged to buy crafts to support the school—magnets in the shape of a Brazilian flag, or the butt of a bikini-clad woman—and as we left, another tour filtered into the school. I bought a flag magnet, then walked downstairs and waited for the rest of the group. Beside me a group of boys and their teacher played ping-pong, and nearby three girls laughed and played jump rope.

I had felt slightly uncomfortable all morning, but in the school that feeling deepened, and for the moment, I wanted out. I was happy that the tour company supported the school, and it seemed like a positive place. But how would it feel to be a child attending that school, watching groups of tourists filtering through, buying souvenirs? I don’t know. All I know is that I felt uncomfortable, and perhaps it was because I’m a teacher, and I think that something singular happens in a classroom, and tourists shouldn’t be a part of it.

We left the school and walked down intimate alleys between buildings and shops and under sagging power lines. We came across two seesaws, and beside them, on a wall, a mosaic of a butterfly created by shards of multicolored tiles. This stop was intended to be, I think, a reminder that all is not terrible in the favelas, and our guide’s tone all day had been realism tinged with optimism. Earlier, Alfredo had said, “In the favelas we’re going to visit, they have seen thousands of tourists. They like the opportunity to have you there so they can show you that they don’t live in miserable, dangerous conditions. They have problems. They are poor, but they are not miserable. Also your presence changes the stereotype of people that usually go to favelas to buy drugs, so in other words, you are welcome.” Whether you believe that or not, all the tour can show is a brief, selective glimpse into places that are feared and romanticized and otherwise off-limits.

It’s easy to feel repelled by the idea of favela tourism. Not long ago I talked to a Brazilian friend from Rio who used to work with a social project in Rocinha, and she told me she thought the tours were offensive. A large part of me agrees. I wish the tour companies weren’t for-profit operations. (Favela Tour donates to the school we visited out of the profits it earns.) I think they should use local guides, and be conducted on foot as much as possible. But if I could snap my fingers and make favela tourism disappear, would I? No. And as uncomfortable as I was at times on the tour—an unease that stemmed not from what I was seeing but from the manner in which I was seeing it—do I regret going? No. I believe that it’s better to see more of the world than less of it. I don’t mean that in a voyeuristic sense. I mean that if these tours, which are superficial and brief, allow some visitors to better appreciate Brazil’s baffling complexity and inequality just a tiny bit better, so be it.

In the taxi back to my hotel, I looked out the window as we cruised past Leblon, past Ipanema, past bright blue tube-shaped waves crashing on the beaches. In Copacabana, I paid and got out. I walked alongside three school children talking and laughing their way down the sidewalk. Intricate patterns of black and white tiles lined the way. I walked past three guys carrying surfboards, headed towards the beach. I was a foreigner in Brazil, but I felt more at home the closer I got to the hotel. It had become a beautiful day in Rio.

I had thought that my time in the favelas was over, but it wasn’t. The next day I tagged along with some American law students who were in Brazil as part of a class studying race and affirmative action. They had arranged to spend the day visiting and learning about a group called AfroReggae, an N.G.O. and band based in the favelas. Locals involved in the group agree to forsake drugs and alcohol to focus instead on learning music, dance and celebrating Afro-Brazilian culture. AfroReggae works, as its mission statement reads, towards “social inclusion and social justice.”  The project was the subject of the documentary “Favela Rising.”

We visited a favela called Vigário Geral, where AfroReggae was born, and a place with a long history of violence.

At the entrance stood a few men, one with what looked like a submachine gun. They removed a board filled with nails from our path and covered a gap in the road to allow the van to pass. We eased by a few more young men with walkie-talkies and handguns.

Beyond, the streets were nearly empty. Quiet, sunlit, hot. We ambled down the streets, and I heard the staccato pop, pop, pop of firecrackers in the distance. I asked our guide from AfroReggae if that meant trouble.

“Sometimes they just light them for fun,” she said.

Later, we visited a building where a dozen teenage girls were practicing the drums. We sat on a concrete stage as they drummed, danced, sang—it was one of the most amazing performances I have seen. The music bounced off the walls and tile floor, filling the concrete room, while on the tracks just outside the window a train silently cruised by.

When it was over, the drummers invited us to join them. Our guide had stepped out, so none of us could communicate precisely. But it didn’t matter. Two girls placed a strap around my neck, which they hooked onto a large cylindrical wooden drum that hung to below my knees. One of the girls showed me how to bang a simple three-part beat, and I tried to mimic her: Bam bah bam. Bam bah bam. Bam bah bam. Soon, we were all playing together: the American students and me doing the best we could, the girls and their instructor leading.

We played three songs that way, and when we finished, we stepped outside into the sunlight. I felt elated. And I know why. Travel is best when you interact with others. When you learn from those you’re visiting. When you stand beside someone in her home, even if that home is a violent one, and you put away your camera, and you forget about having any sort of agenda, and you realize you are essentially ignorant, and the world opens a little.

A moment later a guy on a bicycle glided by, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the bright silver tip of the gun hanging from a strap around his neck. Then he disappeared behind a building.

Rob Verger

Rob Verger is a frequent contributor to World Hum and the site's former air travel blogger. His articles and photographs have appeared in the Boston Globe and other publications, and he's a former undergraduate writing instructor at Columbia University. If you like, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter.

13 Comments for Slumming in Rio

Yves 06.24.08 | 1:47 PM ET


I am an international travveller and I visited places all around the world and live now for parts between Asia, Europe and since 2006 in Rio de Janeiro, Southamerica.

I share with you the feelings about Rocinha in every situation. I never booked a tour to visit this kind of tour: slum tourism.

I live in Copacabana since 2006 and I know what is going on here.

I can not share your opinion about Villa Canoas.
1. It is not really a Favela. It is a
small community of only 1250 people (official statement from an inhabitant and barowner in Villa Canoas).

2. Villa Canoas is situated in Sao Conrado (a better part of Rio de Janeiro, like Copacabana) and there are many tourists, because of the tandem-flights, which are in offer on his hills.

3. It is very calm there and on the way to Villa Canoas it has many nice big villas from famous people in Rio, what means, that this are is one of the safest areas in Rio de janeiro

4. It has Security on both entrances

5. Never were there any shoots reported.

6. I visited a potuguese language course there, together with 3 US citiizen and one from South-Africa and we felt any second much more safer than in Copacabana.

7. Alfredo not said to you, that he lived for himself in Rocinha? He is a part of it. A friend of him told me that.

However. I work for an US based company in California and if you need anything in Rio de Janeiro, please feel free to contact me.



Rob Verger 06.24.08 | 7:34 PM ET

Dear Yves,

Thank you so much for your thoughts. I agree with you that Vila Canoas is quiet and peaceful; I felt quite safe there. As for the question of whether or not it is a favela, it is described as such by Favela Tour, the company I used. But it certainly has a very different feel to it than Rocinha! As for Alfredo, I thought he was an excellent guide, and if he indeed is from Rocinha, or lived there once, he didn’t mention it on the tour. Thanks again for your comment.

Sincerely, Rob Verger

Yves 06.24.08 | 11:33 PM ET

You are welcome, Rob! My pleasure.

Andrey 06.25.08 | 1:58 AM ET

I saw it in the films but I have never thought about such kind of life in this way!

geej 06.25.08 | 6:30 PM ET

There’s a good article about slum tourism here, this time about visiting rag pickers in Cambodia. It’s interesting to see both authors different takes on it.

Heather 06.26.08 | 1:13 PM ET

I find slum tourism offensive and I find the excuse that “it can offer insight into a culture and society” to be very short-sighted.

I don’t see how rolling through a favela on an air conditioned bus, snapping photos as you go along, can offer insight.  If anything it can further divide the “haves and have-nots.”

I feel that if one really wants to understand and gain insight they should work with an organization that works within the favela, much like Rob ended up doing with AfroReggae.

Jenny Williams 06.27.08 | 10:35 PM ET

Kudos to World Hum for wanting to engage in the ongoing conversation about slum tourism. It’s a subject I’ve followed closely for several years.

However, I was disappointed with this essay’s narrow scope. I don’t see that this—one man’s diary of a tour—contributes anything new to the dialogue. The observations and revelations here are predictable: slum tours are uncomfortable, but they can offer insight.

What about interviewing actual favela residents about how they feel about the tours instead of relying on what the guide says? What about researching tours in other places in the world that operate according to different principles?

Heather, I agree that putting bus windows and camera lenses between tourists and slum residents gets us nowhere. However, there are tour operators who promote sensitive, socially responsible interactions: tours on foot, led by local guides (slum residents themselves), cameras forbidden.

I recognize how tricky it is to navigate a subject as charged as this in limited space; you’re not going to please everyone. Still, I’d like to see World Hum taking greater risks and publishing material that seeks to ask the core questions rather than parroting what’s been said a dozen times before.

Jim Benning 06.27.08 | 10:46 PM ET

Thanks, Jenny. In fact, we’ve been thinking about other ways to approach the subject. Personally, I found Rob’s contributions to be both thoughtful and illuminating.

Keep your eyes out for more on favela tourism on World Hum in the future.

Jenny Williams 06.27.08 | 11:01 PM ET


Thanks for the quick response. It’s great to hear WH isn’t finished on the subject. I suspect my curmudgeonly attitude stems from the fact that I’ve read far too many articles on favela/ghetto/war-zone/slum tours, so my disappointment might reflect more on me as a reader (there *is* such a thing as over-read) than Rob as an author. If I was a first-time reader on the subject, I might have come away with a very different reaction indeed.

I do appreciate that the topic is being tackled at all, and I should have made that appreciation more apparent in my previous comment.


James 06.30.08 | 10:41 AM ET

This is a very emotive subject and one that is as always more complicated than first appears. It is important not to generalise - people who live in neighbourhoods such as Rocinha are neither exclusively warm, welcoming and giving and nor are they all hostile and dishonest. I have worked in deprived neighbourhoods in Brazil for a few years now and I am fairly sure (I can’t be certain as we don’t have favela tours in Recife!) that the local response to such tours would be one of “so what?”. People are much more concerned with the four S’s - survival, security, schools and sanitation, than they are in a bunch of tourists driving past their window. The tours do serve a purpose in that they show people that life in favelas is not all about drug dealing and machine guns. In this way they would probably be of more benefit to the Brazilian upper middle and upper classes, who would no more go into a favela than they would chew their own arm off, than foreigners. It is inherent prejudice such as this, that anyone who lives in a favela is either a traficante or a thief, that perpetuates the crippling social divisions in Brazil.

Angela 06.30.08 | 3:24 PM ET

I can’t remember how many times I’ve been to Rio and driven alongside its favelas. What I do remember is the feeling of anger watching how easily wealthy people can live beside some of the poorest human beings in the world.
It’s both fascinating and frightening acknowledging and witnessing first hand that this reality exists. Last time I went to Rio was last July and all my Brazilian friends warned me about Copacabana. “Be careful, it’s not the same Copacabana you have visited five years ago!” or “Be careful, don’t go out with your camera.” A very young girl even told me with nonchalance that sometimes the favelas are safer than Copacabana.
Many aspects of today’s Brazil reveal how difficult is to emerge from the status of a former third world country and impose itself in this multipolar post-cold war world.
I totally agree with you Rob with your feeling uncomfortable. Sometimes I felt ashamed to be part of the first world. Great article.

Mike Goldstein 06.30.08 | 6:10 PM ET

Travel is travel.  I travel to see a place because I’m interested in how the people live there, and hopefully I can do it in a way that’s respectful.  I thought parts of Rochina (I was on the “” tour) were gorgeous, like a living version of Carcasonne or other Medieval European towns, and for that reason I’m thankful I got to see it.

Maybe some people in the favelas find the tours offensive, but more likely it’s a wide mix of different opinions and nobody can speak for each individual in the population, just as I would disagree with my own parents about various social topics in our community.

I believe that the best thing I can do is approach a new city/neighborhood/home with good intentions and try to learn as much as possible. 

While I recognize there’s an inherent imbalance of power in the situation, the imbalance didn’t feel any different walking through the favela than it did walking through Bombay, parts of Bangkok, parts of Barcelona or even parts of Seattle. 

As a traveler, I’m not there to make a difference in the lives of the locals.  I find THAT to be patronizing and more likely to exacerbate the power dynamics.  I’m there because I want to see what’s there and learn about the city.  The favelas are part of it.

Sandhya 07.09.08 | 5:58 PM ET

I just returned from a 10-day trip in Brazil and throughout my time in Rio, I debated back and forth about whether to go on Marcelo’s favela tour or not. On one hand, I was tempted to go because I thought it might make for an interesting piece of writing. On the other hand, I was uneasy with the notion of walking into a neighborhood with my camera and photographing circumstances and people who live in surroundings that, at the end of the day, are beyond their control. I’m familiar with the poverty that Rob speaks of - having grown up in India and Ghana where rich and poor live in this uncomfortable juxtaposition. I have seen the poverty and open sewers and garbage that Rob speaks of and somehow, the feeling of being a voyeur made me reluctant to go on the tour.
At the same time, I met several people who have never been exposed to such extreme poverty who claimed that the tour was eye-opening. For example, while I was having dinner at a restaurant with a Brazilian friend and asking her how she felt about slum tourism, a fellow diner (a British tourist) came up to us and interrupted our meal to hand me a napkin with the name and contact info of Marcela’s favela tours, saying, “It was the best thing I did during my time in Rio.”

At the end of the trip, I didn’t end up going on the tour. However, having just returned, I was quite pleased to read Rob’s story. I think it frames the debate quite nicely. Thanks for running this piece, World Hum.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.