If you Google the most dangerous or violent cities in the world, Brazilian cities will litter any of the lists you find, and in one of the most recent reports, the country held 21 of the 50 rankings for the 50 most dangerous cities in the world. According to several reports, Fortaleza, Brazil had 60.77 homicides per 100,000 residents last year – crazy, right? So, it’s no wonder that when we told our family and friends we were traveling to Rio de Janeiro for a week, they each told us dutifully to “be careful,” along with several who warned us to avoid the favelas of Rio. And, it’s with these numbers, facts, and warnings in the back of our minds, that we find ourselves in the car with a local friend motoring the streets of the Rocinha Favela in the heart of Rio. The favelas have been feared, condemned, monitored, criticized and even featured in major films, such as Fast Five in the Fast & the Furious franchise, but we wondered: what is reality for those who call these places home?
So, let us begin by saying that the Rocinha Favela is a pacified favela, meaning that there is now a police presence. There are certainly others left to cartel rule and also those that are poorer and in much worse shape, but our friend really wanted us to see something other than sheer poverty. According to him, it would be more interesting to see a favela where there is something other to see than only poverty, and so he chose this one as our introduction to this type of community. Heartbeats quickening, we take the last turn on the hillside before entering the famed favela. We notice many street vendors lined up right as you’re entering the area, hoping to sell their goods to tourists brave enough to motor their streets. And, far less surprising, we see the police all gathered together, almost as if they’re guarding the favela, daring anyone to enter with bad intentions. Each of them holds large assault rifles, either slung over their shoulders or dangling by their sides, ready to pull them into action at the first sign of danger. For us, it was the moment that made the experience real: you can hear about these sorts of things, but until you see something like that, reminding you that there is a reason they carry these weapons, you don’t fully understand the reality of it.
Pushing along slowly through the streets, we notice that they’re lined with people on foot, bikes, or moto-taxis who honestly could care less that you’re there, and they are EVERYWHERE. Between the fact that the streets are already incredibly narrow, and that people are walking in front of you or that cyclists are zipping around and in front of the car, slows you down quite a bit. The buildings do appear to be pretty run down, and they’re built in that slum style, all plopped atop one another like boxes stacked up in a stock room. The higher you climb, the more magnificent the view, but in a place like this, the more affluent won't live higher up, as many of the homes are inaccessible by vehicle, meaning the climb up and down the mountain is highly inconvenient. Here, money buys convenience, not luxury. We notice designated trash areas, where people throw their garbage into the streets, luckily with convenience of trash pickup, unlike other favelas who would not offer this service to residents. All in all, it was crowded, hectic, and a bit in disrepair at times, but there is far worse out there.
A few people have given us the deer in the headlights look over our experience there, but we wouldn’t change it for anything. We wouldn’t walk straight into an overly dangerous situation, but also are the type of people who would rather risk a little than regret not seeing the real world and some pretty amazing things. The experience was truly phenomenal, leaving us with the knowledge that we had more understanding of the local culture and a more authentic journey than had we only stuck to the touristy areas. We don’t recommend traveling into a favela, nor do we condemn it – it’s completely up to the individual, but if you are planning a trek into one of the favelas, please be smart and visit a pacified favela with a local, trusted friend or guide. Even though many locals will tell you that these pacified favelas are safe, always remember that there is some level of danger in visiting this type of community.
These images are just a couple of screenshots we took from video. They're lower quality but still provide a little value if you're wanting to see more of the favela: