Favela Rocinha
Entering the Favela Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro

By Gabriel Álvarez

I always felt a special connection with Brazil. From a very early age, I was curious about its vibrant culture and its many natural attractions— after all, they have the largest rainforest in the world and an entire coast of enviable tropical beaches. But if I had to choose the first place to start, without a doubt, it would be Rio de Janeiro. It was once Brazil’s capital and is a city known worldwide for its iconic carnival, samba, and constant festive atmosphere.

I took a 9-hour flight via London, direct to the Carioca city. This was my first visit to Latin America, so once I was outside of the airport, everything I had heard concerning safety and security issues in the continent wanted to take hold of me– even for a brief moment. Between the kind conversation with my cab driver and my first night out in the city, any fears I had simply vanished. I was overcome again with the excitement of being in such a magical city.

The first few days, I explored the streets by myself, as I would not meet my other Spanish friends until a couple of days later. I visited some tourist areas like the city center, the Lapa neighborhood, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Pão de Açúcar— I also tried to get lost in the streets to find more of a “local” experience. One thing that stood out to me was the significant difference between neighborhoods. In many of them, people lived very humbly, while the others were full of large mansions with high walls and surveillance systems. If there is one thing that many Latin American countries have in common (and in future trips to the continent, I would see with my own eyes) is the inequality, and Brazil is no different.

Photo by Raphael Nogueira

 A few days later, when I met up with my friends, I already felt that I had settled in the city, I had made new friends in the hostel, and I knew a little better how to move in the city. 

Almost automatically, we went together to the beach area. Maybe you are not familiar with the names of Copacabana or Ipanema, or perhaps yes, but regardless, they are must-sees if you visit Rio de Janeiro. These neighborhoods and their beaches are two of the wealthiest areas in the city. Copacabana, for example, suffered a great real estate speculation from the ’60s onwards, uniting families from different social classes in a small territory between the mountain and the sea. Today, it is easy to see that same effect differently; locals and tourists from all over the world gather on these beaches, some to enjoy the sun or bathe in its waters and others to earn their daily bread trying to sell local products. It is very easy to see people coming down from the favelas to prepare caipirinhas for the tourists or even pick up empty cans of drinks (which they then sell by the kilo).

After witnessing the hustle of vendors on the beach, we remembered that the hostel had offered us a visit to a nearby favela. For those that do not know, favelas are agglomerations of precarious dwellings built around large cities in Brazil. And although this form of tourism is ethically questionable, we decided to visit this place and get to know it directly.

We were picked up at the hostel in a small bus and taken to favela Rocinha. After no more than 45 minutes, we arrived at the highest point of the neighborhood. According to our guide, we were visiting the most populated favela in Brazil, which has more than 100,000 inhabitants.

The ground on which this neighborhood is situated was not too long ago, a large dense forest. It used to be an old farm with coffee plantations and crops. In the early 1930s the first inhabitants appeared, building a few houses and dividing the hacienda’s land. This process accelerated from the ’50s onwards when there was a significant emigration from the northwest of Brazil. During the ’60s and ’70s, the big road projects created many jobs in the region, attracting even more “Nordesina” emigration and expanding the favela towards the hillsides without any urban planning.

We started walking through very narrow streets downhill while our guide explained the way of life and the problems these people have in their daily lives. The lack of infrastructure such as public sanitation is one of the leading causes that make this neighborhood one with some of the highest cases of tuberculosis in the country. Although they have achieved progress through social mobilizations, such as improvements in transportation services, schools, and health centers, many of its inhabitants live in extreme poverty.

We were invited to visit some local houses during our trip where they prepared food for us and showed us some handicrafts they made. They also performed improv-style street dances. Our guide explained that the locals were initially skeptical to see groups of tourists in their streets. Understandably so. But little by little, they were beginning to see it differently, as they felt that it was better to live with tourism as a source of income than other types of activities such as drug trafficking, for example, something quite prevalent in the area. 

We were able to see this with our own eyes a short time later. In a small square, we saw some teenagers casually carrying weapons and later learned that kids start their initiation in this line of work from an early age.

On the other hand, we were also informed about different groups inside and outside the favela developing various projects to help the community. We walked to a nursery school where a group of children welcomed us with their huge smiles. Volunteer teachers emphasized the importance of education for those youngsters, which could be the key for them to decide their future.

Returning from the hilltop and reaching the base of the neighborhood, an image stood out in the landscape: the luxurious buildings of the São Conrado neighborhood standing out behind the last dilapidated houses. It was a strange feeling, just a few meters from there was one of the places with the highest rate of human development in the city, full of villas, swimming pools, and golf courses. I wondered how the inhabitants of Rocinha would feel seeing that panorama every day.

This was undoubtedly another face of Rio de Janeiro, the famous city of samba and carnival. Perhaps a microcosm that could represent Latin America, I would even say our society.

Every place has its “good” side and its “bad” side. Rio de Janeiro is no different. Yet, despite all the contrasts of this city, I feel that Rio welcomed us with an open heart. Its constant joy embraced us throughout the trip, and the last days in Rio, we enjoyed the warmth of the Cariocas, feeling the emotions of a soccer match in the legendary Maracaná stadium, and watching the sunset on the morro Dois Irmãos.

Sunset in Ipanema beach