“Don’t Be a Tourist, Be a Local”

This is the slogan for Exotic Tours, a tourism company specializing in tours of Rio’s largest favela: Rocinha. Dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and newly purchased Hawaiianas, thus trying to embrace the all American tourist apparel, we, my good Colombian friend and architect, Maria Fernanda, prepared to embark in our first favela tour. We were picked up in a white jeep at the doors of the hotel Otan- a vegas/casino like hotel in the middle of Copacabana. After paying $65 Reales each (a little over $30 Dollars), the jeep began to move quickly through the Rio traffic, passing through Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, driving up a mountain to the back of Gavea and highest point of Rocinha. The official walking tour began at the top of the morro, in the backside of Rocinha, where the white jeep left us. The tour guide, a true Rocinha local, began his speech by stating that “the favela is safer than Copabana […] here [in the favela], nobody bothers you”. He then continued to tell us not to worry if we saw people with guns (aka drug dealers), as they wouldn’t bother us- according to him, they are all close friends of his since elementary school (to be honest, my impression is that there is not only friendship involved but obviously some kind of informal monetary agreement between the tour companies and the drug dealers).

Rocinha is located in a privileged location, in a hill at the entrance to the luxurious residences of San Conrado, adjacent to Ipanema and Leblon, thus having quite a bit of visibility in the surrounding city.

Plan+ Section taken from “Architectes des favelas” by Dider Drummond

The favela began around the 1930s, in what was at the time, the periphery of the city and a forest with close no practical value.  In 1940, the favela held around 1000 inhabitants who clustered close to the bottom of the morro along the street Estrada Da Gavea; in 1970 the settlement had grown to 30 000 and had began to spread to form the barrio do biadeiro; in 1977, the favela had 133 000 occupying all “constructible” space in the morro, almost radiating from the initial Gavea street; today, Rocinha holds close to 350 000 inhabitants.

Growth of Rocinha-diagrmas taken from “Architectes des favelas” by Dider Drummond

As a quick parenthesis I want to point out that the three larger creeks that were once present in the favela, are now almost completely gone due to the high density and urbanization of the area. Nevertheless, as we witnessed in the last week, they obviously reappear with strong rains and storms…

Water spring present in the favela…

Back to the tour, I wasn’t sure what to expect and was very curious to see where the guide would take us, expecting him to lead us to various souvenir shops, food shops, and other places where we would be pressured into buying something, as well as restricting the tour to the main, highly transited streets. I was also very curious to see how the residents would react to two very un-tanned girls in small shorts and shirts, clearly tourists, walking around their home- basically thinking of the tour as poverty voyeurism. Somewhat surprisingly, none of these two happened. Apart from stopping in two or three places to buy “favela art”, the tour mainly consisted of walking through the main streets, and some of the alleyways moving down the favela. Regarding people’s reaction, there was only one lady who reacted negatively to our presence, directly telling the guide that we have no business to be walking around in the favela, looking at the “poverty” and taking pictures of them as a form of diversion… to this, the guide responded: “there are closed people who don’t understand that this business is good for the favela, bringing in money and changing people’s views about the place.”

Favela art-at a gift sholp in the new community center

Currently, Rocinha is part of the PAC. From what we heard (but didn’t quite see as it is only beginning the execution phase) there is talk about a public hospital, day care centers, sports facilities, as well as more connecting streets to the main street Gavea.

A the bottom of Rocinha- the community center, park, school and orange bridge by Niemeyer joining this new complex to the favela (as it is seperated by a major street).

The favela has 5 public schools (two of which are CIEPs- Centro Integral de Educaçao Publica- part of a policy began in the 1980s by former mayor Leonel Brizola, along with a design by Oscar Niemeyer (all the schools have the same design), 1 medical post, various kindergartens and daycare centers, 3 banks and churches all over the place.

In addition, there is a bus that enters the favela and various ones that can be accessed at the bottom of the morro, thus allowing some level of connection with city. We were also told that in the favela, nobody pays formal taxes (as the houses are illegal) but close to 80% (an estimation of the tour guide) pay for formal services (light, internet, telephone, etc). As the favela has their own water company, the guide stated that they do not pay for water services. The trash is picked up from a couple of specific locations three times/week. As such, big piles of trash spill over the streets, attracting animals, bugs and insects…on top of giving the surrounding area a horrible smell. I am always amazed at the amount of dust and, sometimes, strong smells in the air…

Main streets

The following video is a little shaky at times since I was filming while going down some pretty steep steps, but at least you will be able to get a feel for an alleyway on the top of Rocinha:



plan and section of alleyway

sections in alleyways

Although formal services do exists in Rocinha, not everyone plays the game. Many of the residents end up profiting from those who have formal service by tapping into the system and “stealing” energy. As such, Rocinha has an immense amount of unregulated cables floating above, and sometimes even draping down close to your head…

From the second street that we crossed, we saw a police force waiting in a corner. There were large armored cars, many police guards with large guns and anti-bullet vests. Naïvely we continued our tour, thinking nothing of it… thinking that this visit might be routine, already being somewhat accustomed to seeing a highly armed police in Rio. Naïve I say because, in reality, police presence in a favela is not a good sign; they are usually looking for a drug dealer and will not stop until they find him (one can easily assume that it is a man and not a woman in these cases). Nevertheless, we did not realize this, and after being instructed not to take photographs of the police force, as well as in other specific places where there is presence of the “narcotrafico” or drug dealers, we continued our walk. Towards the end of the tour, we entered one of the day care centers, which the tour company sponsors. Immediately the people in the day care asked us with surprise: You are walking around the favela, aren’t you scared?” Assuming they were talking about being in an informal settlement, we said that we weren’t, that we had our tour guide, etc. At this point, we heard gunshots, and only then did we realize what those questions were actually referring to- the police presence. Frozen, Maria Fernanda and I looked at each other, then stared at our tour guide asking him to please get us out of the favela as quickly as possible. That day 7 people died in Rocinha- 1 of them from an astray bullet. The control that the drug dealers have in the favela is not a joke- it is truly a different system with very different rules to play by- and by which the residents are automatically subject to if they want to protect their family. In addition to this, the brutality by which the police force acts cannot be ignored and adds to some of the oppression and fear that the great majority-hard working people leading an honest life and highly contribute to the formal economy and formal sector- constantly have to face.

11 thoughts on “Favela Tourism:: Rocinha

  1. Hi Adriana, If you have time and interest, go up to Salvador and visit Candeal Pequeno. I worked on a photo-documentary there in 2001 about the neighborhood rehabilitation project started by Carlinhos Brown. While the neighborhood is not technically a favela because of its quilombo status, it had many of the same issues. It’s been in a state of rehab since 1996 so it should provide some interesting testaments to a longer period of transformation.
    Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll put you in contact with some people up there. Here’s the website from the documentary exhibit back in 2002.
    Cheers, Andrea

    • Hey Andrea,
      Thanks for the info! Would love to visit and the project sounds extremely interesting but I just left Rio!!! Nevertheless, I am planning on heading back there around October/November so I’ll keep the project in mind and will let you know if anything!
      Thanks again chica and hope all is well!

  2. As a favela resident and also a tour guide. Your information tour companies about paying trafickers is WRONG!!! Stop posting stuff you know little about. As somebody who lives here, its insulting. Unless you know it is a fact, you should not write this.

    I work and live here in Rocinha. I have NEVER had to pay drug trafickers ANYTHING!!!!

    I think you did a tour with a company called “Be a Local” as the slogan you use at the beginning of you post is of their company. Exotic Tours is run by Rejeane Reis and the guides start at the bottom of the hill and wear yellow jerseys.

    Sounds like you came in March becase that was the last time police were here for an invasion in Rocinha. Aparently he did not live in Rocinha, because if he did he never would have given you a tour on a day that the police were there. Very irresponsible of the agency. But then again, like most, they DO NOT LIVE HERE!!!

    To learn more about me and the work I am doing here in my favela, read my Blog. http://lifeinrocinha.blogspot.com

    Thank You,


    • Zezinho,
      Thank you for your comments, point of view and clarifications. Let me quote what I wrote once again:
      “to be honest, MY IMPRESSION is that there is not only friendship involved but obviously some kind of informal monetary agreement between the tour companies and the drug dealers”… This said, I am not stating it as a fact but as the impression that I got from my personal experience of the tour and based on the comments made by the guide… Nevertheless, thank you for giving us your knowledge as a resident and tour guide.
      I did in fact use the “Be a local” slogan but will not disclose the exact company I used for the tour- I will say however, that we started at the top of Rocinha, walked down, and yes, we made our visit in March… I am glad to know that since then, things are peaceful and prospering in Rocinha.
      I will look at your blog and hopefully readers of this blog will do so as well…
      Best of luck with your ventures, I hope to learn more about them and hope we can meet personally at some point in the future.
      Best regards,

  3. Well in regards to you response. `IF` you used `Be a Local`, just for your information they do not have guides who are from the favela. I know this becase I know there guides who come here from their compnay. I just believe that you should have accurate information as there are many tour companies who lie or exagerate to make the tour try to be more exciting.

    You would not believe the crap I hear from tour guides who are not from here. And as somebody who lives here its insulting and ignorant. But lucky I speak and understand English. If the comunity and residents association heard what some these guide tell the guests, I am sure their tours would not be allowed here anymore. They already kicked out `Jeep Tours`..for inapropriate behaviour. Who is next?

    If they present the tour as some kind of `normal`place then people would not want to come. Movies like ´City of God´ brought interest to favelas but for the wrong reasons. Rocinha and other favelas are neighborhoods with real, majority honest hard working people.

    I can admit that as I know many of the drug trafickers here (if you live here long enough you get to know them), but I never have to pay them anything. I know them in that we both live in the same place but I do not hang out with them or have a beer with them. Its just a mutual respect for another person who lives here. I can not judge them as I am not perfect. They do what they do, I am not involved. I am not a anthropologist who is trying to dig deeper in to why they do what they do. I have my life they have theirs. All I can say is that they support my work and think its good to have a Rocinha embassador to show guest the comunity in a positive light..

    If your guide did live in Rocinha, did he bring you to his house? This is one thing I do to show I am a resident and not an outsider taking advantage.

    • Zezinho,
      Thank you once again for your comments. The idea behind this blog is to be a forum that permits the sharing and exchange of ideas, or clarification of some of them depending on the case. Your point of view as a resident and guide of Rocinha is highly appreciated, and as mentioned earlier, I would like to keep in touch and hopefully meet in a future visit to Rio.
      Thank you once again and I look forward to keeping up with the progress in Rocinha!
      Um abraco -Adriana

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