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. Here are some other hostels in the area.
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.
This sounds like an awesome company to go though and like a pretty cool experience. I saw slum tours in the Philippines and questioned it a bit so I didn’t go, but this sounds like a good option.
Interesting, I didn’t see that offered when I was in the Philippines. Without knowing the circumstances exactly I have to agree I don’t think I’d feel comfortable with that. Yet I can’t really articulate why…
I was there last winter, I’m not sure if it was a newer or more recent thing, but it just felt weird to think about touring it. I definitely agree on not being able to articulate why though.
Yeah, I can’t express why I feel this was okay but to me, that wouldn’t be.
This sounds so interesting! I’ve never heard of these types of tours but I’d definitely take one.
They are very popular in Brazil and offered all over the place with various levels of tact. It’s definitely important to do a bit of research and find a good one.
I enjoyed this post and am reading with interest the slight change and depth of your writing on certain topics, which I find really interesting. You’ve given an insight into a part of Brazillian life – which I have seen and watched impersonal programmes on, but to hear a personal experience is always a good thing.
I like the mix between articles like the last one I saw on the Avis App. I have quite a big conflict inside me where IT is concerned – on one level it makes our lives easier and on another disconnects us in a way which makes community more disconnected.
I look forward to reading more insightful and informative posts.
Thank you Janice! I always enjoy your thoughtful insights as well 🙂 I do love to shake things up and provide lots of variety around here…
I agree, going with a reliable local tour guide is a safer option. Just as in India, they have the slum tours too.
Hey Julia! Well one thing I want to point out is that the word “slum” is really not used in Brazil and is considered somewhat derogatory. Our guide translated favela more to mean a kind of community, which I loved. Also, we felt very safe and chose to go with a guide out of respect as opposed to security concerns 🙂
This was not only a beautiful post, but also a very important one to write. We are so used to traveling to nice parts of cities and doing everything there, yet never trying to experience a whole different side of the country. Great job, Alex! And good job Heather, those photos are amazing
Aren’t they? She’s so talented — always lucky to have her images here in Wanderland!
Great writing! I like how you always address the thoughts in everyone’s mind when writing posts like these. I’m very impressed with Heather’s photography as well, I would be slightly scared taking photos there (especially of the guy being taken away by the police!), but they turned out gorgeous!
Agreed, I was a little nervous then — but she is such a photojournalist at heart, she is fearless in the field!
Super well written as always Alex! Our favela tour was perhaps one of my favorite things we did in Brazil as it was so informative and just felt like we were in Brazil, real Brazil… plus as a photographer it was incredibly visual and just my kind of photography, people in their natural state. With a tricky and complex topic like this, the photos and words nailed it: from politics, violence and poverty, to pacification, every day life and eventually tourism it is such an interesting conversation to have as to what is appropriate, what is advancing and helping the community and what is not. The tour we went on was respectful and educational and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in being educated about this particular cultural aspect of Brazil.
And I feel like I only touched on half of what we talked about that day! It was such an overwhelming amount of information… what an education we got.
Like you I’m always wary of signing up to tours like this for very similar reasons.
I feel that it’s important to be educated but also feel that it’s never truly possible to understand life there without being a resident there for a while (which is an impossible goal for a foreigner and in reality probably not one most of us would want to realise) . Taking a vicarious tour almost feels like I’m rubbing salt in the wounds of those who live there, because they know that I can leave and return to my privileged lifestyle but they can’t; the favela is their life.
I felt this way when I visited the floating shantytown of Belén in Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, even though we again had a private tour with a guide who actually lived in the shantytown with his family.
At the end of the day I think I’d rather visit and do my best to educate myself and understand the lives of others much less privileged than myself, than avoid doing so. If nothing else it makes me realise how lucky we are in the Western world, to have the opportunities that we do.
Belén was indeed quite interesting. I went there to tour the market but of course we ended up walking through some residential areas and it was indeed very eye-opening as well. I didn’t learn quite as much on that tour as I did on this one (I was SO excited to find someone that spoke fluent English I think the poor guy may have lost his voice answering our questions!) but it is an interesting comparison.
Great article! As travelers we like to see all sides of a country. Whether it is right or wrong to do these kind of tours, I think it all depends on your attiude – why you do it and how you do it. And it seems that you guys found a conscious and respectful way to do it. I for sure would rather spend my money on a local tour company like this one than on a five stars hotel or resort.
We definitely did have the best intentions. However I’ve seen enough misguided tourists to know that isn’t always enough, which is why we very carefully considered this tour. In the end, I feel comfortable with our choice.
Really quite an interesting tour, the photography really tells the story! I can’t help but wonder about this type of tour, though and why it’s popular in Brazil. I can’t picture a busload of Dutch or Chinese tourists being shown around one of Chicago’s rougher neighborhoods and yet can’t really verbalize how this is different. I understand the appeal of wanting to experience ALL of a culture, not just the fancy hotels and shopping areas. Thanks for sharing!
Yeah, the bus tours made me very uncomfortable and there’s no way we would have considered one. If you can’t get out and walk down the street like a resident would… don’t go, in my opinion.
Hi Alex! I’ve been a reader of yours for a little over a year now, since I studied abroad in Peru. I’m planning my first solo adventure to Panama City over my upcoming spring break, and I was just wondering if you had any tips for solo female travelers/ what you’ve done to stay safe while still having fun while traveling.
Hey Julia! Are you heading to Panama City, Florida or Panama City, Panama? My biggest tip for staying safe and having fun while traveling is just to follow your intuition and trust that the same good sense that keeps you safe at home will keep you safe on the road as well. It hasn’t failed me yet 🙂
Alex, I think you did an amazing job of distilling a very complicated topic into some really important points. And it sounds like the tour you chose was the best way to do this – respectful, educational, and putting money back into the community. I did a tour of Jamestown – a poor fishing village in Accra, Ghana – and while I had a local guide and went on foot with my coworker, it still felt very uncomfortable and gawker-y. “Look at the people pounding fish – you can take a picture.” I kept my camera away not out of fear of it being stolen, but because it felt weird to take people’s daily lives and turn them into an Instagram. Heather did a great job of telling a story with her photos without objectifying or sensationalizing – how lucky to have her along!
I know, I am so lucky! She is an amazing storyteller with her images — I cherish the ones she captured from this day.
That’s great that you did it with a local tour company and not some big name tourism one. I’ll probably do the same should I ever go to Brazil either that or do what I normally do. Befriend a local and have them show me around their beautiful town. Loved your post and especially loved the pictures.
Actually, I did get asked on a date in Vidigal Favela, ha! Unfortunately had to turn it down, because I’m sure that would have been a memorable way to experience one…
That’s great, realy nice shot that you have done , have never seen Brasil from this way
Love what you have done here
You did a great job :Story & photos , it’s like you done picture from airplain
Hey Julie, thanks! Heather was able to get a lot of cool aerial shots because the hill was so steep!
I think touring them is a necessary part of getting the full perspective of life in Rio. 22% of the population … wow.
Seriously! I was amazed when I read that statistic.
Hey! What company was the favela nightlife tour with? Been trying to find it online but can’t. Thanks.
Hey Lily! It was called Be a Local. They must have bad SEO because they are hard to Google, but they are in Lonely Planet!
I am very happy to read this post, the stories, the tourists’ perception and the comments. Thank you for spending an afternoon with us and enjoying the energy that revolves in our favela even with all the problems we have experienced. Our people are welcoming and always with open arms for you who visit the favela with us. I was worried about the photos of the resident and the police more is a look of a tourist, right. Other than that the other photos were beautiful. We did not have how to give discounts for the tour because we paid local taxes, we helped the local association and if people released the free tour for those who have a blog we can not afford the translator and our rates, but still a thank you and a kiss I do not know heart. I loved to find you by the link on my blog where people are accessing.
I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Thaigo. We were very happy to support your tour and encourage others to visit Santa Marta as well.
I stumbled across this article when doing research on things to do in Rio. A really enjoyable read. I like many others have always been fascinated by favela life. Would love to do something like this. I have read recently though that Santa Marta has fallen back into gangs hands and the Police have pretty much pulled out of the area again. Have you heard anything?
Hey John! Unfortunately I haven’t heard any updates since my visit so I can’t comment on anything beyond this experience. Let me know your thoughts if you go!
Our tours are operating normally. All in normalcy. You can come and do our tour that will be welcome. Our company is local. A hug. Anything sends a whatsapp + 55.21.99177-9459
Fantastic post of Favela Santa Marta. Thank a lot Alex. I am a tour guide in Rio from Rio Cultural Secrets and is always a pleasure to show the lovely favela to our tourists. And is important to always hike a local guide to support the project and have a pure assistance of who really knows their house.
Thanks so much for opening your homes to us, Fabio. I’m glad I got this perspective on Brazil.