Slum tours offer travelers an authentic, offbeat look at foreign cultures—and locals a new way to make a living.
Vicky Collins | April 2009 issue
It’s a bright morning, and I’m picked up at the Copacabana Palace, one of the most splendid hotels along the beach in Rio de Janeiro, where I join a vanload of tourists. But this tour isn’t taking us up to see the iconic image of Christ the Redeemer overlooking the city, or to Ipanema to enjoy eye-popping views of tanned Brazilian beauties. This van is going to Rocinha, one of the most infamous of the favelas, the 750 or so slums that sprawl across Rio’s hillsides and are home to a quarter of the city’s 6 million residents.
From a distance, the favelas look like densely packed jungles of brick and stone thrown haphazardly across the mountain. Much of what people say of them is true. Most residents live well below the poverty line; conditions can border on squalid; drug dealing and gang warfare are so rife that police are often too afraid to enter. This is the Rio that locals steer clear of and tourists are warned to avoid. And this is the Rio that Marcelo Armstrong has been safely taking visitors to see for 17 years.
Armstrong, who started his career in tourism at Club Med in Brazil, Senegal and Spain, says some 100,000 visitors have taken his favela trips for an offbeat and illuminating look at this other Rio. His company, Favela Tour, charges $29 per person for a half-day excursion, during which travelers are guided through some of the most intriguing neighborhoods. Similar companies are popping up in other cities with famous slums of their own. Mumbai, India, is most prominent among them, thanks to the publicity that has followed the international success of the film Slumdog Millionaire, set in the city. Nairobi, Kenya, and Johannesburg, South Africa, are also home to firms that organize slum tours. The trend is called “poorism,” though Armstrong has never liked the word. His ambition isn’t just to show poverty to tourists, but to give foreigners a deeper understanding of Brazilian society through an authentic experience of some of its most colorful and enterprising citizens—and to offer those citizens a different way to make a living.
Long before we arrive, we can see Rocinha atop a hill on the outskirts of Rio. Our guide tells us as many as 200,000 people live here. Most of the favelados, in Rocinha and the other slums, are hardworking blue collar laborers who get by on less than $300 a month. Because these settlements were created by squatters and displaced people in the 1940s, infrastructure was an afterthought. So many people gather water in big blue tanks on their rooftops, while electricity and telephone services are provided via a chaotic tangle of cables and wires crisscrossing the roads. We can smell omelets cooking, hear samba pouring from the cramped houses and see families going about their daily business.
The main drag through Rocinha is Cowboy Lane, a busy commercial center with more than 1,000 shops. Our first stop is along this road, where local artisans have lined up stalls in which to sell their crafts: paintings of the favelas and the views from the hilltop, purses made of beer tabs and beautiful embroidered clothes. A shirtless man with a guitar plunks out samba tunes.
We climb a flight of stairs to a rooftop, from which we have a panoramic view of the stone and brick houses precariously stacked one on top of the other. Farther away are stunning vistas of Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Atlantic. Looking out from Rocinha, one sees the gleaming high-rises of São Conrado across the road. The line between Rio’s haves and have-nots couldn’t be clearer.
In the heart of the commercial district, we get a crash course in drug dealing. Inside the favelas, the dealers enforce their own laws, such as a ban on stealing and prostitution, so their middle-class customers feel safe to buy drugs. Our guide introduces us to the dealers’ semaphore early warning system: a green kite flying from a building means marijuana is arriving; a white kite means cocaine; a red kite means the cops are closing in. At one point, he tells us to put away our cameras. He doesn’t want us to photograph a drug deal going down inadvertently.
The favela tours have their critics, who say they’re voyeuristic and insensitive. For me, the opportunity to interact with residents of the favelas and witness their entrepreneurial spirit had a powerful effect. One-sixth of the world’s population—1 billion people—live in slums like Rocinha. The UN believes the number could double by 2030. Seeing how people live motivates us to action; ignoring poverty doesn’t make it go away.
And trips like these can help people out of poverty. Favela Tours, for example, funds the Para Ti school in Vila Caonoas, a favela of about 2,000 people. In 2008, the company gave more than $25,000. Donations over the years have helped the school get a computer lab, books and a basketball court. When visiting Para Ti’s craft boutique, I buy a beautiful basket made out of rolled strips of magazine paper. Trash turned into art; poverty turned into opportunity.
Vicky Collins is a writer, television producer and photographer who’s interested in global poverty issues and is itching to take another trip.