Why you need to visit Rio's slums (Favelas)

"Let's go pay money to stare at poor people!"

Well, at least that's what I thought when hearing about a tour of Rio's shanty towns (better known as favelas). But the tour guide assured us this was a good thing.  How else will the world become educated about the favelas unless we show them and erase the stereotypes!  He said a portion of the funds goes towards one of the favela schools and seemed genuine enough. We forked over our money and away we went for our driving and walking tour of several better know favelas.

Favela is the Brazilian name for slum. Favelas date back to the late 1800's when slaves lived there as socio-economic outcasts. Their population exploded with an influx of people looking for work in the city. Around the same time, the government really started enforcing anti-slavery laws. It became illegal to house non-family members but there really wasn't a place for the former slaves to live. This explains why Rio has 600+ favelas scattered around. Many are literally right next to some really nice neighborhoods.

We jumped in our cushy van for a windy ride to the top of the largest favela known as Favela Ricinha. So many small houses and so close together. They grow on top of each other. We reach the top and the view is incredible.

Everyone's out of the van, snapping away. Time to start walking. We start down the maze of tightly packed houses with streets that are not big enough for a car. I could imagine getting lost on these narrow streets for days and never finding your way out. Such an intricate maze.


We reach a plateau for another view. All of a sudden we hear a boom and see a tiny puff of smoke 150 yards away. The guide explains it's to let people know a drug shipment has arrived. He was pretty nonchalant about it, so we were too.

We continue our descent observing all the intricacies of the building and people. We stop by a school which was funded by our tourist dollars. See, the tour is a good thing!  Locals pass by us without a care in the world. There are stores and restaurants and hawkers all hoping to sell us their goods.

International media vastly misrepresents the reality of the favelas. They are no more criminally afflicted than other parts of society. The favelas back up to multi-million dollar homes and the two neighborhoods live together harmoniously.

So why tour the favela? The whole experience is incredibly enlightening. Seeing a favela really brings their history to life. Meeting people in the favela, you'll learn they are not all pickpockets or caught up in the drug trade. Put some of your tourist dollars into the hands of those who can really benefit, instead of the typical tourist trap.

Definitely take the tour and enjoy the fresh açaí drinks while walking about!

Have you experienced Rio de Janeiro?  What are your thoughts on the tours?  We'd love to hear your comments below!

Follow our adventures on Facebook!