In Rio, the trendy and the favela

A view of Ipanema from the Mirante, accessible with the lift that brings both to the panoramic viewpoint and the comunidade of Cantagalo

Comunidade of Cantagalo

When you mention Rio de Janeiro, inevitably its favelas come to mind.

A favela (today the term comunidade is widely preferred) is a cluster of buildings and houses built in abusive land usually on hills’ slopes (morro) by people who couldn’t afford living in the asfalto (asphalt), where the upper classes lived, to avoid paying housing taxes. This urban sprawling dates back to as far as the 1930s when mass migrations from the countryside poured into the city and occupied lands without previous government’s authorization. Having the favelas spread on hills’ slopes, in many parts cars are not able to access. Some of the biggest favelas, such as Rocinha, boast their own banks and hospitals. Life conditions are obviously not what you can dream of, in some places there’s lack of water and electricity, but I believe, as Brazil is one of the fastest developing countries, also inside the favelas life is improving.

Each favela has its own history and society, and although they have the infamous reputation of being a nest of drug dealers, and I’m sure there are pushers, I also think most dwellers carry out a normal working life and share a vibrant community. Fantastic samba and capoeira dancers mainly come from the favelas.

As for every other thing, there’s hardly a black and white interpretation.

I have been to Cantagalo, the favela perched on a hill bordering trendy Ipanema district and offering breathtaking views of the beach and the skyscrapers. I haven’t stayed long enough to feel its spirit nor gone far inside, but from the inhabitants coming in and out, the first thing I thought was that, sadly, I had seen worse.

I’m aware there are “favela tours”, but I won’t be doing one, both because I think they hardly show the authentic lifestyle of the community and because I wouldn’t feel comfortable hanging around with my camera as if in an exhibition. I’d rather wait until I meet a local who will show me around the comunidade giving me authentic insights of what living there is like.

For now, only a picture from the Mirante, panoramic viewpoint accessible via a lift that connects also Ipanema with Cantagalo.

  1. I have never heard of this favela tours Angela!! wow…I only see this in fast and the furious movie…ahaha. Wow, I would feel uncomfortable to go too!! You know Rio is one of the most dangerous place I have been….really, it’s more dangerous than some countries in africa and middle east. I went there in 2008 with my parent and friends. one of our friend got mugged while he was trying to take pictures and was a little further away from the crew…it’s right at NOON!!!! right on the street a bit further from Copacabana beach!! can you believe that??? Do you think Rio is dangerous??? how long you have been there??

    • I’ve always heard Rio is dangerous, however, I never got mugged. I did get mugged twice in Rome and once in Seville, even though they don’t have the reputation of being dangerous… In my experience there are some areas in European capitals that are more dangerous than Copacabana!

      • Angela, Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Barra da Tijuca… all very safe places compared to other big cities in the world. But Rio de Janeiro is a huge place. The north zone and west of the Pedra Branca forest (Bangu, Santa Cruz, Campo Grande) are a lot less safe. I almost got shot in Bangu once. So yeah, I think it’s all a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time… I have never been mugged anywhere in Europe or elsewhere and I hope it stays that way. I hate it when people take my stuff :)

        • True, Rio is a huge city, and obviously mugging happens. I’ve been going for 20 years and I guess I’ve been lucky. My luck is only in Rio though, as I have been mugged twice in Rome, once they almost got into my house, still in Rome (they left because “disturbed” by a neighbor) and once they opened my friend’s car to steal everything, still in Rome. In Seville, my friend got mugged on the very first day of our arrival while she was sitting right next to me on a fountain in a very touristy place. I wish media and tour guides had written a little bit more often to be careful in Seville, because as I soon learned by locals, mugging there is a very common business. In some areas in Madrid you also need to be very careful, but again locals told me, because Madrid doesn’t have a reputation of mugging-place such as Copacabana, like in Rome’s metro and buses, especially the 64, where you need to be VERY careful.

  2. Belle foto,ben commentate.

  3. C’est vrai, le luxe coutoie la misère! C’est Rio…

  4. I hope that there will be a local to show you around a favela. I’d be very interested in reading about your impressions. I hope that you are right and that conditions are improving for the people who live in the favelas.

  5. When I visited Rocinha in December 2010, it hadn’t been “pacified” yet. I went with a local, who used to be a teacher in one of the schools there. We did see some guys with machine guns and all, but the views were downright breathtaking. We also visited someone’s house and were able to take pictures from the deck of the house. It’s true that things are improving for the people there. Most UPP’s (unidade de polícia Pacificadora)are doing good work, but there was already one case of a UPP colonel being suspended after he was caught having too friendly phone conversations with the local drug boss… Here’s my own post about visiting Rocinha:
    If you want to do another visit, contact Gil from “Trustin Rio” ( He’s one of the best guides I know in Rio.

  6. BTW, here’s a great site (in Portuguese) where you find pictures of the favelas in the 1960’s… You’ll notice that living conditions were a lot worse back then.

  7. Reply
    Cole @ September 13, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Really looking forward to Rio and the Olympics in a few years. It is going to be huge tourism drawcard (even though it already is).

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