With something like 1,750 favelas in Brazil, 750 can be found in Rio de Janeiro alone. A staggering number by any stretch, even for a moderately sized city of just over 6 million people.
Due to the hilly geography in Rio it doesn’t take much to spot one of its favelas. Makeshift dwellings constructed of concrete and brick, these informal communities are home to thousands of people that generally can’t afford to buy or rent properties in regular apartment buildings.
Here we are in one of the country’s smallest favelas; a community of around 6,000 residents in the first pacified favela Brazil has seen. We joined Favela Santa Marta Tours, one of the numerous tours that operate in the city. A small group of five curious outsiders that wanted to learn more about what goes on in a pacified favela – how the locals live, what some of the conditions are like – ultimately learning that’s it’s actually safe to visit.
Out of Rio’s 750 favelas, only 44 of them have been pacified – a process that involves the army moving through the community and clearing it of drug dealers, weapons and gang-controlled operations. The process rids the favela of the bad guys, leaving behind a safe and lawful place to live and one that’s monitored by special police known as UPP (Pacifying Police Unit).
Santa Marta in Rio’s Botafogo neighbourhood is one of the city’s better known, safest and more visited favelas. Providing the cable car is operating, getting to the top of the favela is far less strenuous than walking up its steep, winding streets and passages.
This is no tourist joyride, either. The locals use it as a means of transport, getting them up and down the hill to pick up or carry groceries, bring home a new television or lounge suite, even a means for garbage to be taken out of the favela.
At the top of Santa Marta favela you can still see what some of its original buildings looked like (5th image above) – simple wooden buildings often rendered with a mixture of mud and hay. You could easily get lost in a place like this as there are many narrow paths, passages and dead ends.
Kids play in the street, people come and go from work or simply hang about and socialise with their neighbours. Dogs and cats wander around, we even spotted some chickens perched on concrete rubble as raw sewerage and garbage trickles around them, between homes and next to walkways. There’s no sewerage system here, despite the residents paying the same service taxes as those in wealthier areas like Ipanema and Leblon, so all waste is exposed. The smell can get a bit much sometimes, in places.
Despite the living conditions in Santa Marta, everyone just seemed to get on with it. Some houses are basic, others are fully equipped with flat screen televisions hooked up to satellite dishes on their roofs.
We had the chance to drop into a ladies house to sample some of her fabulous cheesecake topped with passionfruit. I kind of wanted to hang about and watch what else she was cooking up.
At the centre of Santa Marta you find yourself in Michael Jackson Square, a small open space that honours the late superstar when he came in 1996 to shoot part of the video clip for his song “They don’t care about us.”
At the time, local authorities urged him to shoot in one of the prettier and wealthier neighbourhoods like Copacabana or Ipanema, but MJ’s response was along the likes of “It’s my money, I’ll shoot the video wherever I want.”
Aside from Santa Marta being mainly a residential district, there are a couple of small places where you can pick up a drink, souvenir or something made designed and made by locals. Our guide also took us to a small community centre where local kids can come, for free, to learn how to play musical instruments like the drums and piano. It’s little things like this that help keep the kids on the right track, avoiding the temptation to join gangs and get into the drug scene.
Our final stop in the favela was at the house of the man that owns and runs the small tour company we were using. Thiago is a guy that’s looked up to in Santa Marta favela due to his never-ending fight for the rights of his community. We even had the chance to hold his Olympic torch, as he was one of the many people asked to carry the flame when it came to Rio.
If you find yourself going to Rio and considering a favela tour, I urge you to do it. It’s a real eye-opener, it’s educational and if you choose a company like the one we did, the money goes straight back into the community. As for safety, there’s absolutely nothing to be concerned about.
Tours are available in English or Portuguese. Check the website for more details, or to book. And a big thanks to our guide Marisa de Oliveira – you were fantastic!