In a low-wage economy, and with minimal social services, life is extremely difficult for the majority of Brazilians. During the last forty years, the rural poor have descended upon urban centres in search of a livelihood – often unable to find accommodation, or pay rent, they have established shantytowns, or favelas, on any available empty space, which in Rio usually means the slopes of the hills around which the city has grown.

Favelas start off as huddles of cardboard boxes and plastic sheeting, and slowly expand and transform: metal sheeting and bricks provide more solid shelters of often two or more storeys. Clinging to the sides of Rio’s hills, and glistening in the sun, they can from a distance appear not unlike a medieval Spanish hamlet, perched secure atop a mountain. It is, however, a spurious beauty. The favelas are creations of need, and their inhabitants are engaged in an immense daily struggle for survival, worsened by the prospect of landslides caused by heavy rains, which could tear their dwellings from their tenuous hold on precipitous inclines.

Life for some of Rio’s favela dwellers is slowly changing for the better, however. Bound together by their shared poverty and exclusion from effective citizenship, the favelados display a great resourcefulness and cooperative strength. Self-help initiatives – some of which are based around the escolas de samba that are mainly favela-based – have emerged, and the authorities are finally recognizing the legitimacy of favelas by promoting favela-bairro projects aimed at fully integrating them into city life. Private enterprise, too, is taking an interest as it becomes alert to the fact that the quarter of the city’s population that live in favelas represents a vast, untapped market.

Favela tours

Wandering into a favela does not, as many middle-class cariocas would have you believe, guarantee being robbed or murdered. Law and order is essentially in the hands of highly organized drugs gangs, but it’s simply not in their interest to create trouble for visitors, as this would only attract the attention of the police who normally stay clear of favelas. Alone, you’re liable to get lost and, as in any isolated spot, may run into opportunistic thieves, but if accompanied by a favela resident you’ll be perfectly safe and received with friendly curiosity. For the majority of people, however, the best option is to take a tour, with the most insightful and longest-established run by Marcelo Armstrong. Marcelo, who speaks excellent English, is widely known and respected in the favelas that are visited and has made a point of getting community approval. It is strongly advised to make your own arrangements with Marcelo rather than through a travel agent or hotel front desk, where you may end up with an inferior tour and be charged too much – some operators treat the favelas rather as they might an African game park, ferrying groups in open-topped camouflaged jeeps. But if you’re worried about voyeurism, you shouldn’t be: residents want outsiders to understand that favelas are not in fact terrifying and lawless ghettos, but inhabited by people as decent as anywhere else, eager to improve the local quality of life.

Marcelo’s highly responsible tours usually take in two favelas: Roçinha, Rio’s largest, with around 200,000 inhabitants, and Vila Canoas, much smaller, with some 3000 residents. Twice a day (9am & 2pm; R$65, part of which is donated to community projects in the favelas), tourists are picked up from their hotels or pre-arranged spots in the Zona Sul for the two-hour tour, which stops at lookout points, a day-care centre, a bar and other places of interest. Marcelo offers a fascinating commentary, pointing out the achievements of favelas and their inhabitants without romanticizing their lives. To reserve a place on a tour, call Marcelo on t 21/3322-2727, mobile t 9989-0074 or t 9772-1133, or for more information, check out w

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