Rio: Taking a Favela Tour in Rocinha


Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela

This week I took a tour into Rocinha, one of the favelas (or shanty-towns) that lurk in the hills in Rio.

I’m not sure how I feel about Favela tours. Some companies are still doing the safari-style Favela tours, where they pile you into a jeep and drive you around to gawp at all the poor people, and obviously I didn’t want to be involved in that. However I was interested in seeing a Favela and I certainly didn’t want to go wandering in by myself.

So I was glad to find this tour, which made the visit more of a social experience. We went on a walk through the favela, guided by two Rocinha residents, who talked about the history of the favela and how life is for the people there.

Rocinha is the biggest Favela in Brazil, built on a steep hill.


electric cables

It has better infrastructure than many favelas: there is electric and water (some of the time anyway), some basic plumbing and internet/cable TV. It also has many businesses; there are shops, medical centres, banks and even a branch of the Subway sandwich franchise. It is, in fact, a city within the city and residents never need to leave the favela.

Several bus lines drop people next to the favela and from there residents can walk or take one of the numerous motorbike taxis up the steep hill to their home.


A Favela is an urban slum, or shanty-town in Brazil. Favelas have existed since the 19th century, as home to former African slaves and to people who were thrown out of tenement blocks in the city centre when buildings were demolished. Also people started to move to the cities from rural areas to find work, and living in the favelas was often their only option. The Favelas grew from there.

You are never far from a Favela in Rio. There are more than 600 of them and it is estimated that around 6% of the population of the city lives in one. Residents are often discriminated against in the workforce because of negative perceptions of the favelas and of the people who live there.



View from Rocinha.  You can stand on the hills of the Favela and look down at the ocean and condominiums of nearby Sao Conrado.  Many of Rio’s Favelas border onto rich neighbourhoods.


Improvising some musical instruments

The police normally stay on the outside of the favela and the inside is controlled by drug lords and mafia-style organised crime, although things are slowly changing.

*The tour I took with Brazil Expedition cost R$90, that’s about £21/US$27.  I would definitely recommend the company.

6 replies »

  1. You’re gutsy. As the Rio Olympics approach, documentaries are being made to satisfy, and stoke, curiousity I suppose. One doc was quite similar to your experience, a tour of a favela, the history and economic underpinning. The danger and violence was highlighted, I guess for the TV audience. No fears or nervousness on your tour?

    • Yes my friend tells me there’s a lot of negative stuff about Rio on TV. The place does resemble a giant building site.
      Rio was always a slightly dangerous place, even by South American standards.
      I don’t think this favela is necessarily typical of favelas in Rio. Smaller ones have less infrastructure. Rocinha has grown used to the tourism; the tour companies pay money in return for safe passage for the tourists. I certainly don’t think these tours would be possible in many of the favelas, where it’s still very dangerous.
      Still an interesting trip though.

  2. Thank you once again for bringing us the real local world with such dignity and beauty. For me, your expositions and insights into the worlds of your destinations is one of the riches of your blogs. I believe there is always beauty to be found in any community if one looks but so often the negatives are all that is seen. Thank you for ‘seeing’ the Favela with honesty but a full perspective. As usual, amazing photos. Thrilled you ended with the guys having a ‘jam’ session and the delight on their faces. LIFE in the midst can usually be found if one chooses to look for it.

    • Well I find things like this interesting, so hope other people do too.
      I don’t know that this favela is so typical. Many of the others have less infrastructure and the fact that this one is growing used to tourism changes the nature of the favela.

  3. Hello Sarah I recently saw an exhibition of photos from the Brazilian favelas at the Horniman museum which was really interesting. I just think the whole world is divided by those who have and those who have not and I understand totally the issue around paying to view such places. However, it was interesting to read about it first hand from someone there. Interesting. Safe travels xx

    • I think it depends on your mindset when you go visit these places. I don’t think this one was typical of Favelas. The tourism has changed the place and by Favela standards it is quite luxurious.
      But I’m glad I went because I wanted to do it.

Leave a Reply