Favela Tours – The Good and the Bad

Favela tour Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil
Street in Rocinha

On May 30th, 2013, a 25 year old German tourist was shot in Rocinha, the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro (and South America). Also recently, the Complexo do Alemão, another major favela, was startled by a two hour shootout between police and gangsters…  Hearing that news is likely to make people think that it is unsafe to visit a favela, even a pacified one. 

The truth, as far as I am able to perceive,  is that the favelas, and certainly the pacified ones are not necessarily more dangerous than any other place in Rio or anywhere else in the world.

I recently went to a speakers night with Rodrigo Pimentel, the author of the “Tropa de Elite” movies, about the elite police force BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Especiais).

Mr. Pimentel stated that, for a long time, it was impossible for the police to enter the favelas, but currently (based on the standard crime statistics), the “Complexo do Alemão” and other pacified favelas are currently safer than most European or US cities, while other areas in Rio de Janeiro remain very dangerous. 

So what about Favela tours?

Favela tour Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil
An alleyway in Rocinha

There seems to be something about the favelas that draws tourists to them,and the favela tours give people an opportunity to see the way of life e in the favela up close, but whether favela tours are a good or a bad thing, depends greatly on two questions:

  1. What is the experience of the individual visiting the community, and 
  2. Is that visitor “giving something back” to the community.
Let’s see… 

There are the jeep tours that take  tourists on a ride through the favela, almost like a trip through a zoo or safari park, where visitors have little or no interaction with the people of the favela and in a way the residents feel almost as if they were animals in a zoo.

Put yourself in the shoes of a “favelado” (resident of the favela) and ask yourself how you would feel if twice a day a few jeeps full of curious tourists would drive through your neighborhood with no other interest than take pictures of your different-ness from behind closed widows. If I can speak for myself, I know for a fact that I would not really feel very respected. 

The people organizing the jeep tours are mostly outsiders, and usually don’t contribute anything back to the community.

Then there is the other way…

Favela tour Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil
Zezinho in action

A much better and more respectful way to get to know the community, is with a local guide, someone who lives in the favela, knows the place through and through, and in turn is known and respected by the residents of the community. I have visited both Rocinha and Vidigal this way several times, and I can say that this way you get a much better image an feel of how a favela really works. 

One of the people I met in Rocinha is Zezinho, a man born and raised in Rocinha, who is half American, half Brazilian. He lived several years in the US, but eventually returned to his beloved Rocinha and says he will never leave the place. This is a man with a  passion for his community that is rarely seen, and he has taken this passion and his first hand knowledge and turned it into a quest to “educate people about the community and the great things that happen there”.

Despite the fact that he is not the fittest guy around, he only takes people on walking tours through the community. Tours or visits where people walk through the community are more welcomed and respected by the residents and also offer a chance to the visitor to step into a local store, bar or restaurant and spend some money that will directly benefit the people in the community.

Another very positive thing about Zezinho’s way of working is that he uses a considerable part of the money he makes with the tours to help social projects and finance the DJ school (Spin Rocinha) he started a couple of years ago, where young people from Rocinha can learn the secrets of being a DJ – for free of course…  

During the tour, Zezinho talks about the difficulties of life in the favela, the rationed water, lack of proper education and healthcare, poorly organized garbage collection, the fact that most people in the favela DO Pay for electricity and water, the fact that people only own their house, but the land is still property of the government… 

Favela tour Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil
Street in Rocinha


Walking down the sometimes steep streets of Rocinha it is important to keep your eyes open because there are a lot of motorbikes riding up and down, bringing passengers and their cargo to the different corners of the community.

Meanwhile Zezinho keeps talking and mentions the many good sides of the favela. Like the guy that got himself the nickname of “Rambo”, lives in a cave and spends his time trimming trees, killing rats and doing other useful stuff… and the feeling of belonging, being part of a community, something most people on the asphalt (that’s how they call the people outside the favela) in their protected houses and condominiums can only dream of. 

Favela tour Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil
Another street in Rocinha

One of the most important things Zezinho wants visitors to see, is that the favela is not a criminal ridden war zone, where you can get shot down any moment.

To the contrary, 99,9% of the people here are honest, hard working people, doing the best they can to provide a decent life for their families. It is like a separate city in its own right, with banks, supermarkets, lawyers, dentists and everything else you find in a normal city.  

Favela tour Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil
After the tour… a picture with Zezinho – Rocinha in the background.

The last stop of the tour is a local “por kilo” restaurant, where the visitors can have lunch. I heard one of the people in my group say that they had eaten better (and cheaper) in the favela than in the chique restaurant the night before, somewhere in Zona Sul. 

Anyone who has a genuine interest in getting to know the favela and its residents should definitely go on a tour with Zezinho. It is time and money well spent.