Tourists drawn to darker side of Rio de Janeiro

Guides lead visitors through infamous shantytowns controlled by drug trade

Destination Brazil

September 10, 2006|By John Otis | John Otis,[Houston Chronicle ]

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL / / Packed with tourists, our white minivan zooms past pristine beaches, past Corcovado Mountain, and deposits us in the sprawling ghetto of Rocinha, which is controlled by gun-toting drug gangs.


Did we take a wrong turn at the Carmen Miranda Museum?

Actually, it's all part of the plan. Along with eight other foreigners, I have plunked down $34 for some guided slumming in the favelas, Rio's infamous shantytowns.

"Don't worry about your cameras or money," says our chaperone from Favela Tour, Christina Mendonca, who notes that we have tacit permission from the bad guys to be here.

"In the favelas, the drug dealers are in charge," Mendonca says. "So no one will dare to attack us."

She's right.

Rocinha residents greet us with smiles all around and invite us into their homes. We talk to schoolchildren. We buy mango juice. And we admire the water tower built by cocaine barons to curry favor in the neighborhood.

"You don't just want to see stereotypical tourist stuff," says Kieren Boesenberg, an Australian economist, explaining the allure of the three-hour excursion to the favelas. "This is much richer."

Every week, legions of visitors forgo the sun, the sand and the other temptations of the Cidade Maravilhosa -- Portuguese for "the Marvelous City" -- for a glimpse at Rio's not-quite-so-marvelous underbelly.

Founded by war veterans, freed African slaves and poor immigrants from Brazil's interior, Rio's favelas are home to one-fifth of the city's 6 million people. And they are hard to miss.

Side by side

Unlike slums in most Latin American megacities, which lie far from downtown, the favelas were built on the mountain slopes that rise up from the middle of Rio. As a result, many favelas lie, literally, a stone's throw from more affluent neighborhoods, providing a stark tableau of Rio's haves and have-nots.

Some of the country's best musicians, soccer players and artists have emerged from the favelas, and the neighborhood samba schools invariably dominate the annual Carnival competitions. Painters often depict favelas as proud repositories of Afro-Brazilian culture.

But in recent years, thousands of well-armed gangsters and cocaine dealers have set up shop in the slums. Their constant shootouts with police - depicted in the 2002 Fernando Meirelles film City of God - have scared away many Rio residents even as foreigners flock to the shantytowns.

"The favelas are symbols of backwardness and danger but also of authenticity and creativity," says Ben Penglase, an assistant professor of anthropology at Texas Christian University who often travels to Brazil.

"It's a really odd situation," he says. "It's increasingly rare for Brazilians to venture into the favelas, because it's become more dangerous. But you get all these foreign visitors, which are giving the favelas global visibility."

Rio's favelas have attracted outsiders for generations. In 1832, Charles Darwin visited a runaway slave community on the outskirts of Rio that later grew into a favela. In the 1920s, the slums became obligatory stops for foreign intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Today, just as tourists in Johannesburg, South Africa, can inspect the townships, visitors to Rio can take half-day trips to the favelas provided by local companies.

Off the beaten path

Marcelo Armstrong is the pioneer of organized favela tourism. A 36-year-old Brazilian who grew up next to a favela, Armstrong came up with the idea while traveling in Africa. At one point, he landed a job as a golf instructor at a Club Med in Senegal.

"But it was the most superficial kind of tourism," says Armstrong, who pointed out that it was nearly impossible for Club Med clients to meet average Senegalese.

When he returned to Rio and founded Favela Tour in 1992, Armstrong says, "I wanted to put people in touch with reality. The favelas are usually not as bad as most people imagine. They don't expect to see people smiling. It touches them, and they understand more."

The tours have become so popular that Armstrong and his team of six guides take about 750 tourists per month into Vila Canoas and Rocinha, the city's largest favela.

Except for the chockablock cinder-block houses seemingly built on top of one another, the favelas, at first glance, can seem rather ordinary.

"I expected the conditions to be much worse," says Tal Evans, a British engineer seated in the back of our bus. "The favelas are a lot more developed than I thought."

Sure, there are open sewers and piles of trash everywhere. But we also walk down busy streets lined with banks, Internet cafes, restaurants and open-air markets. Several families invite us into their homes, though many residents depart during the day for jobs downtown as construction workers, gardeners, housekeepers and hotel staff.

As he pounds out rhythms on a street corner in Rocinha, bongo drummer Paulo Amaral says: "This is reality."

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