We Stayed in a Favela in Rio de Janeiro and Survived

We Stayed in a Favela in Rio de Janeiro and Survived

There was definitely something going on.

The guy was there all day, every day. He leaned against the wall, holding an old-school walkie-talkie and not bothering to be discreet about it. Every now and then he’d glance up the street and, once satisfied that the coast was clear, go back to bobbing his head along to the music blasting from the speaker he had brought with him to his watch-post.

Who was he watching for? The police? A rival gang?

We gave him a polite nod as we walked past, and he nodded back at us with a solemn expression. It was clear that he took his unofficial job more seriously than I take the Harry Potter books (I take them very seriously).

Trudging into the favela, hunchbacked with the weight of our big backpacks, we followed a man that had graciously taken up the role of escorting us through the labyrinth of narrow streets squeezed between brick huts. We made our way down through the layers of the slum, the houses stacked precariously on top of each other like packing crates.

Rio de Janeiro favela
A favela in Rio de Janeiro

We passed a group of teenagers on some steps who were trading money and tightly sealed parcels like Pokémon cards. We greeted them casually and they smiled and greeted us back.

That night, the pleasant, unmistakable smell of marijuana drifted past us tantalizingly on the rooftop of our new home.

We saw the group of kids every day for the five days that we were there. They hung out and chatted with each other as they neatly deposited beautifully rolled joints into plastic bags, cooly stowing away the merchandise as we passed by with a casual, “Bom dia!

They were about as subtle as the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which we could see from almost every point in Rio.

Rio de Janeiro favela Christ the Redeemer
Christ the Redeemer towers over the city

So, what crazy, near-death experiences befell us that week in the favela? The mere word, favela, carries the expectation of danger; a place that your parents and friends from back home warn you not to set foot in, an area off-limits to foreigners. How did we survive?

We pulled through by buying instant noodles from the shop. We got our hands on a bottle of cachaça and an armful of limes and made caipirinhas. We hung out on the roof and watched the sun set on an unbeatable view of Rio de Janeiro.

Rio de Janeiro favela
View of Rio de Janeiro from the favela we stayed in

I apologize for telling such a boring story, but if I’m being honest, absolutely nothing noteworthy happened.

Turns out that- just like we found out in Colombia as we unhurriedly strolled from bario to bario in Medellin- the assumptions we hadn’t ever given a second thought to were, once again, wrong.

Sure, this particular favela happened to be a center for an amateur weed distribution operation, but nothing more dangerous than a whiff of a fat joint afflicted us the entire time that we were there. The people were friendly and nice, and the woman running the hostel couldn’t have been more delighted to have us there.

Disclaimer: This is not an invitation to start running around all the slums you can find.

Just a few days after we left we heard about a shooting in one of the favelas. Dangerous areas exist in every city, particularly metropolises like Rio de Janeiro and Medellin. Even in tame, unassuming Minnesota where I grew up, the mention of “North Minneapolis” would instantly lead to a knowing nod in expectation of bad news.

But as we’ve backpacked through South America, we’ve realized how ridiculous it is to automatically jump in horror at words like slum, favela, or barrio. It’s like being afraid to go swimming because a shark will probably eat you. Many times, a slum out in the periphery might be less dangerous than downtown. Often, it’ll also have the best view, the cheapest prices, and the kindest people. Chances are it’ll be loads cleaner than your nasty party hostel. Most importantly, you can’t beat that kind of authenticity in a city that’s a tourist hub.

For me, it’s important to not constantly be a tourist while I travel. Not only is it expensive to maintain the lifestyle of a tourist for so long, it’s also not interesting. What’s unique about being herded with a bunch of other “wanderlusters” to the most popular landmark, snapping a photo, and then being herded out like cattle being taken out to the field? Personally, I need a better reason for blowing my entire bank account.

Traveling is that cliché that I can’t get enough of. But not because I want to fill up my mind and phone with recognizable images, but because it’s the only way to see if my notions of the world are accurate.

Usually, they’re not.

And the only way to correct them is to experience the real place, the real people, not the beaming Las-Vegas version. I learn nothing about a culture from going out to a club packed with foreigners, visiting the city’s Eiffel-Tower-equivalent, or staying in a hotel.

Give me a view to marvel at and a local to chat with (although I wouldn’t complain about a caipirinha either), and I’ll be happier in a dirt poor slum than I would be in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

– Iris & Roi