Before I even set foot in Brazil, I started to tackle the question of whether or not I would take a tour of the local favelas. A favela is essentially a slum in an urban area in Brazil. They first appeared in the late nineteenth century and were popularized in the film City of God as dirty slums overtaken by local drug lords and criminals. Over 11 million people in Brazil reside in favelas. In Rio de Janeiro alone, there are hundreds of favelas located throughout the city that house about nineteen percent of the population.
Taking a Favela Tour with a Local
The idea of taking a tour to essentially gawk at the urban poor sat wrong with me and I originally scrapped the idea of doing a favela tour even though other travelers told me it was both eye opening and life changing. Eventually, I came around to the idea when I was invited to take a favela tour run by a local resident. The idea of seeing a favela through the eyes of someone who had lived there and was making efforts to improve the livelihood of the locals eased my original perception.
Jungle Me is a local operation that offers favela tours and jungle hikes in the Babilônia slum in the pacified neighborhood of Leme. I met the guide in the morning before the hot sun made the very steep hike up to the slum impossible. While I sweated my way up, the guide gave us some history of the pacification of slums in Rio de Janeiro. In 2008 the UPP or pacifying police units began to retake the favelas from drug traffickers through policing and social programs. We noticed the presence of police cars everywhere as we wandered around the slum, giving the feeling of safety
Our guide explained to us how the government has implemented safe water and sanitation in the slums in recent years in an effort to improve the quality of life. We passed by many rickety shacks built with any material that could be found – plywood, aluminum, anything really just stacked haphazardly it seemed. Some of the houses were marked with numbers spray painted on them – we learned that these houses were considered to be in dangerous positions susceptible to the landslides that are common in Rio. The government marks these houses and eventually relocates the residents to newly constructed apartment blocks in the favela before demolishing them.
Despite the apparent poverty, the favelas appeared well-run with local day cares, schools and medical facilities. Children played at a soccer field and there was even a concert hall – a caged off area with a few benches that also served as the emergency shelter in case of storms.
The locals seemed happy to see our guide around and routinely stopped to talk with him and us, making me feel less like a gawker and more like someone involved. Our guide was well-informed about everything relating to the favelas: their history, their troubles, and plans for the future, always able to answer the dozens of questions we fielded at him.
Up to the Rainforest Lookout
After we finished touring the favelas, we began a hike through the muggy rainforest up to an viewpoint that would take your breath away. Here we met with a member of CoopBabilonia who works in partnership with Jungle Me. From our knowledgeable guide we learned about the deforestation that happened in Rio de Janeiro in the 1800’s. As coffee plantations sprung up around Rio, the deforestation resulted in a loss of rainfall and available groundwater, plunging the city into a crisis. As a result, Tijuca forest was created. The man-made forest has been considered wildly successful. Coops like CoopBabilonia continue to take care of the forest and replanting.
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Next we made our way to the incredible overlook of the city. I had already seen the views of the city from both Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf that make Rio famous, but being able to stand high above the city and look at both of them without being knocked over by hundreds of other tourists took my breath away.
After those stunning views, we made our way back downtown. I thanked my tour guide profusely for suggesting the early morning tour as we made our descent down the steep winding roads in the midday sun. If I had opted for a later tour, I would’ve been a puddle on the ground.
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I’d like to thank Jungle Me for showing me around Babilônia on their Favela and Jungle Hike Tour. The four-hour tour and hike offers small groups a unique and respectful view of one of the urban slums in Rio de Janeiro with a knowledgeable local guide, and some breath-taking views of the city not seen anywhere else. As always, all opinions and recommendations are mine alone.