Exploring Rio’s Rocinha Favela

Casey Mead September 1, 2014 4

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup now over and life settling back to normal in Brazil, some surprising opinions have emerged from within the country. After the Brazil team lost so dramatically to Germany, and faces of despondent fans were plastered over social media, it seemed sadness was the common sentiment. But in fact, more than 60% of Brazilians didn’t want their country to host the event, and many didn’t want a win. This seems counterintuitive, but as the protests showed, there were many who felt the money spent on stadiums could have been better spent on the health and welfare of the nation’s people.

Rio offers a stunning landscape.

Rio offers a stunning landscape.

The divide in Brazil is extreme. A small portion – less than 10% of the 200-million population – holds all the wealth. Apartments sell for over USD1.5 million in Rio de Janeiro, yet 90% of the country could not afford to live in such a place.

Brazil is famous for its Carnival, dancing, beaches, and, of course, its favelas (slums), made famous in films like City of God. Many travellers who want to explore all aspects of a new place choose to experience what a favela is like in person – we hear about the samba parties and buildings haphazardly organized, the sense of community among its residents, and it piques the curiosity.

Choosing to visit an urban slum is not for everyone, and nor should it be. If you decide to go, it should be with a local person who knows the area well and enjoys sharing their unique life experience and culture.

With so much negative press surrounding Rio’s favelas in the lead-up to the World Cup, I was interested to see how they operated when I visited as part of my G Adventures “Southern Highlights” trip this past April.

Favela housing

Large stretches of the favelas are filled with people going about their day-to-day lives.

While large stretches of the favelas are filled with people going about their day-to-day lives, some parts are unsafe, which is another reason to go with a local guide. Our guide visited the Rocinha favela every day, knew exactly where to take us, and was able to introduce us to residents who were happy to chat and sell us cakes and trinkets. The prevalence of armed police at Rocinha’s main entrances is a stark reminder of the troubles that still occur between gangs, so always explore with a reputable company that employs local, knowledgeable guides.

Despite the harsh realities, the most interesting thing for me was discovering the similarities these communities share with more prosperous parts of the city. The daily rhythms of life – people doing washing, picking up groceries, watching TV, and walking their kids to school – are no different. Essentially, a favela is illegal housing, but there is still electricity, water, shops, and even art galleries. I love giving back to places like this, and was excited to purchase a painting from a local artist to remind me of the experience.

casey buying a painting

Supporting the community.

During our guided educational walk of Rocinha, we visited a volunteer-run day-care centre completely funded by donations, and supported in part by the Planeterra Foundation, G Adventures’ non-profit organization. This project enables mothers who live within the favela’s neighbourhoods to work while their children are looked after for free, which means that are able to afford to send their children to school and continue earning a living for the family.

Planeterra believes that providing access to education and economic opportunities is the best way to help communities achieve their goals for development. In this case, where favela residents are frequently left without basic services, we are helping to provide single mothers with a leg up. Most people deemed to be “in need” need only a chance to take advantage of opportunities that would otherwise escape them, and when women are given that chance, their lives and the lives of their children are changed forever.

favela housing

This ain’t your typical view. Rocinha Favela, Rio.

The members of our group who were initially hesitant to visit Rocinha were pleased that they did. It’s easy to judge what life is like there, that poverty means unhappiness. But what we experienced was a spirit of neighbourliness and community, which many neighbourhoods around the world have lost. Possibly the best part was seeing the ingenuity and creativity in the favela and having the chance to purchase local goods directly from the people who made them, helping to support the local economy. Visiting the favela was a fascinating inside look and cultural experience, and added another layer to the richness that was Brazil, an amazingly beautiful country that pulls you in from the moment you arrive.

Favela wall art.

Favela wall art.

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures to Brazil encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. Come and see what all the buzz is about – travel to Brazil today!


  1. Felipe October 2, 2014 at 7:09 am - Reply

    Nice but it’s spelled ROCINHA and not ROCHINA.

  2. Sacha Mlynek October 2, 2014 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Thank you so much Felipe! All corrected :)

  3. Andrea October 11, 2014 at 3:00 am - Reply

    I was just there in august with G as well and we got to see the other side of Rocinha. In the middle of our tour we saw police coming down and seconds later a shooting started. We waited for a little bit and our tour guide assured us it was “regular procedure” and not to worry about it… We kept going and then once again more shots closer to us, the 16 of us hid on the side of a house, some locals were nervous and even crying. Everybody locked their doors and closed their windows. When we were ready to run down and get out of there we heard more shots, this time literally on top of our heads, we all ducked and the majority of us started crying. We made our way inside the tiny house while the shots kept going. It was hands down one of the scariest experiences during my travels. We didn’t get to finish the tour (obviously) but we did get to experience what people in dangerous neighborhoods experience daily. It was definitely shocking for all of us, for a minute we thought we wouldn’t get out of there. Even though it wasn’t G’s fault it would have been nice to hear from them about this situation since they recommended the company and our CEO assured it was safe to go.

    • Sacha Mlynek October 16, 2014 at 2:31 pm - Reply

      Hi Andrea,

      Thank you for your comments. We certainly have empathy for you and the group being caught in the middle of such an event. While it is of course outside our control, we can say that this is the first and only occurrence of such an event. We are glad all travellers came through it safely. Some of your group did raise this matter with us, and we have had communication with them about it. The learning here for us is that we could, and should, have sent a message to all involved offering any assistance. We apologize that this did not happen at the time.

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