The pit bull that guards this house was once owned by a local drug lord, so they all know him and will give anyone who is walking him a pass. Helpful information when renting a place in a shanty town, but I’m jumping ahead.
A Rio de Janeiro Favela
Rio de Janeiro is ranked as the 9th most dangerous city in the world. According to a study based on homicide rates in 2017, seventeen out of the top 50 most violent cities in the world are in Brazil.
I read an article this week about the number of tourists shot in Rio. They tried to reassure the reader by saying, “but most of these happen in the favelas.”
favela /fəˈvelə/ noun • a Brazilian shack or shanty town; a slum.
Favelas began as squatter settlements. They remain as the poorest neighborhoods in urban areas. They are known for rampant violence, drug, and gang problems. If you’ve seen the movie City of God, you’ll have a good idea of what a favela is. That movie was shot in a real favela, with actors who actually live there.
For the next five days, we would be living in one of these favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
|Feature Image credit to Diego Baravelli. This is a photo of the Vidigal Favela from across the bay. The Dois Irmanos trail leads hikers up to the highest point in the picture|
How Did We End Up Here?
Well, we research and we read other blogs and we heed warnings about specific areas to avoid in the towns that we visit. We really do try our best to be safe when traveling, yet we still ended up with a rental in a favela.
Granted, we stayed in Vidigal. As favelas go, Vidigal is probably one of the safest if one is to believe the articles written about it. Gentrified and pacified are some of the words commonly used.
There were rumors that David Beckham purchased a house in Vidigal. Sometime later another rumor said that Madonna bought a house there too. Neither of these was true, but it didn’t stop would-be-starstruck fans from visiting and taking pictures of the supposed real estate gems.
Worse, the rumors caused the Vidigal property values to skyrocket, and the favela became sort of chic. Rich foreigners moved in much to the chagrin of the locals who now live with bloated prices of commodities.
Not What We Expected
We had no intention of staying in a favela. When Trin booked our lodging in Airbnb, he thought it was part of Leblon, an expensive neighborhood in Rio. It is only when you zoom in close enough in Google Maps when it starts to show the outlines of the houses that you realize how close together those tiny houses are.
The actual room we rented looked really nice in the pictures. It is a fully furnished private apartment. The online reviews were also great. But most of them, we realized later, were from 2016 when the Olympics were in Rio, a brief time when Rio seemed to have a handle on the crime. Things change quickly here. See our post about safety travel tips in Brazil.
Voyage into Vidigal
After our week near the stunning Iguazu Falls, we flew to Rio De Janeiro. From the airport, we walked about a kilometer to the nearest subway. The subway is a safe mode of transportation in Rio. It is clean and well organized.
We emerged from the subway to an area where São Conrado and Rocinha converge, one is a wealthy neighborhood, the other is the largest favela in Brazil. This juxtaposition of contrasting living conditions is common in Rio. In many cases, they blend on the edges, and for this reason, it is easy to wander into a favela inadvertently. There are news stories of foreigners unknowingly driving into a favela and getting shot.
We got on a bus which was standing room only. We grabbed a bar with each hand and hung on. The guidebooks said that the bus drivers were aggressive and we found this to be accurate. Trin describes it as digital driving – accelerate and brake, go straight and swerve, nothing in between. The bus sped down Niemeyer Avenue that hugs the coast.
There was a spectacular view of the ocean from the road and we admired the overhanging bicycle path beside it. I told Trin I wanted to walk it later. It was the Tim Maia bicycle path which was built in 2016 ahead of the Rio Olympics. A few months after it was built, a section of the path fell off into the breakwater below it, killing two people.
Pacification is not Gentrification
We got off at the entrance of Vidigal and took a Kombi (a VW van) deep into the favela. It was immediately apparent as we started up the steep ascent into the hillside that pacified does not mean gentrified. Patched together homes clung to the cliff we were ascending. The narrow road was impossibly steep with hairpin turns.
It was around 8 am, and things were underway in the favela. People were out and about. The van driver seemed to know everyone that we passed by. He’d shout out a greeting to them, and they’d shout back, or vice-versa. It was like the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast, where Bela walked around and said bonjour, bonjour to everyone. Except that this is not a French medieval village, and he’s no Bela.
Our van climbed and climbed and finally dropped us off on a street corner near the top of the favela, next to a place called Bar dos Amigos that had a small pool table outside it, and a group of men playing loudly like they owned the place. They probably do.
We walked down a side street. Piles of garbage were stacked up against the wall to our right and there was a group of street dogs rummaging through the filth, not an uncommon sight in South America. Many of the local folks smiled and nodded as we passed by. Within a block, we saw the sign for the Vidigal Guest House, our home for the next five days.
There was a beautiful vine that covered the wall around the exterior of the house. Vanessa, our host, opened the solid wooden door to let us into what looked like a little oasis in the middle of ravaging poverty.
Inside, the apartment is covered with large beautiful tiles. The entire place was spotless. A small kitchen with a granite countertop greeted us upon our entry, in the corner was a small table for eating or working, around the corner a memory foam bed and an ample-sized bathroom, also spotlessly clean. I loved it.
Was it Safe?
Given all the warnings about Rio and finally seeing where exactly this rental was that we reserved online, we wondered if we should move. So we messaged Andrea, our Brazilian friend in NC, for advice. She, in turn, messaged one of her friends who used to live in Rio named Andre.
We had planned a few down days to get some online stuff done. The apartment itself was very nice. We already made it in, so why get out now when we could just stay put and get out later. So we decided to stay and see how it went.
Dois Irmãos Hike
The Morro Dois Irmãos (hill of two brothers) is a geological formation towering over the Vidigal favela. It is two monoliths that can be seen prominently from the sandy beaches of Ipanema. Our rental was just across the soccer field where the trailhead is located.
We did the hike up Dois Irmãos with Vanessa and her dog, Argos, a hefty, white pit bull. He looks intimidating with his wide, solid body and rippling muscles. He is pure power, and completely sweet.
We walked down the narrow street, through the soccer field, and then onto a jungle trail. The trail is steep and in many places closed in with luscious green vegetation.
“The safest place to be is in a home in a favela. You can leave your door unlocked and even open,” Vanessa said when we asked her about safety in favelas.
“No one will bother you in your home. Because if they do, they know…” she left the sentence hanging but drew her hand across her neck with a cutting motion and nodded eyes wide. Vigilante justice evidently prevents home invitations here.
There were very few people on the trail. We met other tourists. All of them had a local guide accompanying them. A few of the guys hesitated when they spotted Argos.
Life in the Favela
The people that we encountered in the favela were all friendly. They smiled and tried to understand our Spanish or English since we don’t speak Portuguese. The sounds of life surrounded our place – children playing in the street, beautiful Latin music that makes me want to dance. Music that sets the stage for a simple life.
I have always relished quiet places but I honestly think that after two years in Latin American countries I am going to miss these sounds.
Voices penetrate the walls, some seemed like it came from inside our apartment while others were muted and further away. A car slowly drives through with a loudspeaker playing rooster sounds. They were selling frozen chicken out of the trunk. It’s a constant movement of life.
In the evening the music grows louder and sometimes we get caught in the middle of music coming from multiple directions. By midnight, it all normally quiets down for a peaceful rest. The rooster (a real one) wakes me up early before it is even bright.
A Safe Passage with Argos
We reached the end of the trail and it opened up to an amazing view of the south of Rio with the statue of Christ the Redeemer high up Corcovado, the beautiful Ipanema beach, and the surrounding neighborhoods.
On the way back down the hill, there was a sense of peace in the jungle. I pointed out a stone table with tiled chairs to the left of the trail.
“Looks like a great place to picnic,” I said to Vanessa.
“Yes,” she said, “but the drug lords love that spot. They carry the big AK47s. They stopped my father-in-law once. He was really scared as he doesn’t speak much Portuguese. He was trying to tell them that he lived here. Then he pointed to the dog and told them it was Argos.”
The drug lords did not know Lithuanian (Vanessa husband and her father-in-law are from Lithuania) but they knew Argos. They let the pair go through.
The first year of Argos’s life he was owned by one of the local drug lords. Argos was bred for and was being trained to fight. He was abused as a puppy and bears the scars today. His ears had been cut off. Vanessa and her husband adopted him after his first year. They care for him and treat him well. He is now a sweet, joyful dog. But all the drug lords still know him and like him.
One evening, Trin and I went out to get a bite to eat. We stopped at a little shack that was selling pastels (fried turnovers with meat and cheese fillings) and sat at one of the tables. The food was good and we enjoyed some drinks and the beautiful night air. A local boy came over and started talking to us although we clearly did not understand what he was saying. He then pulled up a chair to our tiny table. I guess we were buddies. It was obvious that he fully expected us to give him some of our food.
Should You Stay in a Favela?
Our time in the Vidigal Guest House was wonderful. Vanessa was exceptional. We truly felt safe there.
We stayed there for five days. It wasn’t even our intention to stay in a favela, while most visitors probably go there on a brief, guided tour. But then five days is nothing, and things could change quickly. Shootouts could erupt at any time between the police and drug groups and the people will have to stay indoors, sometimes for days, until things settle down.
You will need to decide for yourself. Next week we move downtown for some biking and hiking.
Whatever you do, go out there and experience the world. Find your next blue door of opportunity.