Venturing into the unknown

Rocinha Favela, the largest slum in Brazil. Pictures supplied

Eleanor Hughes takes us on a tour of Rocinha Favela, the largest slum in Brazil . . .

Pedro, our guide, meets us outside Copacabana Palace Hotel, an opulent-looking, white, multi-storeyed building occupying around 100 metres of land across the road from Copacabana beach. We travel via mini-van through leafy, well-off areas then, with a blink of an eye, things change. The van stops in an entirely different world. Rocinha Favela. I’m a little apprehensive.

Graffitied buildings, some three or four storeys high, some with upper levels larger and a different colour than that below — like a badly put-together birthday cake — line the wide street. It’s one of three main roads winding up steep hillsides once planted in crops. Motorbikes, cars, blasting horns — I can barely hear Pedro.

Usually deserted on weekdays, its occupants leaving to work, our visit coincides with a public holiday. We head into a quiet alley among buildings so compact daylight barely filters in. My imagined temporary, corrugated-iron shacks don’t appear to exist. Buildings look sturdy, if sometimes unfinished. With little land left to build on, on an area of around one square kilometre and a population estimated between 100,000 and 250,000, storeys are now added to storeys. Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro.

I’m surprised to find out the favela has three hospitals, schools, banks and numerous businesses which are mainly located in the lower part. Not what I thought a supposed slum would have. Higher up, close to the forest and almost vertical stone cliffs, is the poorest area. Apparently, where the drug dealers hang out — it’s more difficult for police to access. I think it would be hard to find anybody anywhere in the favela. Uneven, steep steps twist and turn in the maze of alleyways with little room to pass someone. Pedro warns us to keep each other in sight. He lives here and sometimes gets lost. Keep heading down, or up, and eventually you come out onto a main road.

A bird twitters. I look up. In its cage hanging from a high window, it’s a speck of natural beauty in the higgledy-piggledy concrete jumble.

We venture onto a home’s concrete roof. Over flat roofs, satellite dishes dotting almost every one, I look out to jutting skyscrapers and the blue Atlantic Ocean, flecked with a couple of small green islands. The million-dollar view is a breath of fresh air to the cluttered manmade foreground. Homeowners have tried to beautify rooftops and concrete courtyards with pot plants. The odd tree fights its way up between predominantly reddish-brown brick buildings, like an oasis in the desert.

Washing hangs limply in the heat amongst blue water tanks — water delivery is made three times a week. Sometimes it doesn’t happen.

We wander patched, cracked, rubbish-strewn concrete alleys, where illegally hooked-up electricity lines, like tangles of liquorice rope, criss-cross windows or hang dangerously low. In a wider, dim, covered thoroughfare bare-chested youngsters sit on a concrete knee-high wall drumming up-turned buckets and singing. We dance with them. They’ve got rhythm, I haven’t.

“Boa Tarde,” greet smiling residents. Children shout and laugh, dogs bark and music blasts from open windows. Everyone here looks out for each other and knows their neighbours. It would be difficult not to, they’re on each other’s doorsteps, on the other side of walls.

Someone asks about crime and we’re told it’s an unwritten law that nobody steals from another here. Although Pedro warns us not to photograph people as we walk through one area — possibly they’re drug dealers — and alerted that police are carrying out a drug bust in another alley we were heading down, I feel safe.

A telephone rings, a power-saw screams, I gag at the smell of an open sewer running between homes. Bottles, cans and bags of rubbish add to the aroma.

“Don’t block your noses,” says Pedro. “Experience what we live with.”

Rubbish is a problem. With rubbish trucks unable to reach homes, dumpsters are located in the main streets but people can’t be bothered carrying rubbish to them, or just dump it next to the dumpsters.

Pedro tells us he is university-educated like many of his friends. Others, no longer friends, have ended up drug dealing. He acknowledges them but minds his own business. Drug dealers are not dobbed in. It’s not worth the hassle.

Reaching the bottom of Rocinha we stand on an architecturally-designed pedestrian bridge leading to a swimming pool and community centre built for the children — money apparently the residents would rather have seen spent on sanitation. I look up at the hillsides.

At this distance, the favela resembles colourful strewn rubbish. It looks and sounds intimidating. My trepidation in going on this favela tour was unfounded though, I felt as safe in Rocinha as I did on Copacabana Beach.

Eleanor Hughes takes us on a tour of Rocinha Favela, the largest slum in Brazil . . .

Pedro, our guide, meets us outside Copacabana Palace Hotel, an opulent-looking, white, multi-storeyed building occupying around 100 metres of land across the road from Copacabana beach. We travel via mini-van through leafy, well-off areas then, with a blink of an eye, things change. The van stops in an entirely different world. Rocinha Favela. I’m a little apprehensive.

Graffitied buildings, some three or four storeys high, some with upper levels larger and a different colour than that below — like a badly put-together birthday cake — line the wide street. It’s one of three main roads winding up steep hillsides once planted in crops. Motorbikes, cars, blasting horns — I can barely hear Pedro.

Usually deserted on weekdays, its occupants leaving to work, our visit coincides with a public holiday. We head into a quiet alley among buildings so compact daylight barely filters in. My imagined temporary, corrugated-iron shacks don’t appear to exist. Buildings look sturdy, if sometimes unfinished. With little land left to build on, on an area of around one square kilometre and a population estimated between 100,000 and 250,000, storeys are now added to storeys. Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro.

I’m surprised to find out the favela has three hospitals, schools, banks and numerous businesses which are mainly located in the lower part. Not what I thought a supposed slum would have. Higher up, close to the forest and almost vertical stone cliffs, is the poorest area. Apparently, where the drug dealers hang out — it’s more difficult for police to access. I think it would be hard to find anybody anywhere in the favela. Uneven, steep steps twist and turn in the maze of alleyways with little room to pass someone. Pedro warns us to keep each other in sight. He lives here and sometimes gets lost. Keep heading down, or up, and eventually you come out onto a main road.

A bird twitters. I look up. In its cage hanging from a high window, it’s a speck of natural beauty in the higgledy-piggledy concrete jumble.

We venture onto a home’s concrete roof. Over flat roofs, satellite dishes dotting almost every one, I look out to jutting skyscrapers and the blue Atlantic Ocean, flecked with a couple of small green islands. The million-dollar view is a breath of fresh air to the cluttered manmade foreground. Homeowners have tried to beautify rooftops and concrete courtyards with pot plants. The odd tree fights its way up between predominantly reddish-brown brick buildings, like an oasis in the desert.

Washing hangs limply in the heat amongst blue water tanks — water delivery is made three times a week. Sometimes it doesn’t happen.

We wander patched, cracked, rubbish-strewn concrete alleys, where illegally hooked-up electricity lines, like tangles of liquorice rope, criss-cross windows or hang dangerously low. In a wider, dim, covered thoroughfare bare-chested youngsters sit on a concrete knee-high wall drumming up-turned buckets and singing. We dance with them. They’ve got rhythm, I haven’t.

“Boa Tarde,” greet smiling residents. Children shout and laugh, dogs bark and music blasts from open windows. Everyone here looks out for each other and knows their neighbours. It would be difficult not to, they’re on each other’s doorsteps, on the other side of walls.

Someone asks about crime and we’re told it’s an unwritten law that nobody steals from another here. Although Pedro warns us not to photograph people as we walk through one area — possibly they’re drug dealers — and alerted that police are carrying out a drug bust in another alley we were heading down, I feel safe.

A telephone rings, a power-saw screams, I gag at the smell of an open sewer running between homes. Bottles, cans and bags of rubbish add to the aroma.

“Don’t block your noses,” says Pedro. “Experience what we live with.”

Rubbish is a problem. With rubbish trucks unable to reach homes, dumpsters are located in the main streets but people can’t be bothered carrying rubbish to them, or just dump it next to the dumpsters.

Pedro tells us he is university-educated like many of his friends. Others, no longer friends, have ended up drug dealing. He acknowledges them but minds his own business. Drug dealers are not dobbed in. It’s not worth the hassle.

Reaching the bottom of Rocinha we stand on an architecturally-designed pedestrian bridge leading to a swimming pool and community centre built for the children — money apparently the residents would rather have seen spent on sanitation. I look up at the hillsides.

At this distance, the favela resembles colourful strewn rubbish. It looks and sounds intimidating. My trepidation in going on this favela tour was unfounded though, I felt as safe in Rocinha as I did on Copacabana Beach.

Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by a staff member. Comments may be edited for clarity.

Tommy Wilkie, Perth - 2 months ago
You would be safer in the Favela than on Copacabana beach. When I worked in Rio for 6 months several years ago, I found the locals in the favelas to be friendly and helpful up to a point.
If you were being foolish then you would definitely be punished.
Lovely people, stunning women, excellent food.

De Nada
Tom