Favelas: The Forgotten Side of Rio de Janeiro

Anyone who first arrives in Rio de Janeiro, and takes a casual evening stroll, can’t help but be drawn in by the twinkling lights lighting up the hillsides.

Well, those twinkling lights sitting on some of the most prime real estate in the city, are the favelas. Favelas are defined as slums, yet the word slum doesn’t incapsulate what these places truly are. In the South Zone of Rio, these favelas are developing into some of the more influential and exciting parts of the city, and although far from ‘classy’, there is a charm about them that’s hard to ignore. This isn’t to say the stories you’ve heard about the violence, crime or poverty are false. This isn’t to say they aren’t still dirty, or suffer from numerous infrastructural problems. But…it is to say, that they are fascinating places, with fascinating people.

Vidigal   |  Rocinha  |  Santa Marta

These favelas are sandwiched between dense atlantic rainforest and rock faces on steep hills; they are filled with narrow streets, crumbling staircases, and multiple story brick buildings, that are completely unplanned (or at least appear to be). Wires sprout from electrical posts, water drips from just about everywhere, and unfortunately, exposed sewage drains and trash piles are abundant. Yet all this is changing!


The typical building construction is exposed red brick and reinforced concrete, a blue water tank on the roof, empty space for small windows, ventilation, door jambs, and often times no external plaster or paint. As weird as it may sound, this is interesting, trust me. There is a buzz to these places that down below, in “fancy Rio”, there isn’t. The beauty doesn’t lay in one individual rundown building; it lies with the place as a whole. How it adapts to its population and physical constraints. How, although suffering from a neglected history, they have become culturally vibrant and full of art.

Favelas are defined as slums, yet the word slum doesn’t incapsulate what these places truly are.

For example: as much as the exteriors of the buildings may seem bare, many of the interiors are just as decorated as its neighboring buildings in Ipanema and Copacabana: well painted, furnished, fully-equipped with kitchen appliances and TV’s, rooftop ‘churrasquerias’, and sometimes garages for vehicles or motorcycles. Storefronts, cafes, restaurants, saloons, line their main streets. Community gardens are sprouting up, pleasant day-hikes are accessible, with some of the best viewing points. Local entrepreneurs have taken advantage of business opportunities and have begun paying taxes and receiving investments for neighborhood projects. Street art covers unpainted walls. New hostels draw in excited travelers, and local nightclubs and bars attract the late night energy.


These communities are happening during the day, and bumping at night. Fun seeking foreigners and cariocas alike (people from Rio de Janeiro) all meet up here to listen to music, dance, drink beer, and enjoy the amazing views. They have become a staple of the carioca nightlife, as well as fun place to spend your day.

NOTE: We don’t recommend venturing up into any favela alone without a prior detailed briefing, or accompanied by a trustworthy guide!

Here are some of the most accessible favelas for the Rio de Janeiro traveler:


Is located at the end of Ipanema/Leblon beach, underneath the famous “Dois Irmãos” (Two Brothers) rock faces, and is the fastest urbanizing favela in Rio de Janeiro. Due to its prime location, this favela will be hard to miss. There is no foreigner that visits Ipanema beach at night and doesn’t wonder what the sparkling community is at the end of the beach. Vidigal hosts an amazing urban hike, it’s full of energy and fun street art, and is quite safe, having been one of the first pacified favelas in Rio. Vidigal has seen tremendous growth over the past years, again, its location undoubtably playing a major role in that, being that it is so close in proximity to some of the wealthier and more visited districts of Rio. Although this growth has benefited the community as a whole, issues of gentrification are always at the forefront of the development. That said, numerous quality restaurants, hotels, and hostels are sprouting up, and it has become one of the most interesting cultural tourist destinations in the city.

Check out an amazing urban renewal project, Sitié: an agro-ecological park gaining international recognition in Vidigal. Its successful reuse of materials and sustainable ideals epitomizes people’s ability to make change where it seems least possible.


Favela Living

Latin America’s most dense favela, is the ‘real deal’, and its intensity and chaotic energy is hard to fathom for the unaccustomed eye. As an unplanned community it can be shocking to see that there are 5, 6, and 7 story buildings towering over narrow alleyways and packed streets. Rocinha is located in between two wealthy neighborhoods, Gávea, and São Conrado, and looks over a beautiful golf course (an apt microcosm of Brazil’s inequality and socio-economics). It is a community of ‘arguably’ 70,000 residents in a space of 355 acres (the arguably comes from registered citizens living there vs. the unregistered). The place is simply a jungle of brick and concrete. Houses built on top of houses, on top of more houses, connected by an incomprehensible maze (to an untrained visitor) of tiny ‘corridor’ staircases, and congested streets. Motorcycles wiz up and down the hills, swerving between vans, buses, and dump trucks, all with baffling precision. It is fascinating, and despite its appearances, Rocinha contains anything a resident needs; from grocery stores, medical clinics, and hair salons, to repair shops, clothing stores, schools, event centers, athletic facilities and more. As for the people themselves, there is a tremendous sense of pride within the residents of this community, because it isn’t for the faint hearted. It is a jungle. It was pacified in 2011, but was previously known as the throne of Rio de Janeiro’s drug trafficking. Since the pacification, it has begun welcoming many urban transformations, and infrastructural projects, including working on opening a metro stop at its base, alleviating some of its transportation congestion and access issues. Nowadays, it is an exciting place to visit and many tourists partake in safe walking tours that show Rocinha in its true colors.

Santa Marta

Another fascinating local favela in Botafogo. Renowned for Michael Jackson’s music video “They don’t care about us”, it is home to amazing street art, a beautiful center plaza, and is a rapidly improving neighborhood. Check out a very interesting Ted Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/haas_hahn_how_painting_can_transform_communities?language=en by two dutch artists who really made a difference through their identity-creating street art in Favelas and specifically the projects done in Santa Marta. Amazing guys!


Continue Reading about favelas:

Social Communities (Favelas) in Rio de Janeiro

Travel Tips to Rio de Janeiro

Jinga is Experience Travel



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