The Truth About Rio’s Favelas

Leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, American news media filled the airwaves with human interest stories to give Americans a flavor of the country. One of the topics they emphasized was Brazil’s favelas, particularly those in Rio de Janiero. In fact, between June 11 and July 2, 2014, CNN alone aired six separate segments specifically about life in Rio’s favelas. Favela – noun – shantytown in or near a city, especially in Brazil; slum area

Sometimes mainstream media struggles to present clear and objective viewpoints in their abbreviated airtime, and viewers are left with the images of military jeeps and personnel storming up the narrow favela streets with reporters in flak jackets and helmets.

The complete picture, though, is not nearly as stark.

What is a favela and how did they get there?

rio de janeiro favela

Vidigal favela rises steeply above Ipanema beach

As the dictionary definition implies, a favela is a shantytown slum on the outskirts of a city, particularly Rio de Janiero. In 1888, Brazil was the final country in the western world to abolish slavery. Just like the countries before it, Brazil experienced so many social issues integrating newly freed slaves into mainstream society that some people question whether it has been fully accomplished 150 years later.

During slavery years, slaves and their families lived and worked in the homes of their owners. Once slaves were freed, suddenly they needed jobs and homes. The most common solution was to continue working for the same employer for a small wage. Needing easy access to their rich patrons’ home, workers set up camp in the hillside just outside of the “asphalt,” which is how official city property is referred to in Brazilian cities. Over time these settlements solidified and grew, sometimes into hundreds of thousands of residents.

Some favelas were created by Portuguese, Italian and German immigrants leading up to WWII, and new favelas are still being built today. About 20% of Rio’s residents currently live in favelas.

Income disparity in Brazil

One of the ongoing issues that perpetuates favela life is the disparity of income between asphalt and

favela moto taxi

Moto taxi is the fastest and cheapest way to get to the top of the favela.

favela households. Brazilian social website Soulbrasileiro states that asphalt income is typically three times, or more, higher than that in favela households.

Drugs, crime, and favela life

As with slums in Africa, India, America and anywhere else where poverty and hopelessness exist, drugs took hold in the favelas. Truth and urban legend intertwine to tell a story of drug lords wielding ultimate power in the slums, corrupt police, and rampant violence, crime and drug use. In 2008 the Brazilian government instituted a policy of “pacification,” where heavily armed military personnel entered the favelas and after several bloody and well-publicized battles, finally wrested favela control from the gangs and drug lords. Still, CNN reports that Brazil is the world’s biggest consumer of crack cocaine.

Today in the favela

Today, there still remains some police corruption and crime in the favelas, which could also be said for Mexico, India, Chicago or any other poor settlement anywhere in the world. What the media doesn’t promote, though, is the other side of things. Many of Rio’s favelas are situated in the stunning hillside overlooking Rio’s bays.

rio de janeiro favela

View of Ipanema beach from Vidigal

Anywhere else in the world, these breathtaking, million-dollar views would be worth literally that much for the smallest real estate parcel, but average rent in favelas range between the equivalent of only U$10-$50 per month. Favelas teem with family life, with barbecues in the park and pick-up futbol games in the local parks. There are hotels and small businesses, restaurants and hair salons, just like any other neighborhood in the world.

rio de janeiro favela

Electricity may not be elegant, but residents make it work. The city does not extend services beyond the “asphalt” into favelas.

Favela dwellers have electricity, cement homes and even Dish hookups, and their neighborhoods are filled with sensual samba beats, brilliantly colored wall art and the sound of laughter.

Contrary to what Americans might believe, only 15% of favela residents would like to leave their hills. This is according to research by Professor Alba Zaluar, partly funded by the city of Rio de Janeiro, in a survey that revealed nearly 100% of Rio favela homes have a TV and refrigerator, and almost half of households have a cell phone.

There are also countless social services designed specifically for favela youth to keep them safe and out of trouble after school. Many of these services are sponsored by church groups.

Church and favelas

Brazil has hosted the world’s largest Catholic population since Portugal colonized the country in the 16th century. However, while the number of Catholics continues to increase, the percentage is declining substantially, being replaced by Protestant followers (22% in 2010). One reason is that while support of the poor by the Catholic Church has decreased in recent decades, it is on the rise in spectacular form from Evangelical churches, which support art classes, music lessons, boxing sessions and more for favela youth. As is true elsewhere in the world, much of favela family life revolves around religious institutions. This is as much a blessing as a curse.

Brazil has experienced a massive influx of Protestant missionaries over the past decades, and the majority of them are Evangelical. With their large American budgets, they can afford to provide community services to create a safe and nurturing experience for families exhausted from previous drug and crime wars in the favelas. They also preach, and expect their followers to adhere to, policies against birth control and abortion – which often perpetuates an unsustainable cycle of children born into poverty.

rio de janeiro favela

rio de janeiro favela

Perpetuating the problem

Why else do poverty and low standards of living persist for so many Brazilians? Conversations with locals point to two specific policy issues:

  • Infrastructure – Rio de Janeiro provides adequate plumbing, trash pickup and postal service, but only to asphalt residences. None of these services exist in the favelas, which means trash often rots in piles on street corners and sewage runs beneath homes and into the open waters of Rio’s bays and oceans. This creates health and environmental issues that impact the entire city.
  • Education – School is mandatory for all children between seven and 14 years of age, but this is seldom enforced since so many children have to work to earn money for their families. Public schools often lack plumbing and heating and the structures are dilapidated and neglected. This has led to a high rate of illiteracy and unemployment in Brazil. Today, only about a third of school children ever get to Grade Six.

Private schools are far superior in terms of quality of primary education but are very expensive. While no official segregation exists in Brazilian schools, typically favela children go to free public schools and asphalt children go to expensive private schools. This becomes a problem in high school when university testing comes around.

Brazil has a mixture of publicly- and privately-funded higher education institutions. Public universities offer a superior education and tuition is free to Brazilians, however there are stringent acceptance testing requirements for enrollment. According to locals, public primary schools do not provide the education needed to pass public university entrance exams, so what ends up happening is that free public universities get filled with wealthy Brazilians who sent their children to private primary schools, and poor favela children are left unqualified for free university education.

rio de janeiro favelaTouring a favela

Any trip to Rio would benefit from a proper favela tour to give you full perspective of this alternative way of life. Reading is one thing, but experiencing the reality is another. Favela residents are accustomed to western tourists visiting their villages, and there is a licensed network of tour guides who can take you into a safe neighborhood and provide you with important background information. Touring a favela without a guide is not recommended. Official tours also provide a source of income for favela community centers.

I worked with Fabio Mendonça at Rio Cultural Secrets. Fabio picked me up at my hotel and designed a custom tour to make the most of my one day in Rio. His knowledge of history is matched only by his passion for his home city and his familiarity with the political and social issues facing his city and country. He’s funny, too, which made it feel like I was hanging out with a friend instead of a cookie-cutter tour. He was well-known and liked by the residents in the favela, which gave him credibility in my eyes. I highly recommend using Fabio for all of your tour needs in Rio. or by email

rio de janeiro favela


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About Testarossa Travel

Testarossa Travel is a collection of stories about the amazing people of the world and the places they live. Adventurous, funny, and often humbling or downright embarrassing, these stories capture my experiences with authenticity and are meant to inspire readers to get out there and see the world. Each tale is designed to give the reader a true sense of a place, its sights, sounds and smells, and most of all, its people.

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