Rocinha favela, Rio’s largest shanty town

I did not want to leave Rio before visiting a favela (shanty town) as I mentioned in my earlier planning blog and I really wanted to visit the favela at Santa Marta after following the favela painting campaign there. Unfortunately every time we asked a cab to take us there they either flatly refused or did not seem to know where it was. This experience extended to the concierge, hotel receptionist, porter etc.

In the end we signed up for a 4 hour walking tour around the Rocinha favela, the 3 of us with our tour guide who actually lives in Rocinha and was born in New York, now that makes for an interesting combination/character.

Some quick facts:

  • There are 600 approx favelas in Rio
  • Favelas are shanty towns or slums built on steep hillsides, in Rio they have some of the best views in town, either over the city or beaches
  • Favelas are run by drug gangs
  • There are between 250,000 to 300,000 people living in Rocinha favela
  • Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio and South America, only 1 km to the beach and overlooking a neigbhourhood of wealthy residents

Actually Rocinha is not a shanty town but a shanty city with 3 banks, primary schools, high schools, supermarkets, hardware stores, pharmacists, telephones, cable tv and the internet!

Some things that I discovered from visiting Rocinha:

  • There is a favela transportation system including scooter taxis and mini vans for trips within and outside the favela
  • Yes they do have drug dealers (mainly cocaine) and yes, I saw a drug deal in progress
  • Drug dealers don’t like their photos taken, nor their lieutenants!
  • The drug dealers are heavily armed but we didn’t see any guns on our tour
  • Rocinha is relatively safe for residents, generally the gang in control runs a tight ship as they don’t want the police visiting. A lot of drugs are bought to sell outside the favela, rapist and murderers in Rocinha would prefer to be caught by the police rather than a gang member!
  • At Rocinha the police give notice when they are going to do a raid
  • There are no building permits needed in favelas and space is limited and steep.
  • Favela residents build their own homes, brick by brick, one level at a time, as money allows, the maximum level allowed for a house is 4 storeys
  • These are not architect designed homes but they do have sweeping views
  • Outside cosmetic enhancements like rendering and painting, happen much later in the building process and are considered a luxury
  • Residents are extremely fit and have good calf muscles from walking up and down the steep hillside
  • They have flat roofs/terraces which they have to clear of water regularly – think Dengue fever, collapsing structures etc
  • Most of the houses are made of spare bricks, but on the outer edges there are wooden shacks that are the first to be washed away in heavy rains
  • You  need to be a mountain goat to get up the 90 degree internal staircases, forget high heels, being elderly or disabled
  • Their homes might not look attractive from the outside, but don’t be fooled, this doesn’t mean they might not have a better flatscreen tv than you!
  • We weren’t robbed or attacked and the people were quite friendly and approachable and seemed happy that we were showing an interest
  • The government, in participation with local residents, is making some progress with improvements to living conditions by building new brightly coloured and modern apartments at the lower level of the mountain for the elderly and disabled, its a start!

Rocinha favela living =extreme poverty overlooking extreme wealth, best views in town from ad hoc, no building permit housing, basic sanitation with flat screen tvs, drug dealer ruling gangs with low crime rates. Confused? I definitely was!

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