Spending time in Rocinha, the largest Favela in Brazil is an experience you will probably never forget. The Favelas are basically slums built up on the hillsides surrounding Rio. Home to approximately 250,000 inhabitants, people build where ever they can but due to very limited space this now pretty much consists of purchasing the roof space of someone else & building on top of an already existing home. Yes it is true that the favelas are run by gangs and drug dealers that they keep tight watch over who enters and exits but people who live there are safe and the crime rate is very low because the last thing they want is a reason for the police to enter. So despite all this I have to say I found Rocinha to be an incredibly amazing and inspiring place to be.
The main reason for me heading into Rocinha was to visit the Brazil Favela Project that we support through Planeterra in order to see if we could work with them to develop long-term volunteer opportunities for travellers (which great news, we can!).
Since wandering into the favelas for the first time on your own is definitely not a smart idea, I accompanied Luiz who is well known and respected within Rocinha and who operates day tours giving visitors a glimpse into what life is really like in the favelas. Seeing as I’m not one for visiting churches or museums I really believe the best way to experience a culture is to get out of the touristy areas and meet the people who live there. Racing up to the top of the mountain on the back of a motorcycle, then walking down through the narrow walkways, past houses made of bricks, boards & tin stacked on top of eachother, with opportunities to meet and interact with the local people was definitely a great way to experience what life is really like in Rio.
En route to visit the project, we stopped at a small art studio to see where the kids work alongside local artists to learn how to paint. I almost never buy souvenirs, but I ended up buying a painting from one of these kids who had set up a small stand to sell his work. William is probably around 17 yrs old and coming from the favelas there are not a lot of opportunities for him to work which is why working for druglords can be appealing to youth who live there. As travellers we have the opportunity to support local artists like William, showing them that their work is valuable and to show them there are opportunities for him to make an honest living outside of the world of drugs, guns & poverty in which he is surrounded.
And of course you want to support the local economy so what else can you do but stop off at the local bakery & stuff your face with pastries & donuts!