February 15, 2012


After spending time in the more upscale neighborhoods of Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon and Santa Teresa, we wanted some insight into how the other side of Rio lives. We found a very reputable company who, for 19 years, has been giving tours of favelas – the iconic shanty villages sitting throughout the hillsides of Rio.

Currently there are 950 favelas in Rio. The people who live in them are the cooks, doormen, maids and gardeners from the nicer neighborhoods I mentioned above. They live in the favelas because their wages simply aren’t enough to pay for more traditional housing. The government can fix this, but they don’t. While most of the world reads about the favelas being such a problem, in fact, the favelas are a solution because these people have nowhere else to go.

We visited the largest favela, Rocinha, which has 70,000 residents. Before coming to Rio, we had always heard about how close the rich and poor neighborhoods are to each other. This was never more evident than on the drive up to Rocinha. Wealthy Rio parents pay $2,500 per month to send their children to the fancy American school, which sits a mere 100 feet away from the entrance into Rocinha. The entire road up to Rocinha was lined with chauffeurs waiting to pick the children up from school.

The infrastructure of the buildings is astounding. With the exception of what they call “Main Street”, there are no roads. Each house is connected through a system of tunnels, alleyways, and stairs. The houses were largely built by construction workers who decided they wanted to start their own companies. That leaves the favelas in a very vulnerable state because there has been no engineering factored in.

Rocinha is large enough to support branch offices for mainstream banks, pharmacies and grocery stores. Even McDonalds was in Rocinha, only to close its doors and then open back up again. Nearly every single house we saw had a satellite disk. They all have cable, Internet and air conditioning, but running water and the sewage system are hit or miss. The electrical wires are a mess, but they work.

Vila Canoas was the second favela we visited, and it was much smaller with only 3,000 residents. This place is the gold standard in favelas…all of the houses even have numbers. Unfortunately the public education system is very poor, and children only go to school for 4 hours per day. Our tour company partners with an afterschool program in Vila Canoas, so a portion of our money went toward paying for 70% of the program’s expenses. We got to meet several of the children, and they were enthralled with how light our eyes were.

We felt safe the entire time, and we're glad that we came to see how 20% of Rio's population lives. The Brazilian government is finally feeling pressure to help clean up the situation with the impending World Cup and Olympics coming to Rio in the next several years. They are starting to recognize the favela residents as citizens that, too, need clean water and power and security. We hope it only gets better from here.

It’s worth mentioning that the only negative experience of the entire visit was our fellow Americans on the tour. They were flashy with their expensive electronic equipment, rude to the tour guide, and overall, just an embarrassment to be around.

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