Only 15 minutes away from the world famous Copacabana beach lies the neighbourhood of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro.
The Rocinha favela is not listed as an attraction in any guide book and a visit to this part of Rio is not recommended by any local. In fact, in many cases, Rocinha favela is described as one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods, one you should probably avoid during your stay in Rio.
We weren’t looking for trouble in Rochina. We were looking for a taste of real Brazil, but as we drove up Estrada da Gávea, the main street in Rocinha, our adventurous spirits were filling up with hesitation and anxiety.
“Was this whole adventure into the favela a good idea?” – we thought to ourselves, looking out of the window.
Our First Outing on our Favela Tour Rio
At first, we were hesitant to explore the favela. Is it safe to walk around the favela without a local guide? Should we be hiding our camera, so it doesn’t get stolen?
Can we take photos or will it offend the locals? Should we see what we can while it’s still daylight and then stay in our hotel after dark?
As we walked up and down the streets of Rocinha, watching locals go about their daily life, our fears and hesitations started to ease up. Shops and restaurants lined the main street of the Rocinha favela.
After locking our valuables inside the lockers in our room we were ready to get out there and explore the streets. At first, I was hesitant. Should I be hiding my camera, so it doesn’t get stolen? Can I take photos or will it offend the locals? Should we see what we can while its still daylight and then stay in our hostel after dark?
As we walked up and down the streets of Rocinha, watching locals go about their daily life, our fears and hesitations started to ease up. Shops and restaurants lined the main street of the favela.
Rocinha also had a decent transportation system. The residents could get to the main street of the favela by bus and then switch to one of the official favela taxi motorcycles that could take them deeper into the steep narrow streets of Rocinha.
The taxi drivers wore fluorescent yellow vests, had an extra helmet for the passenger and each had their own license number, giving the residents confidence of their safety on these bikes. Koodos to the government for implementing this!
Rocinha even had a gym…
…although many of Rocinha’s residents preferred this type of exercise.
The People of the Rocinha Favela
Everywhere we went we were greeted with a smile. The kids playing football on the streets waived their hello’s, as we snapped away with our cameras.
The ladies at the local convenience shop took us for locals as they chatted up Max about the upcoming Argentina vs Germany World Cup Final.
A group of men playing cards and enjoying a beer after what must’ve been a long week of work, gestured for us to join them in front of a tiny TV in a kiosk bar on the main street.
We continued to explore the streets, peeking into alleyways decorated with beautiful graffiti, poking our heads into shops, enjoying a freshly made delicious pizza in one of Rocinha’s restaurants, and following local’s advice to try what turned out to be the best dessert we had in Brazil.
Our Personal Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro
“It doesn’t feel very dangerous here now” – we said to Luiz, the front desk staff at our hotel. “Do you feel safe living in Rocinha?”
Luiz, who we met upon check-in, was born in Rocinha and has been living and working here his whole life. He spoke great English, thanks to his mother’s employer who years ago put him through private English school.
“Generally, it is safe, yes, but it depends where you go. There is still a war between drug lords and police going on in the background, so if you don’t know where you are going and you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can get in trouble”
“Where is this war? Can you see signs of it on a daily basis?”
“Yes, sometimes they are shootings. Police shoot the drug dealers, they shoot back, so there are some areas where this happens. People in the favela know where those areas are and just don’t go there. Mostly it happens in small streets, deep in the favela”
As the evening went on we continued to explore the favela at night with Luiz by our side. We walked around little alleyways, that we weren’t brave enough to explore ourselves, sharing more stories about his own life growing up in Rocinha.
This was exactly the experience we were after. A way to explore the favela and learn about the lives of its residents in a way that’s not demeaning or intrusive.
“I hate when the tours groups come through the favela. You know those Rocinha favela tour companies that come on their jeeps taking people around the favela. They don’t know anything about life here” – said Luiz when we asked him about his opinion on Rocinha Favela Tours.
We knew he was right. Even the favela tours that claimed to be run by local Rocinha favela tour guides and promised that all their proceeds will go back to the Rocinha community could not be compared to our contributions to the favela that night.
The money we could have spent on a favela tour in Rio were instead truly distributed throughout the community: from the hotel and the pizza restaurant to the acai kiosk and the beer shop.
The Rocinha favela was exactly what we expected. Many parts of this favela still lack proper housing, sanitation, and electricity …
Electric wires hang on the streets of Rocinha…and its residents work hard to survive day in and day out, many on just a few dollars a day.
Its streets are filled with rubbish and the houses are built on top of each other.
But compared to other favelas in Rio, Rocinha shows glimpses of hope. It has better infrastructure and hundreds of established businesses that allow its residents, like Luiz, to earn and save for the future.
Despite the gloomy preconception of favelas in Rio, we encourage you to consider visiting a favela during your stay in Rio.
If you feel brave enough, try an independent Rocinha favela tour, but if you would rather have an organized tour, then do try to choose one that is led by a local rather than a corporate tour company.
This Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro claims to be a non-intrusive and respectful 3 hour tour of the Rocinha favela with a local guide to give visitors an insight into the lives of the people.
A New Perspective of Life in Rio de Janeiro
This experience in the Rocinha favela helped me gain a perspective on life in Rio, away from the stunning beaches in Copacabana, great restaurants in Leblon, or amazing samba clubs in Lapa and we hope one day it will do the same for you.
Accommodation in the Rocinha Favela
Unlike the rest of Rio de Janeiro, accommodation options in the Rochina Favela are a little hard to come by. That said, there are a few great hotels and hostels which offer a safe and comfortable base from which to explore the Rocinha favela.
Visual Roc Hostel
Located on the hill of Laboriaux, the Visual Roc Hostel offers amazing views out over the favela and the sea and is surrounded by forest. The neighbourhood is one of the safest areas in the favela and it’s almost like an oasis of calm and nature in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of the city.
Ghetto Rocinha Hostel
Don’t be put off by the name! The Ghetto Rocinha Hostel is in the top 50 of speciality lodgings for Rio de Janeiro and has all ‘Excellent’ (and one ‘Good’) reviews on tripadvisor. It’s located just 2 minutes from the Via Apia and the São Conrado beach and metro station are also a few minutes away by foot. If you don’t fancy sharing a dorm room, they also have a private double bedroom, perfect for travelling friends or couples.
Case da Josi
Case da Josi is more of a homestay or B&B which is a great way to get first hand experience of life in the Rocinha favela. It’s pretty basic, but it has everything you need, including free WiFi, and has a great location smack bang in the heart of the favela.
Another option for accommodation in the Rocinha Favela is Airbnb. There are more than 90 options for the area, ranging from homestays to entire apartments for rent.
Don’t have an Airbnb account yet? Sign up now and receive a $35 USD credit to put towards your first Airbnb stay!