What more can you say about Rio De Janeiro; the cidade maravilhosa? You would be hard pressed to find many cities that conjour up so many images instantaneously than with Rio. When you visit, you expect to see the incredible urban vistas where the most prominent sights are natural – rare in any city. To be sure, there are a number of man made icons that are world famous – Cristo Redentor being the most obvious. It’s debatable whether the perfectly formed bodies that promenade up and down Ipanema are “man made” or not, but they are obvious in their presence. It’s not all perfection though, as many talking heads have made clear upon Rio being gifted the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016). Sadly, the association with crime (often violent) pervades many people’s preconceptions of the city. Certainly, when I was reading in to the visit, I was pretty certain I was going to be mugged, so I might as well prepare how I would best hand over my valuables.
Upon arrival of course, it’s a different story.
The bus from the airport is an unfortunate introduction. Dirty, noisy and slow, it shows the grittier parts of the city. The favelas of the north are certainly places the average foreigner does not want to find themselves. As soon as you find yourself in the areas that are more frequented by tourists, it becomes clear that the guide books have it all wrong. The number of police on the streets is testament to how much the city has been cleaned up in the past ten years, and for any nervous visitors who thought that staying in Ipanema would be the best defence against crime (surrounding yourself by meek wealthy people is perhaps not such a good idea in that regard), it makes you sigh in frustration that you didn’t take the opportunity to stay in the heart of the City where things have more of a pulse. Ipanema is beautiful, make no mistake. It’s a peaceful and calm neighbourhood that is the “face” of the city to the outside world. There are bars and restaurants aplenty. Bring cash. You’ll need plenty of it.
Perhaps the most jarring instance of realising how wrong I was about the safety of the city was when I visited the largest favela in the city – Rocinha. For the benefits of future tourists and the residents of the community, Rocinha is one of the favelas near the centre of the city that has been “pacified”. What this means is that over a period of time, the city has committed many policemen to sweeping through and occupying the entire area. This isn’t the same as sending PC Plod in to calm things down; it was, and remains a full military occupation which is not devoid of risk, as the Wikipedia article is clear about. While I was there, I witnessed many heavily armed police who were perhaps a bit too heavy handed with their displays of power. It was explained to me that the police are generally not very well paid and it is very possible that they themselves live in a favela. As these communities are often in conflict with each other, it is ideal that a police force not associated with where they patrol, walk the beat. I say walk – most cops travel up and down the neighbourhood, four to a car, with their M16 barrels sticking out the window in a very obvious and cheap display of power.
Regardless of how tasteless one finds this, it is clear that it has worked. The massive amounts of manpower has allowed the sanitation companies to actually feel safe working up there without feeling the need to pay off the local druglords. Extortion and bribery I am sure still occurs, but for a pasty englishman such as myself to walk around without fear is a new feeling in this place. I encountered a local guesthouse with a host who must have been less than 20, learning English at a rate of knots. It would be a cool place to spend a few days. There are limited things to do in the neighbourhood, but this really is the only thing stopping you from spending more time there.
A quick note on “Poverty Tourism” as it is sometimes called. There are many tours that exist to entice visitors to make the trip in to a favela. These are often hosted by someone who has no association with the favela itself and the money doesn’t touch the place (other than maybe a cut which goes to the local housing association). I would recommend you do your research before committing to a tour as it would be best if you stuck to someone who is from the favela. I went through a guy called Zezinho who lives and breathes Rocinha.
I knew that he would keep the money in the neighbourhood but it wasn’t until we were on the tour that I realised how entrenched he is in the community. Everybody knows him, and the whole trip was a treat. It included transport and we got to visit a local “Por Quilo” place which as you might imagine, involves paying for food by the weight, so no filling up on rice and beans here! Ah, but food is another subject for another post.