see + do
Concierge.com's insider take:
"Welcome to the only part of Rio that the locals don't know," chirps the guide, escorting a handful of open-mouthed tourists into the heart of Rocinha, one of the grim and desperate slums depicted in Fernando Meirelles' Oscar-nominated film City of God.
There are 750 favelas in Rio housing 1.5 million people, or one fifth of the city's population. Their well-earned reputation as violent ghettos ensures that Brazilians steer well clear, but a number of tour operators conduct daily tours for the curious foreign visitor.
Marcelo Armstrong's Favela Tours has been going since 1992, escorting twice-daily drive-and-walk visits to two slums, the whole experience lasting three hours (55-21-3322-2727). Be a Local follows a similar schedule, but focuses just on Rocinha, the city's largest slum, where an official population of 50,000—unofficially, it's three times more—cascades down two sides of a mountain, thrusting unapologetically into Gávea and São Conrado, two of Rio's richest neighborhoods (55-21-9643-0366).>p>
What visitors find in the favela is a city within a city. Music erupts from all sides, powerful sound systems pumping out crashing chords from stores, street markets, and private houses. Unsilenced motorbikes, many carrying drugs or messages for the gangs, zoom constantly by. Trucks lumber through the bustling streets, forcing salesmen to advertise their wares at full volume through megaphones.
The favela is a place of poverty but not of misery. Residents have access to drinking water, sewer service, and electricity. Cells phones work, and there's even broadband Internet, the cables lacing visibly through the darkened, crowded alleys. Rocinha has three banks, three bus lines, a radio station and cable TV channel, and five recording studios. The city government even collects trash once a day. But life goes on at a price: The peace is kept by the drug gangs, whose spotters, runners, and informers are all-present and all-seeing, and every resident understands that the cost of crossing the narcos is high indeed.