The poorest of the poor live in the favelas on the hills of Rio de Janeiro. Rocinho is the largest slum in Latin America, but now welcomes tourists. The Santa Marta favela in Botafogo has even been considered an official sight of Rio since 2010.
Favela is the term used to describe the poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Brazilian cities. These were mostly built illegally on slopes and that is how they got their name: Favela is also the name of a Brazilian climbing plant and refers to the fact that the inhabitants of the favela have to climb up the slope to reach their dwellings.
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PICTURES: Favelas in Rio de Janeiro
Photo gallery: Favelas in Rio de Janeiro
The poorest of Rio's poor
In the south of Rio de Janeiro is the largest favela in all of Latin America, called Rocinha. It is easily visible from Rio's streets near Copacabana. The first huts of the favela were built with the most primitive means. In the meantime, the situation of Rio's poorest people is slowly beginning to improve and the houses are already made of wood or stone and the electricity and water supply is also being increasingly expanded.
Public transport was not planned for due to the illegal and unstructured construction of the dwellings. Rocinha is therefore difficult to reach, many people there have to put up with a daily commute of up to one and a half hours.
Rio's favelas as a top location and attraction
The residents of Rocinha nevertheless have an advantage. Due to its hillside location in the south of Rio, they have a wonderful view of Rio's sea of houses, which is surrounded by green hills.
Some favela residents have seized the opportunity to make money with this unique location and are now marketing well-located houses with a view of Rio de Janeiro. This now attracts not only poor people to a favela. This leads to a slow mixing of social classes.
As a tourist, one normally only ventures into the Brazilian favelas as a willing victim of robbery and murder or with unshakable faith in God. Slowly but surely, however, this is changing. Rio de Janeiro's politicians are trying to promote the development of general services in the favelas in aid programmes. Tourism is also increasingly entering the favelas.
A visit to Rocinho used to be dangerous and not recommended; Rio's gangs and drug lords once called the shots here and crime was the order of the day. Nowadays, the residents are extremely friendly, helpful and happy to welcome interested holidaymakers who want to get to know their home. Even guided tours can be booked - with the necessary respect for the locals.
If you want to experience a favela up close, however, Santa Marta is the first choice!
Santa Marta - the steepest favela in Rio
Tourist marketing was particularly successful in the colourful favela Santa Marta in Botafogo, which is even one of our top 10 sights in Rio de Janeiro.
Santa Marta is one of the 965 favelas registered in Rio and consists of about 5,000 wooden houses and 2,000 brick houses, in which about 8,000 people live. Four kindergartens, two sports fields and a samba school provide entertainment, while three bakeries and a supermarket ensure the supply of food.
Three military units guarantee the safety of the residents - and the visitors. In the meantime, the huts of the favela have become a tourist attraction and its inhabitants have become tourist guides. On 30 August 2010, the mayor of Rio inaugurated the Rio Top Tour programme and Santa Marta became one of the official sights of Rio de Janeiro.
PICTURES: Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro
Photo gallery: Favela Santa Marta in Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro
Santa Marta - Rio's slum with radio station and free wifi
Since the 1940s, the Santa Marta slum in the south of Rio grew until it covered the entire area up to the top of the hill. The metamorphosis of the favela, also called Dona Marta, began on 28 November 2008. At that time, Santa Marta was the first poor neighbourhood where the so-called pacification policy was applied.
An enormous contingent of military police achieved the almost complete containment of drug trafficking and violence within a very short time. This measure was absolutely essential at the time in view of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
A large part of the huts were connected to the water, sewer and electricity network of Rio and the rubbish collection now also took care of the narrow alleys on the steep hill. Since 2009, there has even been free wi-fi for everyone, followed a year later by their own radio station, which provides the whole of Botafogo with news from the favela on the frequency 103.3 MHz.
Visit to Santa Marta in Rio
The foundation stone for the transformation of Santa Marta into a tourist attraction was thus laid, but the favela owes the majority of its visitors to the gondola lift that takes tourists high above the rooftops of Rio, suspended on the hill of Santa Marta.
Even on the funicular ride, many a visitor's mouth is left open in amazement. The higher the ride, the more powerful the postcard panorama of Rio becomes. The view falls over the roofs of the city from Sugar Loaf Mountain down to the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beach.
Santa Marta and Rio from above
Once you reach the top, the wooden and tin roofs of the favela are at your feet. Children play in the narrow, winding alleys and laundry dries between houses that have been built completely haphazardly and sometimes seemingly on top of each other.
Before the cable car was built, the residents of Santa Marta had to climb 788 steps on a slope with a 40° incline. Today, visiting the favela works with the utmost convenience including guides, signposts to places of interest and jeep safaris.
It is mainly curiosity that drives visitors into the narrow streets of the slum, because they don't know anything like this from home. The residents of Santa Marta are mostly happy about the interest that is suddenly shown to them, something they do not know from their compatriots.
Tip: The inhabitants of Santa Marta proudly show tourists their homes. However, not all of them agree to be photographed. To be on the safe side, ask beforehand.
Michael Jackson and fast cars in Santa Marta
Attentive music fans may know the setting of Santa Marta, because the slum was one of the filming locations for Michael Jackson's music video for "They don't care about us" with the famous drum group Olodoum in 1996. At that time, permission for the shoot had to be obtained from the local drug lord. The notorious Marcinho VP generously provided the pop star with a bodyguard.
On the balcony, where the King of Pop can be seen several times, a statue by the caricaturist Ique commemorates him today. The Michael Jackson memorial was erected on 26 June 2010, about a year after his death. Also visible in this video, by the way, is the Pelourinho. The most famous square in Salvador da Bahia today underwent a similar transformation as the Santa Marta favela.
Large parts of the blockbuster "Fast and the Furious 5" were also filmed in the Santa Marta favela.