Shanty Town and Samba
Although most of Rio’s favelas are controlled by drug gangs, while the residents live in constant fear, I was intent on giving my friend a trip to Rio she would not forget, so we checked into a favela B&B.
They came at us as if we Father Christmas bearing gifts. Going to a favela – the Brazilian word for a shanty town on the side of a hill – is scary enough without lots of barefoot and wide-eyed children running towards you as you arrive.
Picture: Looking down on Rio's infamous Favela. Source: www.favelinha.com
However, their curiosity was justified. Before Favelinha became the first hotel to open in the middle of a favela about a year ago, the residents of the favelas had never seen tourists so close to their homes. The thousands of visitors who visit Rio de Janeiro every year usually stay at luxurious hotels on the beach, trying their best to avoid the nearby shanty towns.
When Joanan, an English friend of mine, decided to spend a couple of weeks in Rio, I decided to show her the city I had grown up in. Being Brazilian (and like many of my fellow countrymen) I am always surprised at how little of the ‘real’ Rio visitors actually know.
Alongside, the 5* hotels, you’ll find the favelas where more than 20 per cent of Rio’s population live. They are as much a part of the skyline as the statue of Christ, the Redeemer. However, most favelas are controlled by drug gangs, and the residents live in constant fear of them, so it is not surprising that tourists avoid them.
Despite this, I was intent on giving my friend a trip to Rio she would not forget, even if that included a heart attack. So I booked us into Pousada Favelinha, a now famous B&B right in the middle of Pereirao - a favela with almost 450 shacks and 1,500 inhabitants. What I hadn’t told her – to keep the adrenaline going - was that Pereirao had been a safe haven since 1999, when the police killed the local drug baron (there’s now a training facility for young cadets here and plenty of police on the streets).
Zico, a little boy carried our luggage (for a small tip) and showed us the way to the Pousada Favelinha. On the way he stopped to chat to a shady character, who as my friend described later, made the gangsters in the soap, East Enders look like Blue Peter presenters.
Zico later explained: “That was Carlos. He used to run the drug business here. But don’t worry, he’s cool. These days he’s always saying he wants to meet one of Favelinha’s European guests. He wants a new girlfriend.” My friend quickly decided it was time we saw our room.
Now, my friend is one of those people with a penchant for boutique hotels, known in our circle of friends for the amount of times she will switch rooms if she sees as much as two little ants crawling up a wall. So I was surprised to find she absolutely loved the simplicity of our room and its great view.
She could not believe what she saw from the window. There was the Guanabara Bay and the Sugar Loaf, sights normally seen from exclusive penthouses. She also spotted the beach, and gave me that hungry dog look that said, “Please, please, please take me there now.”
We unpacked, put on our bikinis, and headed for the gleaming white sand of Barra da Tijuca in one of Rio’s youngest neighbourhood. We happily avoided the nearby Copacabana, as it’s dirty and dangerous.
Barra da Tijuca is a great beach, as there is only one international hotel nearby making tourists an unusual sight, therefore the possibility of being ripped off by coconut sellers is slim. People from all parts of Rio come here to meet their friends and arrange their night out. My friend rightly compared it to going to the pub back home; only this form of socialising doesn’t leave you smelling of cigarette smoke.
This is also a very democratic beach - the Adonis lying in the sun next to you could come from one of the US$1 million apartments across the street or a run-down shack on the nearby hill. I suspect my friend couldn’t care less where the hunk standing next to us came from, as she tried to communicate with him to arrange to meet later that night at a samba school.
Although it was October and the Carnival was four months away, the samba schools were already rehearsing for the big day. We found the energy of the samba rhythm infectious, and we couldn’t resist the many invitations from the dancers to try out on the dance floor. Needless, to say along with many exotic cocktails, we couldn’t remember much of our samba evening the next day.
What my friend most remembered about that night was the way the favela looked on our way back to the hotel. It was as if everyone was waiting up to see we got back safely as the lights seemed to be on in every one of the little houses on the hill. My friend was hypnotised and overwhelmed. I knew she would feel this way, but still I couldn’t help but be proud of how Rio had treated her on her first day; even though we were in the heart of such a poor community, the residents were very rich in hospitality and genuine warmth. I have a feeling my friend will be back.
* Pousada Favelinha (www.favelinha.com) has four double bedrooms (£20 a night) and a single one (£10 a night). Rates include breakfast. A typical Brazilian dinner at the hotel costs £2.50 per person.
* The beach in Barra da Tijuca is almost 11 miles long and the water is always clean here. Barra also counts on a vast nature reserve with exotic birds and alligators, and the biggest shopping centre in Latin America (www.barrashopping.com.br), with more than 650 stores.
* Samba schools’ rehearsals take place every Saturday from September to February. With tickets at £4 and a can of beer at 20p, this is the best night out in town. The most popular samba schools in Rio are:
Mangueira (http://www.mangueira.com.br, 005521 3872-6786/87) and
Salgueiro (www.salgueiro.com.br, 005521 9813-8917).
* If you do visit Rio in February, give the street carnival in Ipanema a go. The Band of Ipanema (www.ipanema.com/carnival/banda.htm), created in 1964, opens Rio Carnival a week before the official date and goes around the streets of this friendly neighbourhood whilst being followed by men in women’s dresses. This is the only time of the year when macho Brazilian men give in to their feminine side, so it’s not to be missed.
* For a personalised service contact Brazilian travel agency Capanema Turismo (005521 2283 3344, firstname.lastname@example.org). The all-women, English-speaking team will be pleased to help you with all your travel requirements, including safety tips.
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