Finding myself in the Favelas

22 July 2014

Discovering a hidden treasure on your holiday is a genuine treat. But finding them is not as simple as looking at a tourist map for must-see must-dos. So when I was given the opportunity to visit Rio’s legendary Favelas on my recent trip to South America with Trafalgar I didn’t think twice.

Theresa standing in a back street of Favelas Theresa Szejwallo travelling Favela with Trafalgar

"Minha Casa minha vida" translates to "my house my life" and it is a very apt name for the Favelas, an area not many people would think to visit when in Rio but my hidden treasure awaits.

The Favelas are an important part of Rio, just famous as Ipanema, the Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain are, but not nearly as accessible or welcoming. In fact they can be a little intimidating for some, and you’re not about to find it in a guide book.

Wide view of the Favelas slums What makes these 'slum areas' so intriguing?

With Francesco as our local guide and a driver who lives in the Favellas we set off to discover what makes these so called ‘slum’ areas so intriguing.

The Favelas could be easily associated with the bad reputation. They did start life as a slum with two shacks on a hillside.  Two shacks became four hundred and unstoppable growth was inevitable. And today the Favelas are home to 1.8 million Cariocas. An astounding 20% of Rio's citizens live in a Favella.

Favelas area with forest in the background "Favelas are home to 1.8 million Cariocas"

People's perception that these ghettos are dangerous areas and full of criminals but this is not true.  Yes, they apparently do have drug lords who openly sell narcotics - but the majority of the citizens are law abiding citizens working in low paying jobs.

It's great to see how these locals have integrated with the city - the carnival dancers, the drummers and costume makers all live in the Favelas - it would be difficult to imagine Rio without events such as the annual Rio carnival and the Favelas.

The houses in the Favelas are built on vacant land without infrastructure and after five years of living there the tenants automatically own the land.  As the size of the families grow and expand, so they start to add and extend and increase their homes.  Favelas are not where the homeless and miserable live - they're happy, laid back people who take care of each other. This can be felt as you wander through the narrow alleys and walk ways - I felt safe and welcomed there.

The first favela we visited was called Hosenia - the largest in Rio.  The size of this Favela could be compared to a small farm - which occupies anywhere between 87 and 250 000 people, most of whom don’t have plumbing while 35% of residents take electricity illegally.

Favelas motorbike and vintage mannequin Visit South America with Trafalgar on their Impressions of South America

Our next visit was to a much smaller, poorer Favella called Villa Canoas, after which we stopped for a very heart-warming visit to a local after care called "Para Ti"- translated into English "for you".  This is run by NGO's and it's a wonderful facility that offers school assistance, sporting and recreational activities and basically keeps young people off the streets and out of trouble. The location is set over the most beautiful sight of the forest.  This facility is sponsored by Italian families as well as the local tourism agency in Rio.

I was very moved by how the residents in the Favelas work together to make their suburb home. I never noticed any street names and wondered out loud how these wonderful, friendly people get their mail? Francesco came to the rescue. There is a communal postal system where all mail is placed in a central box at the top of a road. Residents will collect their own mail and pass on or inform their neighbours if there is something in the box for them. What a wonderful honour system that puts our own to shame.

I was sad to leave the Favelas at the days’ end but I know that I will be back. I’m just really grateful that Trafalgar offered such and interesting and worthwhile experience. It really should be on everyone’s to-do list when visiting Brazil.

Mural enscribed 'PARA ti tro Information' in the Favelas The residents in the Favelas work together to make their suburb home

Visit South America with Trafalgar on their Impressions of South America At Leisure guided holiday. Enjoy ten days exploring Brazil and Argentina with the option to take a 4-day pre-itinerary trip to the Brazilian Amazon. The Impressions of South America itinerary includes accommodation with breakfast daily, two lunches, five evening meals, sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro, the Iguassu Falls and Buenos Aires and all internal flights.

Trafalgar’s Best of South America takes in Brazil, Argentina and Chile on a 13 day At Leisure guided holiday. Guests can extend their stay with an optional 4-day pre-itinerary trip to the Brazilian Amazon or a 4-day post-itinerary extension to Easter Island.  The Best of South America itinerary includes accommodation with breakfast daily, three lunches and six evening meals. Enjoy sightseeing in Rio, the Iguassu Falls, Buenos Aires and Santiago plus internal flights.

South America Revealed is a wonderful 16-day itinerary that takes in Brazil, Argentina and Peru with optional extensions to the Galapagos, Easter Island or the Brazilian Amazon. The basic itinerary includes accommodation with breakfast daily, three lunches and 10 evening meals. Plus you will enjoy sightseeing in Rio, Iguassu, Buenos Aires, Lima, The Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco. Internal flights are also included.

Flight Centre

Flight Centre is all about amazing travel at the cheapest available price. We have over 125 Flight Centre stores all around South Africa, making us the largest total travel specialist in the country .