Top tips for staying in a favela in Rio

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TID team member, Brona Pham and her husband Dave recently packed up their life in Sydney and embarked on a four month adventure through South America.

Brona and Dave have been on the road for a few weeks, after first touching down in Rio de Janeiro where they learnt a thing or two about life in the favelas. Here’s their story.


Photo credit Brona Pham

If you’ve seen the movie ‘City of God’, you will know that Rio favelas were traditionally run by drug lords and were extremely dangerous places to be. So you can imagine my reaction when Dave cheerily announced he had booked us into one for a whole week!

Since 2011 however, presumably in preparation for the World Cup, the police here have been pacifying the favelas, getting rid of the drug gangs and making them much safer. Vidigal is one such favela. So after reading a bit about Vidigal online, I felt comfortable that we would be safe (and that our marriage, and the trip, were back on!)

Life in Vidigal

Vidigal has become popular with tourists due to its prime position, perched high on a mountain with outstanding views of Ipanema beach. The streets are unbelievably steep and most taxis refuse to go up the tiny pathways. Motorcycles and kombi vans at the bottom of the favela ferry locals and tourists up and down the steep roads.We made the trip on foot a few times and it was tough going, especially in the heat (although, it’s great training for our Inca Trail hike which we have booked in Peru. 42km over mountain ranges to the famous Machu Pichu).


Photo credit Brona Pham

Safety tips in the favela

The first night in the favela was definitely intimidating but there is a constant police presence here which made us feel better. The locals seem used to tourists and didn’t pass any remarks on us at all. By day 3, they would say hello and wave as they got used to seeing us around. We even walked home after a big night in Lapa at 4 am and had no issues apart from some kids shouting, “Gringos!” at us, which means foreigners in Portuguese, and having a good laugh to themselves.

We were feeling great until the second last night when we were awakened at 4 am by a series of loud bangs. There were about four in a row and two more shortly after. Dave was sure it was gunshots, while I was trying to appear calm (while completely freaking out). I thought there was some sort of fight breaking out between drug gangs and we would be stranded in our hostel.

We found out the next morning they were basically fireworks – balloons that get released in the air then pop. Fireworks at 4 am. Only in a favela.

Culture and community in Rio

The favela is like any other town. People here work – there are grocery stores, pharmacies, cafes and bars. We even saw a sign on a telegraph post with a number to call for a manicure and pedicure! Locals have smart phones, own cars and even have Sky TV.

It is very colourful with lots of bright buildings and graffiti on the walls. At night you can hear music playing and people hang outside their homes chatting with friends. The atmosphere is worth the stay alone.


Photo credit Brona Pham

Cheap accommodation for travellers

We stayed at Vidigalhouse. Our hostel here was really basic but we had WIFI, breakfast and numerous shared bathrooms with hot water. Although, it’s so hot you can easily take cold showers. Some things were questionable though – our room had a power point coming out above the curtain rail. So health and safety is occasionally questionable…. But there was a great view, so we were happy enough. We met some great people at the hostel including a German couple, travelling with their 15 month old son and two German girls who were travelling in Brazil for two months.

Overall, it was an amazing experience staying in a favela, a chance to see a different side of Rio that not many experience. This is life for about 20% of Rio’s population. Whilst they live very basically, they seem happy and enjoy the simple things in life – playing cards, listening to music and hanging out with their neighbours. Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from them.

Top tips for staying in a favela

1. Don’t look like a tourist

While we felt safe in the favela and had no issues, Rio can be a dangerous city and pickpocketing is rife. Do not draw attention to yourself with flashy jewellery, phones or cameras. Take only the cash you need for the day and when moving around with all your belongings, keep your valuables on your person, safe in a money belt.

2. Keep a map with you

Always carry a map of the favela with your hostel name and address written on it. Vidigal favela is surprisingly large and with super steep hills, so you don’t want to get lost! We ended up at the top of the favela after some miscommunication in a combi taxi. Luckily we found a policeman who showed us where we were on our map and found another combi to take us back to our hostel.

3. Climb ‘Two Brothers’ mountain

The Vidigal favela is located at the base of “Morro Dois Irmãos” (Two Brothers Hill). Take the 90 minute hike to the top for outstanding views of Ipanema and Leblon beaches. If you are an early bird, get up there for sunrise for an extra special treat. The trek starts at the top of the favela and will be marked on a good map of Vidigal.

4. Meet the locals

Like any travelling experience, it’s always good to meet the locals. We enjoyed a BBQ with the owners of our hostel and their friends from the favela. We also ate in local restaurants in the favela including a typical Brazilian “Kilo” restaurant, a buffet style eatery where you pay by weight.

5. Learn the lingo

Rio may be one of the most visited cities in the world, but don’t expect a lot of people to speak English here. Even around the tourist mecca of Copacabana beach you will struggle to find English speakers.


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