©Wolfgang Kaehler

City of God


As we hopped in a van to tour Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas (slums), Martha, our Brazilian guide, rattled off a few rules: never talk about drugs; only take pictures when she gave the “okay”; and keep the windows open – gangs interpret closed windows as trouble and this could mean trouble for us.

Years ago, I had seen the powerful Brazilian movie the City of God. The film depicted the dismal life of youth growing up in Rio’s favelas along with the brutal violence they faced. It conveyed the hopelessness and powerlessness they encountered as they saw that their destiny seemed controlled by drug lords.  Frankly it reminded me of similar stories I’d heard about life in America’s inner cities. But during our tour, I saw that something here was different – the difference was a creative Brazilian culture and spirit that seemed alive in an otherwise bleak existence.

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Our visit was organized by Favela Tour, a company owned by Marcelo Armstrong who initiated the idea of such tours in 1992. We came to the favela of Rocinha, sprawled like a giant cubist sculpture across a hillside. Squatters houses piggy-backed one on top of the other. As newcomers arrived, they built their dwellings atop those of families that had arrived before them. Passageways ran willy-nilly between the hodgepodge of houses. Overhead a tangled web of electrical wires hung between domiciles. Martha explained the government’s current efforts to bring utilities to the favelas including electricity, plumbing, and sewage systems. We were told drug lords, positioned at the top of the favelas, posted scouts to observe goings on and watch for invasions from other lords and gangs. We did not see them, but we sensed they were there. 60061609

At a stop we marveled at a view of Rio and visited with favela artists who sold oil paintings on the sidewalk: evidence of creativity present in the slum and residents’ efforts to eke out a living.

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At Vila Canoas we toured one of the few favelas not controlled by drug lords. A small school of over eighty students was tucked in a cluster of houses. Favela Tours had jumped in to finance the school when it had learned that the government was not intending to fund it. On the day we arrived, school children were celebrating with American-style cupcakes and gift bags. A group of men from Los Angeles — previous travelers — had supplied all the fixings for a children’s party. The cupcakes and celebration would not solve the problems of their harsh life, but they did give a taste of hope.


To Plan Your Tour: Go to www.favelatour.com.br. Tours last three hours and are available in the mornings afternoons. This was our most interesting experience in Rio and our guide provided fascinating insights about the favelas and recent efforts to improve the quality of life. For your safety, it may be wise to check the current news before planning your visit. See below…

Favelas in the News:

Rio’s favelas have recently been in the news as the Brazilian government, anticipating the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, has sought to wipe crime from the city and remove the drug lords form the favelas.

For an update on the recent crackdown see:




For an update on efforts to improve living conditions see:


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Posted January 4, 2011 | Categories: Blog and Travel. Tags: brazil, favela, rio de janeiro, slum, travel, and travel blog.

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