Inside Santa Marta Favela

Favelas (slums in Brazilian urban areas) are synonymous with Rio. And despite at least one favela being visible from most points in the city a tourist has no real need to visit or even go through one such as they are positioned high up on the hills overlooking the offices, homes and beaches below.


View of Santa Marta favela from its base

That said and in a similar way to the slums of Mumbai some favelas are now open to tours to give outsiders the opportunity to witness first hand what life is like for the residents who live there. With our knowledge of favelas limited to watching City of God (also set in Rio) this was an opportunity we wanted to take and would further round our experience of this city as our time here drew to a close.

Before we committed to it we asked ourselves a couple of questions – are we comfortable doing this and is Amber coming.

The first question was less about our own health and safety (if tours are operating with 5 star ratings on Trip Advisor we assume no one gets shot) and more about whether residents really want a bunch of foreigners pointing their cameras at them and their homes. What we discovered was that some of the money from the tour goes to the local residents association for upkeep of the favela and also that in the case of the tour we went on the owner of the company was born, raised and still lives in the favela (in a slightly surreal turn would I later found myself in his house holding an Olympic torch).

With regards taking Amber we were reassured by the tour company that many children and babies had gone on the tour and it was perfectly safe. That said our view was that Amber would much rather be playing in the playground (or as it turned out roaring at boxes of Frosties in the supermarket) than being dragged around a favela by her parents. On the day the weather was awful so in more than one way we felt vindicated in taking the tour in turns (me in the morning, Claire in the afternoon).

Santa Marta is one of around 750 favelas in Rio. It is small by favela standards with around 6,000 residents comprising roughly 1,700 families. What it lacks in size it makes up in steepness, with 788 steps providing a path through the favela up the steep slope of the Morro Dona Marta in the southern Botofogo district.

Santa Marta’s location in the south of Rio and its openness to tours have an important context. In 2008 it was the first favela to be “pacified” by Rio’s Pacifying Police Unit. In practice this means driving out drug traffickers and ridding the favela of guns, a task executed by a specialist unit of the military police (the BOPE). A permanent police force is subsequently established and residents are encouraged to report criminal activity anonymously to ensure the favela remains peaceful. All of the favelas that have gone through this process are located in the south of the city, close to the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. The ramp up of the pacification process also coincided with Rio’s selection as host city for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. So in reality what we see is drug traffickers moving out of high profile tourist areas and into less attractive parts of the city, typically in the north. Pacification does not seemingly deal with the root cause it simply transfers the problem elsewhere.

Following pacification in 2008 Santa Marta was open for tours but as our guide Pedro told us at the start this did not mean all criminal activity had stopped. As we wondered through the favela we saw marijuana being smoked openly and were told cocaine was also easily found. The police know about this but as long as the guns stay out and the trade remains low key they will turn a blind eye. In the eyes of the police, compared to the conditions before this was a small price to pay. Whether the residents agreed that overall conditions were better was another matter – some argue that the drug dealers contributed more financially to the local residents than the government now do.

We began the tour at the top of the favela. As part of pacification a cable car had been installed to help residents and tourists reach the top. The cable car was out of action in the morning due to the weather so we took a taxi. Interestingly it took 3 attempts by our guide to persuade a taxi to take us – partly due to the steep roads and partly due to a continued perception that these were unsafe areas to go into.


View from the top of Santa Marta favela – weather was bleak

Inside the favela there are no cars due to the narrowness of the streets so the taxi dropped us off in one of its two car parks. After descending a set of steps the first sight we were greeted with was a football match and an immediate symbol of the change in the favela – being played out below us was a five-a-side game between local Brazilians and a group of Polish girls enjoying some post Olympics sight seeing. On the sidelines were a large French group waiting their turn. In the context of opening the favela up to outsiders pacification had clearly worked.


Poland versus Brazil

However with pacification comes gentrification – as our guide explained a favela is now seen as a “cool” place to live. In the same way that large parts of East London previously considered no go areas have seen rents rise as professionals move in a similar process is under way in the favelas. This is reflected in the other sight that greets us – a large banner simply stating “GENTRIFICACAO” thereby drawing attention to this development. Indeed it was later pointed out to us that a hotel operator had tried to buy up the land and houses at the top of the favela, claiming (with government support) that the houses were unsafe and residents should be rehoused despite that fact the houses had stood solidly for decades. The project was successfully fought off but the banner acted as a warning that maybe such development was inevitable in future.


A resident looks out over the favela including the gentrification banner that greets visitors on arrival

Unlike favelas that have not been pacified Santa Marta residents now pay for their electricity and also have access to free healthcare and education. Although no schools and hospitals are available in the favela itself the wider area provides these services. Despite this improvement in conditions as well as the drop in violent crime there remains 2 significant issues facing residents – rubbish and sanitation. As we descended through the favela we saw rubbish piled up under houses and in the narrow streets. The journey to the rubbish tip at the top of the favela clearly an unattractive proposition to many residents. Additionally sewers were often open, particularly in the back streets where sewage flowed down exposed earth under and between houses. If however you look up from the sewage you are greeted with expansive views of the city including the wealthy southern suburbs and beaches, bringing into sharp focus the inequality that still exists within the city.


The long hike to the rubbish tip while a policeman looks on


Scars from the favela’s tumultuous past are still visible as we head further down into Santa Marta. At one point we enter the area nicknamed Beirut where previously you would go to buy drugs, the only sign of its criminal background the multiple bullet holes in the walls of the buildings. The residents we pass here and elsewhere are typically friendly however in some cases there remains a sense of distrust, maybe even bewilderment at times. As our guide points out at first those who lived in the favela could not understand why people would want to come and look around their homes. Now, they seem more understanding, a reflection of the work done by this tour company and others in building bridges with the rest of the city and its visitors.


Bullets holes in the walls in “Beirut”

It is the head of our tour company whose home we now visit. His name is Thiago and he also moonlights as an activist and DJ. Our guide Pedro is keen to show us iPad photos of him with various famous people including Alicia Keys, Colin Farrell and Joe Biden who have all visited the favela whether as tourists or shooting films. Unfortunately Thiago is not in but that doesn’t stop us from taking the opportunity to have a photo taken with the Olympic torch Thiago carried part of the way through Rio, a demonstration of his status in the city and his importance to residents of this favela and others, whose rights he continually campaigns for.


Really not one for a selfie but it’s the Olympic torch so had to be done

Following this we enter one of the main parts of the favela – a square all but dedicated to Michael Jackson who shot the video to They Don’t Care About Us here in 1996. A life size statue overlooking Rio tells me that Michael was an incredibly small man but he clearly left a big impression on this particular corner of the world with an elaborate mosaic also accompanying the statue. At this point I’m told the tour price comes with a beer included. It’s about 11:30am and the Americans I’m doing the tour with aren’t keen – I find the idea of turning down a free beer intolerable so take up the offer and enjoy a nice cold Antarctica while taking in the views from the square.


Michael Jackson mosaic

Our tour concludes at the base of the favela where Dutch artists have painted many of the houses. The effect is wonderful and makes great photos although you are left with the impression that maybe the favela faces some more pressing priorities than the colour of its walls. I try not to be too judgmental, I am an English man who has now spent the same amount of time in a favela as it takes to watch City of God but our tour guide also hints regularly at the injustice and inequality the favela continues to face, even in its new peaceful state. One reflection of this is the stark grey wall that runs down one side of the community, preventing the favela from expanding further. Why, our guide asks, is it ok for a rich resident to build an elaborate house on one side of the wall but not ok for a favela resident to add a building for his family on this side?


The newly painted houses at the bottom of the favela

Clearly progress has been made particularly with reducing (or at least displacing) crime but the lasting impression is that the problems faced by this and other favelas will keep Thiago is his role as activist very busy for a very long time. Meanwhile I leave the favela feeling enriched by the experience. Rio continues to astound and confound in equal measure.


3 thoughts on “Inside Santa Marta Favela

  1. Loved reading this. It’s a real eye opener. I think you should write a book when you get back about your experiences travelling as a family. There’s definitely not enough out there as I spent ages trying to find a decent one for you and C X


  2. Pingback: 8 things to do in Rio with a baby | wanderlust and baby

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