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Rio Favela Tour – Complexo do Alemão

Rio Favela Tour – Complexo do Alemão

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Today we joined a Rio Favela Tour of the Complexo do Alemão. It was a day we will not soon forget.

Favelas, the famously gritty neighborhoods that ascend Rio de Janeiro’s steep hillsides are nothing new – they’ve been here for over a hundred years. But they’ve are getting lots of attention these days.

Some of these congested shanty towns (which often boast the best views of Rio) are getting new paint jobs and are being “gentrified.”

Hostels and hotels are popping up and even the rich and famous moving in to Rio’s famous shanty towns.

Soccer star David Beckham and singer Madonna are neighbors, both having bought homes inside the Favela do Vidigal.

Despite the popularity of some neighborhoods, the one we visited called the Complexo do Alemão seemed not to have gotten the memo.

Cable car view of the Favela

Cable car view of the Favela

Cable car view of the Favela Complexo do Alemão

Complexo do Alemão

This group of favelas (the word means “neighborhood” in Portuguese) are in a northern section of Rio de Janeiro made up of six hills.

We visited with a local guide, a Dutch architect who works on urban renewal projects, including developing green spaces where  people can gather and children can play.

She informed us that the area was once owned by a Polish man who purchased what was then vacant land. He sold small parcels of land over time to families who have developed their own little conclaves.

There was seemingly no planning, rhyme or reason. Although, our guide observed, this is very much in line with the mind-set of the people who reside in these neighborhoods.

Living Out Loud

It doesn’t take long after arriving in Rio to find out a few things about the people who live here. They like to make a lot of noise.

Whether that be yelling to a neighbor or playing music late into the night. You can’t walk far down the street without finding a jovial gathering laughing, seemingly always on the verge of breaking into dance and song.

This is as true on the beaches and in the downtown areas as it is in the crowded favelas. It is inviting, infectious and uniquely Brazil. We met many expats who fell in love with Brazil and moved here for this very reason.

Shanty Towns in the Making

The favelas are filled with contradictions. You can look over a sea of favela homes seemingly on the verge of collapse, and lament the lack of long-term planning.

However, the unfinished houses with exposed rebar are often long-term works in progress. Often the owner planning to add the next story when time and money allows.

Like everywhere in the world, immediate needs and desires come into play as well: but most of the partially built houses are fitted with a satellite TV dish.

bright yellow home in the favela

Woman looking out at the day in the Favela

Favela Infrastructure

During our tour we rode the recently constructed cable car network over the area. Completed in 2012, the cable cars are just one of many improvement in the area.

The homes have electricity and running water (unlike 50  years ago where many homes were made of wood and the ground was flooded).

The government paved streets so they can accommodate public transportation vans and built concrete staircases to make the area more accessible.

Many of the cable car stations also have a social works project inside, such as a library, and medical clinics, as another resource for the locals.

houses packed into small spaces

Houses packed into small spaces

Policing the Favela

The army and police have intervened to reduce the historically high level of gun and drug violence. Although residents complain that violence remains a huge problem.

Unfortunately, we heard that the police themselves have become just as involved in provoking gunfire and selling weapons as the drug lords they were assigned to combat.

Whether or not this is accurate is beyond us to evaluate, but suffice it to say that while progress is being made, tensions are far from over.

Mural on the cable car library wall

Mural on the cable car library wall

Favela Schools

Our guide, who also volunteers with to support a school in a favela, said that she is frustrated with the lack of progress being made. This was especially knowing that the government has money to make some improvements.

You won’t be in Brazil long before you hear the word corruption – frequently.

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Rio Favela Tour

Change does not come easy here, particularly when a large percentage of the population who live in the favelas can’t write or read. Many families don’t send their children to school,  despite their availability.

Our guide also pointed out that some of the improvements that have been made have been destroyed by residents.

This being a message that although the government is intervening, the drug lords and residents still have a prevailing influence.

There are no easy answers, and there are certainly barriers for change in every direction.

favela school

The school hopes to have a garden soon where children can learn how vegetables are grown

Unfinished Story of Favelas

Our guide was clear that you cannot judge the people and the situation by just what you see on the surface.

The people who live in the favelas, for example, actually tend to have relatively nice interiors that they share with their families for generations.

It is uncommon to see a permanent roof on a building because that would signify that you were done building. With the unsaid meaning that you were poor and out of options.

The people may just be focused on today, but even with all of their challenges, the outlook of the favela residents tends to be a pretty positive one.

Favela Trampoline

There is always some place to play

Maybe that is the reason, that despite our inability to walk in the neighborhood due to recent gun violence, there are still numerous kites flying over the neighborhood, and children laughing and playing.

An Eye to the Future

There is a flurry of activity in Rio as it prepares to host the 2016 Olympic games. A shiny new stadium now sits directly across from a tattered shanty town.

It is an interesting juxtaposition and hint to the priorities here. I wondered as we left what the effect of having the upcoming Olympic Games would have on Rio.

It is truly amazing what can happen when a community comes together with one vision.

Is it be possible that the presence of all these athletes, carrying with them all of the eyes of the world, would have an uplifting impact on Rio?

Maybe the games could become a banner for change, like a kite in the sky. I, for one, will be watching, and hoping.

Related articles about Rio de Janeiro you might enjoy: 

A Special thank you to Context Travel, who provided us with this tour. Visit them to learn more about the tours that they provide and the work that they do to support the communities that they serve. As always, our opinions are our own.


Tuesday 1st of September 2015

Beautiful photos! I found a very similar approach to life in Argentina. There was a lot of mistrust of the government and a lot of corruption. But everyone that I met was so full of life and all about loving in the moment. It's really amazing to experience!


Sunday 6th of September 2015

Yes, that's one of the great things about visiting places and meeting the get such a different viewpoint than those given by the press or government officials.

Jennifer Ryder Joslin

Monday 31st of August 2015

This is a well told account of your experience, I feel like I was there with you! There are so many complex issues surrounding Brazil and the Olympics. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Thanks for sharing your experience and giving us an inside look at the favelas!

Vicky and Buddy

Monday 31st of August 2015

Here in Miami, we have a large Brazilian population. They all usually talk about the corruption and many are upset that the government is spending money on stadiums instead of on the towns and people. It will be interesting to see how the country does after the spotlight is no longer on them once the Olympics are done.

Lily Heise

Monday 31st of August 2015

Dear Sean and Jen, thank you for this well-balanced, thoughtful and thought-provoking article on favelas and your experience on our special visit. We really want to be able to offer a different experience and one providing deep insight. It will certainly be interesting to see how things will be affected as next year's Olympics approach.


Monday 31st of August 2015

Hi Lily,

Thanks! We're very curious about how things continue to change up to, and after, the Olympics, as well!


Sunday 30th of August 2015

I always cringe when I start to read pieces about visiting the 'poorer' areas of a city but I actually really loved this. You handled writing this very gracefully. Thank you for showing both sides to the situation. I do hope the 2016 Olympic games bring good to Rio!