From high above Complexo do Alemão, a once notorious Rio de Janeiro favela, all is peaceful. An abstract checkerboard of do-it-yourself homes and corrugated rooftops spills down the ravines below in a tsunami of red brick. The gunfights that accompanied the military eradication of the slum’s drug lords have ceased. An ultramodern and ultra-anachronistic $130-million public aerial tramway—like something transported directly from the Swiss Alps—has just opened. It allows the 170,000 local residents to ride from urban hilltop to urban hilltop, forgoing the daily grind of descending and ascending their crowded aeries for low-wage work on “the asphalt”—slang for the industrial and residential flatlands—below. Even odder: a popular Brazilian soap opera called Salve Jorge, set in Alemão and featuring hunky guys and wayward women, is playing on local TV, luring thousands of telenovela tourist-fans into the area’s slums to catch a glimpse of the show’s filming sites.
Away from the tourist attractions of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches—with their bronzed and tanga-clad women and foot-volleyball-playing men, away from the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer, away from the annual February madness of Carnaval’s samba parades, Rio has a new and little-known attraction: the recently pacified favela communities, home to most of Rio’s 2.5 million slum dwellers, who have benefited from a decade of progressive Brazilian social legislation. Travellers interested in alternatives to Rio’s traditional photo ops are discovering an urban world few dared to visit a decade ago. It is, most agree, a surprising transformation for the city’s long-suffering poor.
At age 37, Cleber Araujo, favela resident and local tour guide, knows the slums and their history intimately. For decades, Brazil’s rural poor fled the country’s arid northeast for the possibility of jobs in Rio. But jobs were few and squatters many, and soon hundreds of shantytowns were being built on the city’s hills. Crime became the hallmark of these communities. In 2008, however, Brazilian authorities decided to cleanse the favelas and have launched scores of armed military/police occupations of Rio’s worst slums. At present, 35 have been “pacified”, and $1.7 billion is being spent by governments to provide social services as communities come under civic control.
Stepping off the Teleférico—as the immensely popular six-station, 3.5-kilometre gondola ride is known—Araujo takes visible pride in the changes that have occurred in his own, pacified Alemão hilltop neighbourhood. There are art galleries and craft shops and youth hostels for international visitors. There are new community centres and playgrounds for residents. And the views across Rio, punctuated by the city’s peaks and its 90 kilometres of beaches, are veritable postcards. Today, visitors to these communities seek out the favelas’ samba schools to see firsthand the construction of the huge animatronic Carnaval floats and the Carnaval dancers practising for their annual performances at the Sambódromo. The fact is, Rio’s famous Carnaval would simply not exist without the participation of tens of thousands of these poor, favela-based performers. They are Carnaval.
These communities are also home to many of black Rio’s Afro-Brazilian religions, where night-long, temple-based drumming, spirit worship, and trance dancing—called Candomblé—can be witnessed now that it’s safe to venture along these districts’ streets. On a Sunday night at the crowded Kira Seja Tribacemi temple—called a terreiro in Portuguese—the sound of drumming indicates the location of a Candomblé ceremony in Rio’s Zona Norte district. Inside the white, one-storey building, 80-year-old priestess Mother Marie officiates over dozens of white-clad dancers. Most are bejewelled, turbaned, and bustle-wearing women who bop and shuffle to the intense rhythm. Drums, tambourines, and rattle-gourds—and nearby eruptions of firecrackers—propel a sort of exaltation. Hands clap. Chants syncopate. This drumming and dancing is meant to call down the old, sky-borne African gods, inviting them to cross the Atlantic, join the party, and inhabit the bodies of the swaying Afro-Brazilian celebrants. Whenever a solo dancer begins to spasm, her eyes roll upward and she careens aimlessly, like a slowing top about to tumble. At that moment—and the moment is repeated throughout the evening as others are possessed—the dancer becomes the deity. Africa and Brazil are reunited.
Many come to the favelas to observe the incredible wall murals of the city’s street artists. Since 2009, when Brazil decriminalized serious spray-paint art (tagging is still illegal), sections of many pacified favelas have been transformed into linear murals. Led by the AEROSOuL CARIOCA art collective, this revolutionary “freestyle” movement has produced myriad pop-up paintings along the favelas’ once-fearsome streets. Youth who would be in drug gangs in years past post Kickstarter sketches of their proposed murals, apply for civic grants, and are turning the slums into explosions of public—often satirical—street art. The best examples of this can be seen along the walls adjacent to Rio’s Jardim Botânico and in the hilltop Santa Teresa neighbourhood. And an entire section—from sidewalks to three-storey rooftops—of the Santa Marta favela has been painted in tropical fruit–coloured Mondrian-style abstractions. Says Alemão artist Felipe Candido, 23: “For decades we’ve been forgotten. Now, street art’s legal. It’s encouraged by the government. It’s not just graffiti.”
The result of all this new interest in Rio’s favela life—and the recent appearance of upmarket visitors’ money—is a boom in hilltop restaurants and bars, where dishes like the traditional Brazilian shrimp stew called vatapa or the bean and meat feijoada stew are available. Or where the genuine, African-based music of the Brazilian street is heard: the samba, bossa nova, and funk-carioca. You sit on a veranda with a spectacular view over the city, and—for a fraction of the prices in the fancy restaurants of the Copacabana or Ipanema districts below—drink Brahma beer from an icy litre bottle, catch the early evening breezes off the Atlantic, and listen to a local band play Portuguese cover versions of Bob Marley songs. In fact, a 2013 book, A Gastronomical Guide to Rio’s Favelas, lists 22 places, including several in the popular, Teleférico-served Alemão district, where life amid the favelas can be embraced.
The effect of all this attention has been greeted, not surprisingly, with a certain skepticism by many favela residents. Pacification has allowed civic authorities to provide hundreds of thousands of squatters with land title. That means home renovations, electrification, water, schools…and taxes. It means, as well, that real-estate values in these location, location, location hilltop slums have skyrocketed. Gentrification is at hand. It is, of course, an old story. Poor urban district is “discovered” by bohemian artists and entrepreneurs. Money flows. Investors see opportunity, and the land is rezoned. The question is, after the military interventions and expulsion of the drug lords in the past few years, after the security investments prompted, in part, by the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, will the success story of Rio’s favelas unravel? Can the good times continue, even as political attention moves to the next problem?
ACCESS: The FIFA World Cup of Soccer happens across Brazil from June 12 to July 13. The 2016 Summer Olympics run in Rio from August 5 to 21, 2016. For info on Cleber Araujo’s favela tours, email him at email@example.com.