Jungle, Jesus, Beaches, Bikinis & Favelas – a weekend in Rio

14 April, 2009

Hey folks,
The first weekend in April supplied us with three visitors, Sam has just arrived from Melbourne to work in sunny Sao Paulo, Katherine has come over for a holiday from grey London, and Peter one of Caths workmates was in town for the weekend, so as none of them had been to Rio, we decided to go for the weekend.
Now for those of you who are still learning their Brasilian geography, Rio de Janeiro is only 450km from Sao Paulo.

Both Rio and Sao Paulo are serviced by two airports, both of which do domestic flights. The closest airport to our place is Congonhas and in Rio the closest airport to the famous beaches is Santos Dumont. This route is so popular that the number of flights between these two airports make it the 2nd busiest air route in the world with 894 flights per week (or an average of five flights an hour between them – if the airports were open 24 hours – which they aren’t)! So the actual number of flights per hour is even higher. Also add into the mix that both the other airports in Sao Paulo and Rio also have direct flights between the two cities, the total number of flights between the cities must be almost beyond belief!
For those of you who are now wondering what the busiest air route in the world is…. its Madrid – Barcelona (and Sydney – Melbourne is the fourth busiest):

Worlds Busiest Air Routes

But even though there are so many flights, if you don’t book early you can still end up paying an arm and a leg for the 45 minute flight, for example when we looked for last weekend it was an average of R$800.00 return (or 250.00GBP), so given the costs we decided to hire a car and make a road trip of it. A people mover, petrol and road tolls end up costing us just R$240.00 per person!!
Despite what you may read on tripadvisor, lonely planet etc the road from Sao Paulo to Rio is actually great, it’s mostly a toll road, double lane all the way with frequent services and some really pretty scenery. There are only two real problems with the drive – the start and the end!
Leaving after everyone finished work on a Friday night we hit the road at 7pm – and it took us 2hours just to get to the Guarulhos airport on the edge of Sao Paulo!!!
After a quick stop for some motorway services food and Sam working hard to keep Greg awake with some scintillating conversation, we arrived in Rio at about 1am. The drive across Rio and on to Copacabana is a bit of an adventure, it seems to cross some slightly dodgy parts of town – which I am sure would look a lot better in daylight, but can be be pretty scary at 1am in the morning!
Finding accommodation in Rio can be a bit of a lottery, with so many people visiting the beautiful city, there is plenty of accommodation to suit any budget, but this trip we found some great accommodation at Edificio Jucati – a great little hotel, with apartment style rooms for not much more than a room in a backpackers.
Now for our three guests it was their first visit to Rio, so as you can imagine the priorities were as follows:
Beaches – tick!

Football – Tick!

The Christ bloke up on the hill – tick!

And bikini clad beauties – tick tick tick tick!!!

There is no doubt at all that Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful bay side cities in the world, the mix of beautiful sand beaches, stunning jungle clad mountains and the ever present jesus fella up on the hill make it a magic city to visit.

But as well as all that beauty, the city also has an almost equally famous dark side, the favelas or slums of Rio, unlike Sao Paulo where most of the poorer areas are on the edge of the city, in Rio the favelas and rich parts of town live side by side, with the wealthy areas generally on the few flats parts of the city, and the favelas perched precipitously on the surrounding mountains.
Ana and Piero visited Rio a while ago and recommended we do a favela tour while we were in town, and after initially being hesitant to go and look at poor people, we decided on this trip that we would do it.
For those of you who aren’t up on their Brazilian favelas, they are suburbs/cities around Brasil where people (mainly migrants from the north of the country) live. And in a country with 180,000,000 people – 32,000,000 of whom live below the poverty line and many more who are living on the minimum wage of about 150GBP per month, there are plenty of poor people around who need somewhere cheap to live which is close to their employment.
Now I must state that I am by no means an expert on Brasilian poverty or favelas, but from what we have seen on our adventures, they range from the cardboard and wood shacks, to brick and stone three or even four story structures, some of them like Rocinha (the one we visited) are large and vibrant communities with between 60,000 and 150,000 residents.

Anyone who has seen City of God (which isn’t really based in a favela, but in a replacement for a favelas) or Elite Troupe will probably have some understanding of what urban poverty looks like, but by doing a tour with a company like Be A Local who fund a children’s day care centre in Rocinha and a health centre as well, you can get into right into a favela and get a tiny picture of what it’s really like to be poor and Brasilian.

Our tour was absolutely fascinating, we started with a moto taxi ride up from the base of the mountain right through and up to the top of the favela, and we then walked back down to the bottom. All up the trip was about three hours – including a visit to an art gallery, the child care centre (closed on the weekend) and a bakery.
Here are some snaps I took while on the tour:

The Rocinha favela

Beside a wealthier part of town.

Kind of administered by the city council, kind of self administered.

Typical housing

A big house – complete with room to ride your bike!

Electricity – provided by the state electricity company, but the wiring is a strictly do it yourself affair

Plumbing – fresh water is supplied for two hours at a time, unfortunately as you can see, the water tap is right over the sewer

Urban living, without any urban planning – narrow paths, crazy steps, but in reality a fully functioning community, with bars, stores, hair dressers, churches, you name it.

Local entertainment – these kids gave us a demonstration of samba drumming by some local kids

Local enterprise – cheap beer – no pesky sales taxes or licensing restrictions here

Bakery treats – say no more!

It was a really fascinating, educational and humbling experience, I suppose the main thing that we got out of it is that people living in the favela are just people like us, spending Saturday afternoon watching tv, chatting on the front step, surfing the internet, shopping, getting a haircut, sitting in a pub watching Liverpool play while drinking a beer, all the stuff we do, but in a much smaller space, but in a town with limited access to health and education and with little no access to the police or protection from the drug gangs that effectively control their towns.
When we got back to Sao Paulo, many of our Brasilian friends expressed shock, horror and even disgust that we had ´wasted´ our time in Rio by visiting a favela. Looking at it from their point of view I can definitely see what they are saying, there is no way I would think to recommend tourists to New Zealand visit some of the poorer suburbs of our big(ish) cities, but maybe it would be interesting if they did, we certainly learnt a lot more about life in Brasil from our brief time in Rocinha.
Our guide for the trip filled us with many interesting insights into life in the favelas, one of the most interesting facts he gave us was regarding the work of the many NGOs in the favelas of Rio. Apparently 80% of the volunteers working in Rio are from outside Brasil, charities he has worked with have had real trouble attracting Brasilians to help out in the favelas, and his reasoning for this was somewhat cold, confronting and shocking. As you are aware, the gap between rich and poor in Brasil is one of the largest in the world, and the lifestyle that this allows the rich and the middle classes to have is one that appears pretty luxurious to most of us outsiders, having a large group of people with very low wages means that it is relatively cheap to have staff in your house, someone to park your car, walk your dog, look after your kids, pick up after you and generally make your life easier, so our guide suggested that most rich Brasilians aren’t interested in ´fixing´ the favelas because if all of these peoples earned a decent wage, wealthier Brasilians wouldn’t be able to afford to have the great lifestyles which they currently enjoy.
I can’t really comment if this belief is widely held, we have met many Brasilians who are actively working to make help poorer Brasilians lives better and to give them a better chance at life, but we have also been shocked on more than one occasion when Brasilians explain that people live in favelas because they are simply lazy and that the best solution to the favela problem is an airforce bombing raid.
Having only lived in Brasil for just over a year, we really don’t know enough about these massively complex issues to judge any of these people on their beliefs, I suppose you just have to make up your own mind – and a favela tour like the be a local tour gives you lot more information from the inside rather than the outside to help make up your mind.