Rocinha, biggest favela in S.America, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

Favela Rocinha – Rio de Janeiro

Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela has been off-limits for tourists for many years due to the violence that comes with drug trafficking, but this has changed.

In December 2010, as part of an 8 day motorcycle tour, we spent a few days in Rio de Janeiro, staying at “Rio Hostel” in Santa Teresa, one of Rio’s most charming historic bairros. Walking around Santa Teresa, we visited places, like Lapa, the bohemian nightlife centre, and Rio Scenarium, Rio’s most beautiful nightclub (according to some), but it’s also a museum…

During our visit to Rio Scenarium, I asked our guide (Isabela from “Trustinrio“) if it would be possible to visit Rocinha, which is South America’s biggest – and at that time still “upacified”- favela

(After a cleansing operation in the “Complexo do Alemão” – another favela complex – a month earlier, it was believed that many of the 400 drug traffickers that got away, were hiding inside Rocinha.) Her answer was short and clear: “Sure, why not”, like it was just another visit to the Sugar loaf mountain…

We met up with Isabela at the Arcos da Lapa and boarded a minivan that took us on a wild ride across town to the access road of the favela. Riding a minivan across Rio de Janeiro is an experience in itself. When we were on the Avenida Atlantica, passing all the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, our driver seemed to have a lot of fun racing another van that was going in the same direction. Maybe it was just his way to make his day a little more interesting.

The other passengers didn’t seem to be worried too much, but sadly 35.000 people die in traffic accidents in Brazil every year… I have to admit that it was kind of exiting though.

Entrance of Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

Arriving at the entrance of Rocinha after a pretty wild minivan ride…

We got out of the van and the first thing we noticed, was the large number of mototaxis, gathered at the entrance of the favela. Isabela told us that we would take one of the mototaxis to get to the highest point of the favela, and then walk back down… It was a first for me, getting on the back of a small 125cc motorcycle and my driver, as I expected, wasn’t paying a lot of attention to other traffic or traffic rules. Regardless, we got to the top in one piece… well… Maryel got there about ten minutes later.

He explained that his motoboy had to go to the bathroom, so they made a detour and he had to wait outside the guy’s house while he was going to do his business. Maryel said that at the house, he saw five guys with machine guns, but they didn’t bother him…Once Maryel had arrived, we bought some water and started going back down.

To be honest, my first impression was not that we were in a potentially dangerous place. Everything seemed more or less the same as in a normal “bairro”, but during my two years in Brazil, I have seen so many TV news reports about the situation in the favelas and it is better not to let your guard down.

A sure sign of the fact that Rocinha is in the process of becoming more  “touristy” was a small souvenir stand we found at the top, and the guy who was running it did his best to speak english. He showed us the English dictionary that he kept handy for when he had to look up something. According to him, most people living in Rocinha are very aware of the fact that tourists can bring a little – financial – improvement in their lives, and are doing their best to clean up the image of the place.

One thing that is really striking, is the incredible view that the people of Rocinha have. At the highest point of the community, you overlook all of the “Zona Sul” of Rio de Janeiro: Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Christ the Redeemer, Pão de Açúcar, Guanabara bay… the works.

view from the highest point of Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

the more than privileged view from the highest point of Rocinha: The Lagoa, Corcovado, Pão de Açúcar, Guanabara Bay…

Christ the Redeemer - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

Closer up of Christ the Redeemer as seen from the highest point of Rocinha

Isabela told us to be careful and not take pictures of certain places… on our way down we saw a few guys sitting on the sidewalk with assault rifles in their laps… when we passed them they actually said a friendly “Boa tarde”, but I guess in another situation they would just as easily take our stuff, or worse…

Regardless of the fact that there are agencies offering favela tours here in Rio de Janeiro, there is still a real danger for anyone venturing alone into these places and ending up in a wrong area or not behaving according to local rules… I would advise everybody not to enter a favela all by him/herself, but to take a good, local guide.

Going down the narrow streets, it was really interesting to see how the people had constructed their houses on this hillside… sometimes it was hard to see where one house ended and another begun. I couldn’t help but think about how it would be to live in a community like this. Over the years, it seems like not only poor people are living here, since we saw a fair number of good quality houses and also doctors and dentists cabinets. No doubt this has its effect on real estate prices here.

In many ways a favela is very much like any other neighborhood, with supermarkets, bakeries, bars and schools, but of course, the majority of people here is still poor and live in very badly constructed houses, sometimes with no electricity or water. Also the health conditions of people here is way below average. In certain areas, we saw big piles of garbage, which – of course – had a horrible smell and most likely would attract rats and/or other pests…

west side of Rocinha - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

Overlooking the west side of Rocinha. In the background: São Conrado highrises and Pedra da Gávea

overview Rocinha west side - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

In total about 400.000 people call this place home.

At a certain moment, Isabela entered a house and took us to an apartment of a person she knew. This house had a terrace looking out over the west side of the favela, and the owner welcomed us in a very friendly way. We spent some time taking in the awesome views and taking pictures, before thanking our host and walking further down.

House in Rocinha favela - Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

Our guide Isabela and the owner of the house on the man’s terrace, chatting and enjoying the great view and the Brazilian summer sun…

There are many stories about the favelas in Rio, and most of them are about the drug traffickers terrorizing the population. I’m sure that most of those stories are true, but something you rarely hear in the news, is that the majority of people in favelas are honest, hard working people that only want what other people all over the world want: lead a normal life, raise a family and a decent future for their children…

As with many places I visited in the 2.5 years that I have been living in Brazil, I had the feeling that I only saw the tip of the iceberg and would need at least a couple of days to really get to know this interesting and exiting place, and I’m certainly going back when I have the chance.

UPDATE – September 2012

Since the pacification operations started,  you hardly ever hear the word “Favela” any more in the local media more and more it is being replaced by the word “comunidade” (community).

23 thoughts on “Rocinha, biggest favela in S.America, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

  1. Nice read, mate. I myself had spent 2 years living in Cantagalo from 2006-2008 and had alot of great times there. And that was pre-UPP days. I still go there tme to time to have a beer or two at the local pe sujo.There is a lot of stigma attached to Rio slums. But beside squalid/rough conditions life goes on there pretty much the same way it goes everywhere – people are born, work, party, worry, have kids, laugh, cry and die just like they do in the upscale parts of our city.

    PS If you ever in our neck of the woods, swing by Rua Ceara,Ill introduce you to Helmut, an Austriam mechanic who lives there.

    PSS 400 Alemao traffickers, u mentioned, never escaped….If you catch my drift.

    • Hi, You’re right… Life in the favelas is basically no different than (a tuned down version of) that of the rich folk. 99,9% of people are just trying to get by and make a better life for their kids.
      Rua Ceara… That’s the one close to Praça da Bandeira, right? Sure, why not. Could be sooner than you think.


      • Correct ! I thought you’d know it. I guess the best day is Friday when the guys gather at Laranga garage for some street cooking.Ill check with Helmut and see if he is around and not on some club run. What is the best day for you ? You live in Volta Redonda, dont you ?

        • Friday works or me… I live in Volta Redonda, indeed, but spend 4-5 days of the week in Rio. I usually stay in Lagoa Guest house in Humaitá.
          Next week would probably be fine.


          • Sounds good. Ill see if I can swing by next week and introduce myself. See you soon, cheers.

  2. I haven’t been to Rocinha, only briefly to Cantagalo, which I think it’s quieter and safer than the bigger one. I’m aware there are episodes of violence but I also think there are people living a normal life there, working and studying. Poverty is to be fought, always and everywhere, and comparison is not the appropriate way to deal with the issue, but after what I saw in India, Cantagalo looked like a wealthy neighborhood, and in India I didn’t go visit any slum, I’m talking about average neighborhoods and Agra, possibly the most touristy city of the whole country, where is the Taj Mahal.
    Poverty is really everywhere, in Rio favelas stand just beside wealthy areas, in other cities the poor are usually hidden probably not to ruin the view, not sure what’s worse.
    I hope I’ll be able to visit a favela (or comunidade!) properly next time I go to Rio, possibly with a local.

  3. My friend’s son goes to the American School right at the entrance to Rocinha. I visited the school while in Rio, and it is very interesting to see the Range Rovers with the drivers and nannies picking up the kids in the shadows of the favella. There’s been times the kids have had to take cover because of shooting down from the mountain. Streets have been blocked off and the kids are just stuck at school until the police and their helicopters get it under control. Still, I’d love to do a tour.

  4. First I have to say that your blog is great and this post was excellent. I have some predilection for the people in the favela. Of course I am not that naive and know that there are poverty and drug trafficking that makes it to misery in many cases. But these people need to hear something good about their selves and the place where they live. I spent one day and evening in Rocinha 2007 when I was in Brazil the first time. Amazing place and the view over Christ the Redeemer in the evening is something special. My wife is from Complexo de Alemão and she still has her mother there, so we go there 1 time a month as you know it has been much safer there. I really have had the most interesting encounters and conversations there, but as you mention in the post it might not be a good idea to go alone without knowing anybody in the neighborhood.

    • Hey Magnus, Thanks for the kind words. You have a great blog going yourself 🙂
      I’m sure you have a lot more experience than me when it comes to Rio’s “comunidades”. It’s kinda sad to see that despite the pacification, today there are still traffickers out there calling the shots in some parts of Rocinha and according to one person living there, there’s a lot more “assaltos” lately. The BOPE had to go in again this week and 3 people died in firefights in Rocinha, so yeah, going in there as a tourist still has certain risks and I wouldn’t go in there alone. Maybe we could have a caipirinha next time you’re in Rio. We definitely should meet up and share some “gringo” experiences, what do you say?


      • It was sad to hear about Rocinha that the violence still continue still that violent neighborhood. Complexo de Alemão has been better but of course it is kind of sad to see the military police with machine gun in the favela to keep the order, but according to the people living there that I’ve talked to they think it is a better situation now then before and hope that in the future the police can leave the area without the drug trafficking and every day shooting will start again. We defenitely should take a Caipirinha next time I’m in Rio. By the way have you tried the Cable car (o teleférico) over Complexo de Alemão? If you would like you can join me and my wife to Complexo de Alemão and try it. I can promise you that we are safe if we go with my wife who lived there for 16 years and I think I look more gringo than you:) What do you say?

        take care

  5. Thanks for this post. I’m hoping to book some time in Rio next February and will be spending 2 weeks volunteering at a daycare centre in and living in Rocinha before having 2 weeks all to myself. I’ve been researching the area on the net and found this really useful, thank you 🙂

    • Hey Natalie, great that you’re planning to come to Rio and volunteer. I’m sure you’ll have a great experience. As you know, Rocinha has been pacified a few months ago, so the guys with the guns are no longer there. I met two Dutch girls yesterday who went to visit Rocinha two days ago, and they told me that the atmosphere in the place is really good and upbeat. Probably sucks to have to wait for another year huh? 🙂

  6. Another very interesting blog!
    Raf, would this be the favela area we might have driven through (tour van on the way through to see Christ the Redeemer)? More than 1favela in the area? Thanks for sharing your Brazil with us…

    • Hey Phil, hard to say, there are a few routes to Christ de Redeemer, but if you “drove through” it, it wasn’t Rocinha… Only if you would come from Barra de Tijuca (West side of Rio) you would see Rocinha before entering the tunnel leading to Leblon. From any other place (Centro, copacabana, Ipanema…) you would not pass by Rocinha.

  7. Great post – interesting to hear about a positive side of favelas that you never see in news stories or the media. Thanks for sharing, and for your advice on what to do/what not to do if you choose to visit one 🙂

    • Rocinha has been pacified in November last year so it should be a lot safer to visit the place. In addition to the UPP (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora), the government has installed mobile health and social service units near the main entrance, so life should have become a little easier for the inhabitants since my last visit. Despite the pacification, I still recommend contracting a guide to visit the community.

  8. Awesome. I hope I get a chance to have a similar experience while i’m there. thanks for your intriguing pieces on a country/continent I am soon to discover. It really is insightful.

    • Rocinha has been “pacified” a few months ago, so the guys with machine guns are gone and the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed now.
      If you need help getting around here in Brazil, you can always contact me 🙂

      Are you “@roxtravels” on twitter?


      • I guess there’s an upside to the lack of machine guns… 🙂

        yep, @roxtravels would be me 🙂 my journey will unfold on twitter and will send you a link to my blog when i make it public… we’re starting in Brazil mid April…

        thanks for the offer, will definitely get in touch.

        take care


  9. this is simply awesome. we definitely plan to do something like this once we’re in Brazil. Might have to hit you up about hiring your guide.
    i dunno if I can hold back taking pictures of everything though!

    • Hi Jenny,
      Well, I’m pretty sure that once you see the guys with the guns, you’ll have no problem putting your camera away for a while. Sometimes it’s just a matter of left or right… You can take pictures of the souvenir stand to the right, but not of the houses to the left, that sort of thing.
      When you need a guide, give me a call 🙂

  10. I would really like to go on a favela tour when I am in Rio this Sept. My wife’s aunt lives in an apartment with views of the ocean and Rocinha. The contrast in lifestyles (social, economic, standard of living) is so great in such a short distance. There are million dollar apartments on one side of the street and people living in little better then cardboard shacks on the other side.

    Maybe you can recommend a good tour company.

Thank you for reading... now let me know what you think.