One of the most democratic aspects of Rio de Janeiro is that people from social classes that are light years apart live almost next-door to each other. Virtually all neighborhoods in Rio have some sort of working-class district.
They are popularly known as favelas. Some grow to giant communities like Rocinha, in São Conrado, with over 50,000 residents. Other favelas like Pavão, Cantagalo, Vidigal, and Chapéu Mangueira are strategically located in hilly South Side areas offering breathtaking views.
Favelas are complex and vibrant communities. To illustrate, Rio's legendary samba schools were almost all born and raised in favelas. The problems are equally very complex. Most favelas have some drug lord that runs a boca de fumo where they openly sell drugs. When they battle for territory stray bullets always make victims. The police is also sometimes part of the problem, and reports of brutality are not uncommon.
There are a few misconceptions about favelas that are worth clearing out. To start off, the term favela is considered politically incorrect by many. Favelado (favela resident) also has a derogatory tone to it. Morro (hill) is a more romantic term, and is used in contrast to asfalto (asphalt), meaning where the upper classes live. Popular community dweller (morador da comunidade) is generally agreed as the most appropriate term.
The second mistake is assuming that a favela is where the bad guys live. Most residents of favelas are people that work hard for their money, and have perfectly honest jobs. Living in a favela is an alternative to living in some suburb and spending as long as 4 hours commuting back and forth (if your train makes it on time, that is).
The third is that favelas are a shame to a city like Rio, and a bulldozer should do the trick just fine. This means you definitely do not understand the Carioca spirit. Locals are very proud that people from the asphalt and the hills are able to share the same beach, and middle class kids are frequently seen at funk balls in the favelas. And if you are ready for the plain truth, favela residents are often very proud of their community, and would not consider moving elsewhere. Bairrismo (community pride)is a trait that all Cariocas seem to share.
The most reasonable approach that came up in recent years is a project named Favela Bairro. The idea is urbanizing each favela, while setting physical limits for its growth. Streets are paved, houses in areas subject to mudslides are put down, public squares, community centers and nurseries for working mothers are put up. Several favelas have already benefited from this project.
Even favelas that have not been urbanized yet have basics like electricity and running water. The most important appliance is always the TV set, followed by a refrigerator. The number of satellite dishes when you look at some favela from above is quite amazing, in fact. Signs of the times...
The best way to understand a favela is a first-hand experience. No, we are not saying you should venture going uphill on your own to snoop around with a camera around your neck. But you may go on a favela tour with an escorted group, and you will be a welcome guest. These tours usually include a visit to a resident's home, and sometimes even a stop for a quick bite at the local boteco (bar).
Visiting a favela in Rio is considered a highlight by many international visitors, who are always favorably surprised at the warm reception they get from residents. The queens of Sweden, Denmark, Princess Di, Bill Clinton, even Michael Jackson have already done a favela. Good to know you don't have to be such a VIP to make it. Most local travel agencies can book a favela tour for you.