This past April, I found myself on my first ever motorcycle ride, speeding on the back of a motorcycle taxi headed to the top of Rocinha, Rio De Janeiro's largest favela. Along the way, we weaved through a crush of buses, motorcycles, and people, all going about their day in this city inside a city.
I made my journey into Rocinha to meet Elliot Rosenberg, a recent college graduate from Los Angeles who has started a homestay business in the favela. Called The Favela Experience, it provides reasonably priced housing for visitors in a handful of Rio's favelas, including Rocinha and Vidigal, a rapidly gentrifying favela nearby (a private room might cost $38 per night, though prices go up during major city events).
Rosenberg is one of a few entrepreneurs who are hoping to leverage favela housing to accommodate the hordes of tourists flooding the city for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Nearly a quarter of Rio residents, or about 1.4 million people, live in favelas—poor or working class communities that are often built into the city's hillsides. The business is an attempt, he says, to clear up the negative perceptions of favelas that pervade society and make money at the same time. When I met him in April, his dozen-plus properties were already 90% booked for June's World Cup.
But is an influx of tourists sleeping in the neighborhood ultimately a boon to Rio's favelas, or a step on the way to gentrifying until locals have to leave? And for tourists, how safe is it to be in these places that are infamous for their violence?
Rosenberg lives in Rocinha himself, spreading the word about his business mostly via word of mouth. He works with residents who have at least basic English proficiency to rent out their homes on Airbnb, and then takes a cut of the profits. The entrepreneur also greets tourists when they arrive at the bottom of the favela (like many of the city's favelas, Rocinha is built into a hillside) and helps them get to their final destination.
His personal service is a key part of the experience. Without Rosenberg waiting to meet me near the favela's motorcycle taxi stand, I would have been completely lost, since residences off the main road of Rocinha don't have formal addresses.
The word "favela" is usually translated into English as "slum." But as I've written before, this isn't entirely accurate. Every favela is different, but many are tight-knit communities filled with families that have lived in the same place for generations. They often have water, sewage, and electricity services—but these services aren't always reliable. Rocinha, an especially large favela, is like a separate city inside Rio: It has shops, restaurants, bars, a giant gymnasium complex, medical services, and even its own Internet provider. Officially, Rocinha's population hovers around 70,000 people, but in reality, that number may be more like 150,000 to 300,000, says Rosenberg
Once the motorcycle taxi deposited me near the top of Rocinha's main road, Rosenberg led me through a series of narrow, maze-like streets to the Rocinha Guesthouse, one of the Favela Experience properties. Dembore Silva, the 26-year-old host of the guesthouse, was out of town. But I spoke to him later on the phone. "My house is a flat apartment, one bedroom, one kitchen, one bathroom. I live on the third floor. It's not something like 'Wow, it's huge.' I have my TV, my computer, Internet, running water, electricity. It's something comfortable," he says.
Silva, a DJ and tour guide in Rocinha, has been renting out two rooms in his home for over a year now. When guests arrive, he stays at his girlfriend's mother's house nearby. "In the high tourist season, like during Carnaval, we had a couple people stay in my house for three to four nights. The money is nothing much, it's not every day, but it's something that helps," he says. During the World Cup, however, Silva's apartment has been reserved by guests for a solid month. He expects to make nearly $2,000.
I ask Silva if he's worried that services like The Favela Experience could displace natives—if, as in some cities, landlords will take homes off the market and offer them to tourists instead. He says he's not too concerned. "The people that I know, they're very honest about it, you know? It's like, the guy I rent the house from, he'll say 'Dembore, I need the house, but I'll wait until after the World Cup so you can find another place,'" Silva explains.
Rosenberg says that gentrification isn't yet a problem in Rocinha. "The reputation is too gritty to have gentrification appeal like in Vidigal," he says. "I try to avoid instances [with homestay rentals] where I know a local is being kicked out, but it happens."
But gentrification is happening subtly in favelas all over Rio. "Across the city, the poorest people are being squeezed out and forced to start new favelas, to live with relatives. There are a lot of layers to this," says Theresa Williamson, founder and executive director of Catalytic Communities, an organization providing media support to favela communities.
Vidigal, a neighboring favela with dazzling views of the city below (one of the great ironies of Rio's favelas is that they have the city's best views), is perhaps gentrifying more quickly than any of the hundreds of other favelas in Rio. When I was in the city, there was even a rumor that David Beckham was planning on buying a mansion in the neighborhood.
Rosenberg has rentals there. So does Sarah Junger, the founder of the year-old Albergue da Comunidade Vidigal, another homestay organization. Junger, a 26-year-old former bank manager who grew up in Rio, has similar goals to Rosenberg's. "The project has the aim of promoting a cultural exchange, promoting homestays in the resident's houses in such a way that residents benefit from the level of tourism in the favelas," she says.
Like Rocinha, Vidigal is a "pacified" favela. That means police pacification units known as the UPP have driven out drug traffickers, and police presence has increased. According to the Guardian, 38 police pacification units and 9,000 police have set up shop in favela communities since the UPP program launched six years ago.
Violence is still a problem in pacified favelas—and some residents have come to see pacification as more of an unwanted police occupation than anything else—but the UPP has decreased violence enough to make certain favelas more palatable to skittish tourists. In the case of Vidigal, pacification has also driven real estate speculation. It's not uncommon for developers to buy out residents, who end up leaving the community.
Junger, who advertises the 30 homes available through Albergue da Comunidade Vidigal on a number of websites (including Airbnb), says that her organization "aims to create a system where residents can benefit and make money from their house without having to sell their house." The hope is that hosts will speak at least basic English by the World Cup (it will be their own responsibility to study up on the language). For now, Junger sees Albergue da Comunidade Vidigal as a philanthropic project, but she hopes to eventually make enough money for it to be a self-sustaining business.
I never feared for my safety in Rochina, though I was just there for a day. "In the favela, if you mind your own business, you're going to be safer here than on the outside," Rosenberg tells me. He gestures towards the wealthier tourist areas, like Copacabana and Ipanema, in the distance below: "Violence here in the favelas is isolated. It feels like there's more rhyme and reason to it. People at the top have business minds. If they killed or robbed a foreigner, that would just attract police attention."
Like Rocinha, Vidigal is now relatively safe. But that's not true in every pacified favela. The Complexo do Alemão collection of favelas was taken over by the UPP in 2012, and features a gondola lift that makes it extra accessible to tourists.
But in early May, two police offers were killed in the favelas during shootouts between cops and locals. The deaths came just days after residents protested police shootings of two residents suspected to be involved in drug trafficking. "We are tired. The pressure pot is ready to burst," Cleber Araujo, a resident, told the Wall Street Journal. "There is only death in the favela."
Junger is also working with some properties in Complexo do Alemão, but has started directing tourists towards Vidigal because of the violence. "Our intention is to give the tourists a place where they can be calm and safe," she says.
Tourists have reason to be wary when visiting favelas, to be sure. But violence can plague "safer" areas too. Just days after I left my hotel in Copacabana, a violent riot in the nearby Pavao-Pavaozinho favela, complete with gunshots and arson, spilled out into the wealthy beachside neighborhood, which is filled with four- and five-star accommodations.
In the near future, it's unlikely that a couple of small homestay startups will negatively disrupt any of Rio's favelas. And chances are, most tourists will be safe. But the reality is that Rio is not a particularly safe city in general, and even tourists staying in $300 per night hotel rooms by the beach need to be just as wary as those staying in places like Rocinha and Vidigal
Williamson is hopeful for the future of the favela homestay movement. "It's a positive movement. It needs to happen in ways that are positive for the community," she says. "My feeling is that if people are staying in favelas, they should stay with residents."
Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).