10 days in a favela in Rio de Janerio – How dangerous is it?

A favela is defined as a slum-area in Brazil which is located on a hill. Yes, we basically stayed in a slum for 10 days but we felt surprisingly safe there – at least until a certain incident happened.

Favela Chapéu Mangueira: View from our kitchen

When we got off the bus from the airport in Rio we realised that we’d have to walk up a steep hill to get to our hostel. We had a free checked luggage included in our flight so we all brought a suitcase along, not thinking about having to carry it up the hill and the stairs while it had 30°C outside. Exhausted and sweaty we arrived at the top. Since the paths were pretty confusing and we didn’t have internet we asked someone for the directions. A very nice elderly man helped and accompanied us to the hostel.

The way up to our hostel where we had to carry our luggage

The first impression of the favela was really good. Of course the houses were rather basic and it wasn’t as clean as a European city but other than that it was okay. We were definitely the focus of attention of the people though. Four white girls walking around aimlessly with their suitcases is probably not something they were used to seeing. The hostel itself wasn’t bad at all and it had a rooftop terrace with a great view.

Hammocks on the rooftop terrace of the “Green Culture Eco Hostel”

The owners of the hostel were a super nice couple. The woman was from Sweden and he was Brazilian. They told us about how safe the favela was and that it’s just a small neighbourhood with families where everyone knew each other.

From the beginning on I loved staying in the favela. It was so quiet and there were no tourist crowds around. No overpriced touristic restaurants and shops, just locals and their small bars. One day we got a delicious set menu for lunch at a local restaurant for approximately 3€ including a drink.

Sunset view from the terrace of our hostel

We’ve never felt uncomfortable walking through the favela. Sometimes we got home when it was already dark outside and not even then we felt unsafe. Usually there were some kids outside playing football and a group of teenagers drinking together.

View from the terrace

Then one night we were woken up at 04:00 am by the sound of shots. The gunfire went on for about 5 minutes and we were all wide awake and shocked. Dogs were barking out loud and probably the whole favela was awake by then. We had no idea where it came from and what it was.

The next morning we asked the owners if they knew what had happened the previous night and they said that it must have been a police weapon due to the sound. When we left the hostel there was a crowd of people in the street – some angry, some screaming, some sad. People were staring at us and we felt completely out of place. When we turned around we saw it:

There were two dead bodies on the floor.

Avoiding any eye contact we just walked away, trying to get out of there as fast as possible.

Apparently there were two drug gangs fighting each other and trying to get the power. The police in Rio wants to pacify the favelas by “removing” the people that cause problems. So that night they shot two of them. That couldn’t be more contradictory. The police want to establish a peaceful environment by killing people. That also raises the question which crime is worse: Dealing with drugs or murder? Since the two men were killed by the police it isn’t even considered a crime in Rio.

From that day on there were permanently policemen at the entrance of the favela. After that incident my friends felt a bit uncomfortable walking home in the dark so we tried to be back at the hostel before sunset. I totally understand that but as a tourist I still wouldn’t consider the favela dangerous. The police would never shoot a tourist. First, they don’t care about tourists and second, that would cause a lot of bad media attention. I have to say that I didn’t feel any less safe after the shooting. The gangs have conflicts with each other but everyone else has nothing to do with it. All the families living in the favela were as shocked as we were.

To sum it up, living in a favela is a cool experience if you want to discover the authentic part of Rio. Of course there are some drawbacks regarding comfort and some safety issues to consider but everyone we met in the favela has been really kind. I didn’t feel unsafe at any point and would always go there again. For European-looking tourists the favela Chapéu Mangueira is not dangerous. There’s no doubt that crime and drugs are part of the life there but tourists are not the target of any crime. Most of the shootings I have heard of were actually when policemen shot someone. And as European girls those policemen obviously wouldn’t do anything to us.

Sometimes little monkeys came to the windows and ate from our hands.

Regarding theft favelas are even safer than the touristic areas. Thefts always happen where most of the tourists are and not in residential areas of locals.

So if you’re open to see more than only the touristic area I recommend staying in the favela Chapéu Mangueira or Babilonia. However, every favela is different and there are others where I wouldn’t stay. It’s important to inform yourself in advance about the favela and its current safety situation.

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