Favela Santa Marta: Colourful houses, annoyed residents and Michael Jackson

The favela Santa Marta became famous because Michael Jackson’s music video to “They don’t care about us” was shot there. That’s why many guided tours through the favela are offered. Nevertheless, us being as adventurous as always, we wanted to explore it on our own.

We ordered an Uber to the favela and just before entering it an English speaking guide approached us. He said that it’s not advisable for tourists to visit a favela on their own because it wouldn’t be safe enough. When we told him that our accommodation was in a favela he was shocked. According to him the favela we were staying in was even more dangerous than Santa Marta. That’s when we thought this guy couldn’t be taken seriously and has probably never had contact to the people living there. He offered us a free walking tour but we still wanted to do it on our own. Not happy with our decision he gave us some advice on how to behave:

  • Don’t take photos of people
  • Don’t enter houses
  • Don’t photograph inside a house through the doors or windows
  • Don’t pay kids that try to show you the way
  • If people want to show you around, reject their offer

That was obvious to us anyways but apparently not to all the tourists.

There were beautiful wall paintings all around the place.
“The rich want peace to stay rich, we want peace to stay alive.”

Favelas are always located on a hill. To get up there we took a funicular which was for free. In the funicular a guy started talking to us in hardly understandable English. He seemed nice and offered to show us around in the favela. After rejecting nicely he offered it two more times. We just tried not to be too rude but said no thanks and walked away from him when we arrived at the top.

View from the top of the favela Santa Marta
Houses of Santa Marta

The contrasts in Rio are extreme. Modern buildings and a rather developed city centre are so close to the impoverished favelas.

Santa Marta is only separated from the developed part of the city by some trees.

After taking pictures from the view we noticed a little boy following us. He said something we didn’t understand and apparently wanted us to follow him. We told him that we wouldn’t need a guide but either he didn’t understand us or he just pretended not to. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get rid of him. Even when we walked a different way than him he followed us again. So we decided to just ignore him and purposely not go to the places he wanted to show us. When we got to a small shop the boy talked to a woman in Portuguese and she told us that we had to give him money if he was showing us around. We told her that we didn’t want to go with him so she explained it to him and he finally left.

The problem wasn’t giving the little boy some coins. But it’s a difficult situation because like this we’d be supporting that parents use their children to make money. And additionally the guide from before also told us not to pay them.

Then we continued exploring Santa Marta on our own. All four of us didn’t feel very comfortable in this favela. The people were looking at us. Not in a curious way because we were foreigners but more in a way that we weren’t welcome there.

I totally understand that the people living there don’t want the tourists walking around in their neighbourhood taking pictures of their homes. We tried to be as discrete as possible but since we had no idea which way we should go we just walked around anywhere.

In comparison to the favela Chapéu Mangueira, where our hostel was, Santa Marta was way dirtier, smellier and less developed. Also, in Chapéu Mangueira I’ve never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome.

There was garbage everywhere and it smelled so bad that sometimes we had to hold our breath.

We were trying to find our way down the hill but the numerous narrow alleys made it difficult to find the right one. At that point we just wanted to leave Santa Marta. Not because we didn’t feel safe. It was just uncomfortable and we didn’t want to keep disturbing the residents.

Through this tiny path we finally made it down the hill.

It was really interesting to see a less developed favela from the inside. However, we were glad when we could leave again. It would certainly have been a better decision to do the free walking tour. The guides know their way around and they also know where it’s okay to go and which areas to avoid.

We didn’t do the tour because we thought that Santa Marta was similar to the favela we stayed in. There you could walk around alone anywhere without problems. Probably the people of Santa Marta are just tired of the high traffic of tourists who come because of Michael Jackson’s music video.

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