Drugs, dirt and danger: A glimpse at Rio’s shadier half

Entrance to the favela of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro

The young boy straddling his moped takes a drag from a hand-made cigarette and eyes us intently, his baseball cap pulled low and a gold chain glinting around his neck in the 30 degree Rio sun…

Far from being a casual bystander in the middle of the bustling neighbourhood on the outskirts of the glamorous city, our surveyor is a ‘drug watcher’ employed by the gang who run the self-sufficient favela of Rocinha, to keep tabs on those entering and leaving.

Homes in Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro

The most densely populated favela in Latin America, Rocinha has 300,000 inhabitants, living in homes stacked on top of each other in the shadow of the famous Dois Irmãos mountains, which wealthy revellers regularly gaze upon from Ipanema beach as the sun sets.

A bus journey and white-knuckle moped ride up steep winding roads, narrowly missing oncoming buses and taxis, has brought us from the comfort of our hostel in Copacabana to scratch the surface of the city’s darker side.

The favela continues to be run by drug lords, who oversee the production of 22 tonnes of cocaine every month, feeding into other smaller favelas in the city.

While military police now have a presence in some of the communities, which is set to be increased in the run-up to the Olympic Games, many locals say they believe it is just for show and does not affect the day-to-day running of the favelas.

Rocinha’s inhabitants enjoy the benefits of any community – schools, restaurants, post offices -but the houses are so tightly packed together on the steep mountainside that the foundations regularly crumble.

Houses crumble due to poor infrastructure, Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro

Masses of tangled wires linking up the community with free electricity and cable television hang low in the cramped alleyways.

A chicken pecks intermittently among piles of rubbish nearby as sewage water runs below. Homes cost around R$500 (£200) per month to rent at the top, decreasing further down due to the increased likelihood of sewage flooding during heavy rain.

We watch a group of kids skilfully playing samba beats on bashed-in tin and large upside down plastic tubs.

Favela boys play drums, Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro

Children are encouraged to go to school through initiatives like free art lessons and sport activities, though many still become parents as young as aged 12, with one famous local even being a grandfather-of-two at my own ripe old age of 28.

Young boys squeeze past us playfully squirting water in the air and giggling before we make our way down the steps to the favela’s boundary, the eyes of another drug watcher closely upon us.

Stepping out into the bright sunlight and hustle and bustle of the city I breathe a sigh of relief at returning to the real world. But maybe the real world is what we’ve just left behind?

Favela girls, Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro

About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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2 Responses to Drugs, dirt and danger: A glimpse at Rio’s shadier half

  1. Les and Ian says:

    Glad you survived the dangerous places that we told you not to go to -you don’t say whether you tried the “stuff” as it was called 40 years ago in Miami when we were offered it! Great report Sophie -you should be a journalist !

  2. Steve says:

    Hi Phil & Soph,

    Apologies Phil for the slow response, I felt suitably chastised (big word for me probably spelt wrong) after your email. We’ve been busy packing all weekend and this blogging is new to me, can you not put it into a spreadsheet to make life easier for me?
    Gem and I are really enjoying Sophie’s updates…yours are ok but maybe ask her to read through them first. Seriously, it’s great to hear how you are getting on, sounds like you have had an amazing first few days, keep the updates coming. Anyway, just got back from up north after signing for our new place and typing all these words is making my nose bleed.

    Send our love to the toothbrushes.

    Love to you both,

    The Number Crunchers (Steve and Gem)

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