RIO DE JANEIRO —With a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean and hundreds of colorful brick homes that blanket the hillside favela, it’s not hard to understand why guests are taken with the Rocinha Guesthouse.
It’s either a 30-minute breathless walk or a $1.50 motorcycle taxi ride to get here from the ground-level neighborhood São Conrado, where the English national team stayed in the Royal Tulip hotel. Steep steps lead to the home’s third floor, where Irish visitor James Cherry, 34, sleeps in a narrow room with three bunk beds. The home is owned by a mother-son pair who have rehabbed the structure to receive guests.
With hotels in Brazil’s World Cup cities charging prices so high — a beachside hotel room in Rio costs $600-$1,000 — that the consumer protection arm of the federal government has threatened to fine them for abusive pricing, many tourists sought instead to stay in favelas. There, prices are lower and the busy streets of the dense communities give guests a more human experience than luxury hotels. Visitors stay in favelas despite an increasing threat of violence.
There’s no way to count how many tourists are staying in favelas, since they are spread out amongst hostels, Airbnb bookings and homestays, but they number at least several hundred, based on reports from several popular hostels and homestays. Prices range from as low as $20 a night to use a sleeping bag on the floor to $200 for a private room in a hostel near the Copacabana beach.
“Once I found out I could live in a favela, I decided that’s the kind of place I want to go,” Cherry said.
Favelas like Rocinha generally began as squatter communities on precariously steep hillsides, back when poor workers in Rio had few options for affordable housing near the city’s epicenters for jobs and construction work as the city grew over the past century.
Even after living in three other countries, Cherry said his time here had been in a category of its own, given just how crowded and alive the community is. “Rocinha has been the most intense experience of my life.”
The lion’s share of lodgings offered to tourists are in “pacified” favelas, meaning that they are a part of a community policing program that began in 2008. Permanent police patrols are stationed in areas once controlled by drug traffickers. The pacification program is intended to reduce violence levels by avoiding the shootouts that were common when police staged occasional incursions into communities to fight drug traffickers.
But the pacification program in Rio, once a hallmark of the state government’s public security policy and the subject of numerous upbeat media reports, is in a deeply troubled time. Three and a half years of the program passed without a pacification officer being killed on duty, and reports of shootouts were a rarity. But in recent months, gunfire between cops and criminals in such favelas has increased dramatically.
At least four police officers have been killed in pacified favelas this year, in addition to more than 30 pacification officers who survived on-duty shootings.
In the favela Complexo Alemão, known to tourists for its cable car that takes visitors from hilltop to hilltop, a police officer was fatally shot on Sunday, as were two young residents.
Still, reports of violence involving foreign tourists are all but non-existent. In a rare such case, a German tourist was shot in the abdomen in Rocinha last May.
Cherry, the Irish visitor, estimated that he had heard 10 shootouts in his six weeks in Rocinha. He said locals will wave him inside bars when they begin to hear gunfire. “The people who live here are very afraid of the police,” he said.
Still, tourists are booking lodgings in Rocinha and neighboring favela Vidigal abound. Elliot Rosenberg, the founder of Favela Experience, which maintains a network of favela homestays, said the bookings website has about 150 guests during the World Cup.
Rosenberg said visitors are often in their late 20s and that a large number of guests come from the U.S. and Western Europe, though many also are from Latin America and even as far away as Japan, Singapore and Vietnam. He said they have had families and guests who split their time between a favela homestay and a regular hotel to have a more varied experience in Rio.
Options in Favela Experience are far more economical than their ground-level counterparts: a private room for a couple can be $60 a night, whereas an “ultra-budget” traveler, in Rosenberg’s words, can bring their own sleeping bag and have a place to stay for as low as $20 a night during the World Cup.
The Pura Vida hostel at the base of the Pavão Pavãozinho favela is charging $90 per person for a night in a 12-bed room, and they said they are sold out for game days in Rio.
But Aaron Kleinmann and his travel partner would not be among the guests. They arrived at the hostel this week and quickly turned around, saying it hadn’t been advertised as being in a favela. The American said it was an unnecessary risk to stay in the community.
“We’ll jump off cliffs, but we won’t do this. Plus it feels disrespectful,” Kleinmann said. He recalled seeing a “favela funk party” advertised on his trip already — one that wasn’t even in a favela.
“It’s urban sociology 101,” he said of the experience.
Many tourists choosing to stay in favelas during World Cup