Visitors to Rio have historically been faced with a dilemma; ignore the draw of the favelas, home to a third of its residents, or potentially risk taking part in a kind of poverty tourism by joining one of the organised tours. Curiosity is natural, but taking a jeep to gawp at people in their homes brings nothing to the locals' lives and has thankfully become almost black-balled among more conscientious travellers.
Even for those prepared to take the plunge, Complexo do Alemão, with a reputation that precedes it and farflung location in Zona Norte, was unlikely to get a visit. A ‘pacification’ programme of police entering previously no-go areas like this is not without its controversies, but increased safety has paved the way for a cable car network over this vast complex of different favelas bringing benefits to residents and visitors alike.
Happily there is no need to pay a fortune for the privilege of arguably some of the city’s best views and a fascinating insight into the other side of Rio. Catch a train from Central railway station to Bonsucceso, and for the integrated price of R$2.90 you can ride the cable car to the end of the line. From Bonsucesso the ticket is only one real. Yes, R$1.
Simply take an escalator from the station into the shiny new teleferico (cable car) station, and jump into the waiting cars, which each have a maximum capacity of eight. You’ll be instantly whisked into the sky at heights of up to 3.5 kilometres. The sweeping views across Guanabara Bay take in Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf, and even across the bay to the mountains of Teresopolis including the distinctive Dedo de Deus mountain formation on a clear day. Below you, children swim in paddling pools on the laje (roof terrace), waves of funk and hip hop bellow out, horses graze on patches of land, while motorbikes wind through the labyrinthine streets, and the city within the city opens up before your eyes. Look out for Igreja da Penha, magnificent atop its hill, and the football stadium Engenhão across to your left.
At the final destination Palmeiras, just 16 minutes after the start of the journey, getting off is necessary to buy your return, but it’s also worthwhile as this stop in the heart of Alemão offers a fantastic view with a snack bar complete with impressive graffiti mural. Here you can buy typical snacks from the north east of Brazil, reflecting the significant number of residents who have migrated to these communities from the North East.
The day we visited, troops from São Paulo who currently occupy the favela were standing in line with their machine guns at the final stop. It was a reminder that despite the breathtaking views, this is no Christ the Redeemer picture postcard. The vast majority of those jumping on one of the 152 cable cars in service are residents of a community very much in transition, but as a slice of Rio life as it is really lived by millions, the teleferico cannot be beaten.
Estação Bonsuccesso Teleférico
Mon-Fri 6am-9pm; Sat 8am-8pm; Sun & holidays 9am-3pm