Time Out Rio de Janeiro

Unlocking the favelas

As the peace-keeping forces establish ever-stronger roots in the communities they serve, Time Out finds that more and more of the city is once again becoming accessible to the adventurous souls keen to explore what the hillsides have beyond the stunning views and precarious construction.

Favela growth in Rio since the '50s has been rampant, largely unchecked, and in some cases extremely dangerous, not only for those living in often precariously-built homes but those whose lives are affected by the drug gangs that have been controlling daily life on many of the hillsides. The introduction in 2008 of the UPP peacekeeping forces, seizing control of one favela at a time with varying degrees of resistance, have, by and large, made the residents' lives safer and brought with them new opportunities and hope. 

Little over a year ago the very idea of Dona Marta favela - sandwiched between Laranjeiras and Botafogo - being uttered in the same breath as Corcovado or Sugarloaf as recommended places to visit would have been met with ridicule by anyone with even a passing knowledge of the area. Blighted with one of the most dangerous streets in Zona Sul, its walls still riddled with bullet holes, the seventy year-old hillside dwellings in the lee of Cristo Redentor were considered a scar on the landscape - and the drug trade therein a serious threat to society - by most Zona Sul inhabitants. 

Today it is slowly turning into a bona-fide tourist spot. Forget favela jeep tours or gawping at the residents' remarkable piled-up housing, Dona Marta now possesses an infrastructure to welcome genuinely inquisitive visitors, a revolutionary painting design courtesy of two pioneering Dutch artists (pictured), a stunning view of the city and even a monument to Michael Jackson (he shot a video here back in 1995). You can't say that about Ipanema.

The bonde to the top is more of an angled pedestrian elevator, the first of which takes you trundling gently up two stations to the hill's waistline and then a quick switch and stop one is the Jackson statue and two reaches the very top where the UPP peacekeeping HQ is located. From here, with Cristo looking over your shoulder, Botafogo sprawls ahead as the Lagoa lies serenely to the right, the Dois Irmãos mountain lurking beyond in the distance.

The guides you can meet at the foot of the hill are fully trained and will immediately ease any residual fears of clambering through the thin becos or alleyways that too many episodes of City of Men might have fostered.

Roosters pick through litter and kids merrily fly their kites overhead and chat freely to anyone who says hello. The walk down to Praça Cantão is around 15 minutes, where the beco opens out into a splash of colour across the buildings as painted by members of the community under the instruction of the artists Dre Urhann and Jeroen Koolhaas.

Across Botafogo and the other side of its sprawling cemetery sits Morro da Babilônia, itself given a UPP presence in 2008 after the drug gangs were finally expelled. Since then the nature trails through the forest have been signposted courtesy of Coopbabilônia, a team who's primary objective is reforestation but who also help run sustainable tourism.

The view towards Flamengo is beautiful, though perhaps not quite up to that from Sugarloaf itself, but the views of that other famous landmark are something to be savoured. Through the foliage and with Niteroi sprawling in the distance, there is something even more impressive about the sight of Pão d`Açucar from this angle. 

As little as five years ago the top of the hill was almost devoid of vegetation, but the ongoing plan to redevelop the natural habitat has proved extremely successful. A concrete trail from one end to the other provided the means to get supplies to the fort that once helped guard the entry into the bay. In the spirit of the ecotourism they champion the cooperatives headquarters, also a functioning school, has converted its roof into a water filter using sand, soil and turf, to be used to clean the surroundings. 

Further north, following the successful peacekeeping operation at the end of 2010, even the notorious urban sprawl known as Complexo Alemão is now being considered as a potential stop on the tourist trail, the glorious Penha Church standing proudly in the middle as a monument to the potential that the area has to offer.

The unveiling of the new gondola project in July 2011 echoed that built in Medellin, Colombia, where the hillsides became linked to the valley below with an impressively efficient and affordable cable car that has revolutionised the lives of those living at the highest points. A similar effect has already been witnessed in Ipanema where the elevator linking Cantagalo to the street just blocks from the famous beach was designed to help integrate society's haves and have nots. 

Rio's first gondola does not go up a hillside, but instead traverses Complexo Alemão, providing around 30,000 passengers a day with a traffic and stress-free three kilometre journey from Bonsucesso to Fazendinha. Anyone who saw the news footage just six months prior to the opening, with bandits being gunned down by snipers as the area was 'cleansed' of the gang will tell you of the huge change that has been undertaken here. Undoubtedly a boon for locals, it will of course intrigue people from across the city too, with the chance to get a unique take on Zona Norte's geography.

Words by Time Out Rio de Janeiro editors

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