The breathtaking and the chaotic – This is Rocinha

Graham Vincent

From this vantage point, I could be forgiven for thinking I was in some expensive penthouse in some luxury hotel somewhere.

But this is Rio de Janeiro, where property preconceptions are turned on their heads. Here, it is the poor residents who have the views that would cost millions of dollars in the United States or Europe.

Rocinha is the biggest slum in Latin America; a dense agglomeration of shacks and chaotic housing constructions populated by 75,000 people (according to the 2010 census). The view from the summit of the steep hill encompassing Rocinha is breathtaking – the high rises and beach of Sao Conrado, the majestic Pedra Bonita in the distance, and the vast expanse of the favela. This view alone would add two zeros to the price anywhere else.

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It is here that the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in Brazil are most exemplified.

Once presided over with a lead fist and the lingering fear perpetuated by the criminal gang Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) – the second most powerful gang in Rio after Comando Vermelho – Rocinha is now safe, part of the state government’s pacification drive ahead of this summer’s FIFA World Cup. Tourists are as ubiquitous here now as the tangas are on the beaches of the Zona Sul.

Owing to the views it offers and its new found safety, property prices in Rocinha, and indeed other pacified favelas in Rio, have soared in recent months (rent has increased 30% in Rocinha since pacification). Experts warn of an impending housing bubble in the city.

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Visiting a favela such as Rocinha is now as prominent a fixture on many a tourist’s itinerary as Copacabana beach and Cristo Redentor. Despite the pacification drive, entering a Rio favela for the first time is a daunting, intimidating experience.

Rocinha proffers a barrage of sights, sounds and smells not seen on the usual Brazilian gringo trails.

Baile funk music blasts from speakers seemingly positioned in every alleyway; street vendors cook up their wares; children fly kites and run up and down the stairways and the mountain of alleyways sometimes no more than a metre wide, raw sewage floating alongside; shacks built on top of one another rise precipitously and claustrophobically on either side. This is Rocinha.

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Tours of the favela are rewarding for all parties – tourists get to see the ‘real’ Brazil, while part of the proceeds of the tours goes in to community projects, such as extra-curricular activities for the children of the favela.

Enterprise proliferates here, where employment is often informal. There seems to be entrepreneurs of sorts on every street corner. This encapsulates modern Brazil.

Inhabitants of Rocinha and other favelas are aware that the views that their homes possess is both a blessing and a curse. But this is the Cidade Maravilhosa.

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