When you think of Brazil, what are the first images that come to mind- beaches, nightlife, the most beautiful people to ever walk this planet? Brazil is a large and diverse country with so much to offer. You can go from enjoying natural wonders like the Amazon and Iguassu Falls to immersing yourself in the bustling metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. Along with its never-ending beauty, Brazil also has a dark side. High crime rates and social issues unfortunately mask the phenomena’s that this amazing country has to offer.

I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to travel to Rio de Janeiro in 2012. I jumped at the chance and was super excited! I’ve always felt drawn to Brazil and it’s been on my travel bucket list for ages. When I told everyone around me I was going, most of the responses were positive while some, quite negative. Why would you want to go there? Isn’t it super dangerous? You know you’ll get kidnapped right? Aren’t you afraid of getting killed? Keep in mind that most of the people telling me this, have barely travelled further than Laval or usually end up going to the exact same destinations each year. What didn’t help matters was that the film Fast was constantly playing on TV right before my Brazilian sojourn. Though the movie kicks ass- it did not portray Rio (especially the favelas) in a good light.

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Now perhaps I was a little nervous, but not because of all the media attention and stories on Brazil. I had the normal PTS (pre-travel-stress): What do I pack? How much money should I bring? Please dear lord let them not lose my luggage! Whenever you’re travelling to a new country there’s always a lot of anticipation. What’s it going to be like? Will it be overrated or exceed my expectations. I enjoy researching the destination and looking up the top sites to see and do. I also asked friends who’ve been to the destination for their advice and recommendations.

My main Rio mentor was able to provide me with great tips and shared her travel experience (all positive). One particular suggestion caught my interest; it was a tour company called Marcelo Armstrong that offered tours of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Now I knew I was going to see the typical Rio sites: Cristovado, Sugarloaf, Copacabana- but was a favela tour on my must see list? I knew I had to get to the bottom of this! There was no way I was going to miss out on something good. After all, how many people get the chance to go to Brazil?

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I then did what any other broad with wanderlust flowing through her veins would do- did some hard-core research on favela tours. And I have to say, I don’t think I was every so conflicted about taking an excursion in my life! Reviews were from one extreme to another. Many were positive; travellers’ saying it was well worth it and one of the best experiences of their lives while others were simply horrified. Negative comments were about the tour companies and how they exploited the residents of the favelas and made them appear like sideshow freaks at a circus as well as, the locals’ dislike of tourists. Never in my life would I condone or support this type of tourism.

After a few days of contemplating, I decided to take a risk and add a favela tour to my travel itinerary. What convinced me you ask? Easy, I found out that one of Rio’s favelas is the setting of Michael Jackson’s music video for “They Don’t Care About Us”. Rumour has it that there’s a status of the King of Pop in one of these favelas and if I were to get the chance to see it, I would be a very happy broad! The risk would be worth it! We figured that the wise choice would be to book the Marcelo Armstrong Favela tour that my friend did. Always better to take an excursion that you know someone else took before you.

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So the day finally arrived- I was going to finally see the favelas! After a safe landing and a couple of great days in Rio (stay tuned for another piece on that!), it was time to go off the beaten path. I was both excited and anxious. It didn’t help that I met couple the night before who just so happen to have a terrible experience with a favela tour! It was like one of the negative online reviews came to life before my eyes. We were kindly greeted and picked up by our tour guide and educated on the region we were about to visit. The favelas are the cities’ slums and poorest area where many of Rio’s crime and violence occur. There are over 950 of them in Rio and favela residents are often looked down upon by society. Here is where you find run down houses one on top of another and some of the scantiest living conditions.

Our first stop was Rocinha, one of the largest favelas. It looked just like the photos, very colourful houses glued next to each other on very hilly terrain. There were artists on the streets paintings beautiful landscapes and scenic portraits. I purchased one of these portraits from a nice local painter who seemed very happy (and not pushy at all) with my interest in his work. I walked up the hills and watched the locals as well as got some of the most breathtaking views of Rio Janeiro. There were children happily playing soccer in the streets, smiling restaurateurs and merchants going about their daily business. They didn’t seem to be bothered or threatened by our presence, it was in fact the opposite. So far so good!

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Our second stop was another favela called Villa Canoas, smaller than Rocinha but overall the same vibe. By this time, whatever fear or doubts I had were out the window. I walked through shops and markets, visited a school and just absorbed all the action going on around me. I shook hands with locals, kicked a soccer ball with children, and immersed myself in wanting to know more about the area. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the favela with the infamous Michael Jackson statue, but I did get to enjoy a fresh and homemade Caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail) for only 1$ USD! Perfect ending to a fantastic tour!

I left Rio happy and satisfied that I took the favela tour and couldn’t imagine the trip if I hadn’t. I didn’t let media or the movies scare me and took a chance that turned out to be a great and memorable experience. Isn’t that what life is about- trying new experiences and taking chances? We shouldn’t be afraid to think outside the box. Yes there’s danger in many countries but does that really stop anyone from going? Danger is all around us and bad things can happen anywhere, even in your own backyard.

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When choosing a favela tour, do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions to the company or fellow travellers. Do not visit a favela alone, go in groups and with a reputable tour company.I would highly recommend Marcelo Armstrong, they were so knowledgeable, kind and really made us feel at ease and safe. .I would strongly recommend booking directly with the company or through your hotel. Be careful of any middlemen, they may just screw you over. Unfortunately companies who try to exploit tourists as well as favela locals do exist, these things are very common in popular tourist destination. Be smart, trust your instincts, and don’t make yourself a human target. Be respectful and you and the country you’re visiting will get a long just fine. You won’t regret this once in lifetime experience!

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