This post was last updated on January 23rd, 2017
Looking back on the six weeks we spent in Rio de Janeiro, we can easily claim that our experience would not have been the same had it not been for the neighborhood of Vidigal.
A pacified favela just outside of Rio’s posh South Zone, Vidigal is become an increasingly popular spot for backpackers and wealthy foreign investors alike. But what was it really like to rent a room in Vidigal for six weeks? And how do the locals feel about the influx of foreigners now flocking to this once off-limits favela? It’s a difficult topic, but in today’s post we’re diving into the details of our experience in Vidigal. Whether you’re traveling to Rio or you just want to learn more about pacification in Rio’s favelas, then this is the post for you!
The Vidigal Favela
The Vidigal favela recently celebrated its official 75th anniversary, but most locals know the neighborhood to be much older than that. Many of the residents grew up here, and feel a deep connection with their Vidigal roots, even if it hasn’t always been easy to live here.
Despite the favela’s spectacular views (in our opinion the best in all of Rio de Janeiro) and nearby beach, before 2011 you likely wouldn’t have entered Vidigal unless you had an insider to escort you. Even then, it would have been risky. Vidigal, like most Brazilian favelas, faced problems from drug trafficking and gangs. Violence was prevalent, especially the farther you went up the hill. Access to public transportation, medical services and good schools was (and still is) limited.
In 2011, the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) began taking over favelas, kicking out the drug lords and establishing a presence in the favelas that was meant to usher in peace and security. All of the favelas are different, but in many ways, the pacification in Vidigal was successful. There is still a strong police presence, though many community residents will say that the police are less respectful than the drug lords who once ruled the neighborhood. Overall we felt extremely safe walking through the favela at all hours of the day. I’m not sure if this was due to the police presence or the sense of welcoming community we experienced from the locals. Likely it was a little bit of both.
With pacification typically comes gentrification—especially when you’re blessed with the most phenomenal views of one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.
If you’re new to the term, gentrification is defined as:
the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.
Unfortunately, locals who have called Vidigal home their entire lives are now being forced to leave because they can no longer afford to live there. Rumors of David Beckham buying property, new boutique hotels, and other foreign investors are driving up costs in an already expensive city.
We were first recommended to stay in Vidigal from a friend who took an organized tour through the favela. She spoke highly of the people and the community, and further research promised Vidigal’s safety and uniqueness. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we needed an affordable place to stay in Rio following the World Cup (which limited our options significantly). After a few e-mails we secured a room for $500 a month and decent Wi-Fi. We decided to go for it.
Many taxis drivers still won’t go into Vidigal. This is in part due to the steep hills, but it is also due to the remaining mentality that the favela is too dangerous to visit. Luckily, we found a friendly taxi driver that promised to take us directly from the airport to our guesthouse doors—not an easy task considering we didn’t have a real address for the location. As the driver began making his way past Ipanema and up the winding hill, our mouths literally dropped open. The views were beyond gorgeous, with rich blue waves crashing against jagged rocks, surfers just barely visible below. We passed a towering Sheraton, and then just a few moments later turned into Vidigal.
Reggaeton music was blaring from somewhere. Children were walking home from school along the side of the road. We passed a Sushi restaurant, an empanada stand and an art shop. Our first impression was that Vidigal was a fun, noisy and lively neighborhood—an impression that would only strengthen the longer we stayed there.
A few days after our arrival, we were swept under the savvy guidance of two amazing women who had bought a house in Vidigal and now call the favela home. They showed us where to go, introduced us to locals, and revealed a side of Rio that we certainly could not have experienced in only six weeks without their insider help.
Many of the highlights of our stay occurred inside Vidigal or on a quick walk outside of the neighborhood. We ate at local restaurants for a fraction of the price we would have paid in Leblon or Ipanema. We enjoyed running along the beach and drinking caipirinhas at sundown. We practiced yoga, learned samba and created a makeshift office all from the comfort of our roof. We trekked our favorite hike in Rio. Dan played weekly soccer with neighborhood kids, we regularly saw stars from the film City of God, and we devoured far too much pizza from our favorite neighbors next door.
Overall, we felt extremely welcome in the Vidigal community by those who lived there. BUT we also made a concerted effort to get to know neighborhood residents, and at the very least remain respectful of their long-time home. The guesthouse we stayed at also offered free counseling, dance classes and soccer coaching to locals. Though we’re not sure how much of our money went towards these services, we were glad to know that we had at least chosen to stay somewhere that was building up the local community in its own way.
Who knows what will happen to Vidigal. We’ve heard worries that it will become the next super-chic place to be, with few original residents able to remain. We’ve also heard the opposite, that after the Olympics, the UPP will leave and drug lords will find their way back. Many of our Brazilian friends were hesitant to visit us inside the favela, a sign that the neighborhood’s reputation is not yet all flowers and rainbows.
Of course we hope that Vidigal will continue to find balance. That the local business owners will keep thriving, and that tourists will remain welcomed into a safe and colorful neighborhood of residents who always have—and always will—call the area home.
If you’re looking for a unique way to experience Rio de Janeiro, then you can’t go wrong with a stay in Vidigal. At the very least, we recommend coming to the favela to see what it’s really like.
Extra Travel Tips For A Visit To Vidigal
1. There are quite a few favela tours of Vidigal and nearby Rocinha, and these often include the hike up to Two Brothers Mountain. Remember that you are not touring a zoo, but visiting people’s homes and neighborhoods. We saw quite a few tourists snapping personal photos without first asking—a big reason why locals don’t approve of the favela tours in the first place.
2. Don’t miss the pizza at Esquina de Pizza. The family is lovely and the pizza delicious.
3. Be prepared for noise. There is always some sort of construction, music, or party going on, often until late in the night.
4. If you want to get the best insider information on Rio and Vidigal, learn about the new English school in the favela, discover volunteer opportunities, or just hang out with some of the coolest gals around, then we recommend staying at Casa Laranjinha.
5. When we were in Vidigal, we found it safe to walk up and down the hill. Alternatively there are mototaxis and public vans available. We felt safer in Vidigal than we did in almost any other area of Rio, but that could always change, so ask the locals for advice first.
Have you visited Vidigal or any other favelas? What did you think about the experience?