Looking back on the six weeks we spent in Rio de Janeiro, we can easily say that our experience would not have been as rewarding as it was without our six-week stay in the Vidigal Favela.
A pacified favela just outside of Rio de Janeiro’s posh South Zone, the Vidigal Favela is an increasingly popular spot for backpackers and wealthy foreign investors alike. But what was it really like to rent a room and live in Vidigal for six weeks as a tourist? And how do the locals feel about the influx of foreigners now flocking to this once off-limits favela? It’s a complicated topic, but in today’s post, we’re diving into what it was like to stay in the Vidigal Favela in Rio de Janeiro. Whether you’re planning upcoming travels to Rio or you just want to learn more about pacification in Rio’s favelas, this is the post for you!
An Introduction to the Vidigal Favela in Rio de Janeiro
At the time of our visit, the Vidigal Favela had recently celebrated its official 75th anniversary. But most locals know the neighborhood to be much older. Many of the residents (and their parents) grew up here and feel a deep connection to their Vidigal roots—even if it hasn’t always been comfortable living.
What is a favela?
In Brazil, a favela roughly translates to the word “slum.” They typically lie on the hillsides in the city’s outskirts, historically undesirable land for urban developers. (Of course, we all know now that those million-dollar views are prime real estate!)
Rio de Janeiro’s first favelas date back to the late 19th century, around emancipation. The first favelas in Rio de Janeiro date back to the late 19th century. To better understand the complex origin and subsequent growth of Brazil’s favelas, we recommend this in-depth article from the Brown University Library.
As the favelas continued to grow in population, so did the shops, restaurants, and other small businesses. But access to public transportation, medical services, and good schools was limited. As favelas remained cut off from public services, drug traffickers and gangs were able to sweep in and take control of the areas—resulting in the favela’s reputation as a place poverty and violence.
So despite Vidigal’s spectacular views (in our opinion, they’re the best in Rio de Janeiro) and easy access to a 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 considered risky—especially the farther up the hill you went.
In 2011, the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) began taking over favelas, kicking out the drug lords, and establishing a pacifying presence in the favelas. All of Rio de Janeiro’s 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.
The Gentrification of the Vidigal Favela
Pacification typically brings gentrification—especially when you boast one of the most swoon-worthy views of Rio de Janeiro.
If you’re new to the term, gentrification is defined as:
The renewal and rebuilding process that accompanies the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.
Unfortunately, locals who have called Vidigal their home for their entire lives are now 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.
On the other hand, gentrification can bring new opportunities to the locals who are hustling and trying to provide the best quality of life they can to their families. This is especially true if the local residents can build tourism and small businesses—not just the outsiders who are looking to capitalize on an opportune moment.
Today, young people are increasingly proud to call their favelas home, and there is continued potential for community empowerment. Mindful and ethical tours to Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and local businesses remain a powerful way to support the community members.
Our Experience Staying in the Vidigal Favela of Rio de Janeiro
A friend who took an organized tour through Vidigal recommended we try looking for accommodation in 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 significantly limited our options). After a few emails, we secured a room with decent Wi-Fi for $500 a month. We decided to go for it.
Many taxis drivers still won’t go into Vidigal. This is partly due to the steep hills, but also the ongoing mentality that Vidigal is simply too dangerous to enter. 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 first reactions were wonder and shock. The expansive views were beyond gorgeous, with vibrant blue waves crashing against jagged rocks, surfers barely visible below. We passed a towering Sheraton, and then just a few moments later, we turned into Vidigal.
Reggaeton music was blaring from somewhere. Children were walking home from school along the side of the road. A sushi restaurant, an empanada stand, and an art shop welcomed visitors. Our first impression was that Vidigal was a fun, chaotic, and lively neighborhood—it was an impression that would only strengthen the longer we stayed in the favela.
A few days after our arrival, we were swept under the savvy guidance of two amazing young female expats 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 would not have experienced without their carefully curated tips and tricks.
Many of the highlights of our trip to Rio de Janeiro occurred inside Vidigal. We ate at local restaurants for a fraction of what we would have paid in Leblon or Ipanema while still supporting the local community. We enjoyed jogging straight from our guesthouse to the beach boardwalk and then drinking caipirinhas at sundown as a reward. We practiced yoga, learned Samba, and created a makeshift office on 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 next-door neighbors.
Overall, we felt extremely welcome in the Vidigal Favela by those who lived there. That’s likely because we made a concerted effort to get to know neighborhood residents, and at the very least, remain respectful of their community. The guesthouse we stayed at also offered free counseling, dance classes, and soccer coaching to Vidigal locals. Though we’re not sure how much of our money went towards these services, we were glad to know that we had chosen to stay somewhere that was continuing to give back to the local community.
Who knows what will happen to Vidigal in the future. We’ve heard concerns that the neighborhood will become the next “place to be,” and few original residents will afford the associated cost of living. Many of our Brazilian friends were hesitant to visit us inside the favela, signifying that the neighborhood’s dated reputation is still strong among many Cariocas.
Our obvious hope is that Vidigal will continue to grow and thrive in a way that empowers the long-time favela residents.
If you’re looking for a unique way to experience Rio de Janeiro, you can’t go wrong with a stay in the Vidigal Favela. At the very least, we recommend coming to the favela to see what it’s really like, dispel preconceived notions, and support the locals.
Travel Tips For A Visit To The Vidigal Favela
1. There are quite a few favela tours of Vidigal and nearby Rocinha, and these often include the hike up to Two Brothers Mountain. We can recommend the tour linked to above.
Important note: 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. We believe that favela tours are powerful ways to dispel myths of “otherness.” To remove the notion that all favelas and the people who live there are dangerous, and to instead discover these unique, vibrant communities and their local cultures.
2. Don’t miss the pizza at Esquina de Pizza. The family is lovely and the pizza delicious. We ate here at least once or twice a week, and we never regretted it.
3. Grab a drink at the chic Bar da Laje.
The views are exquisite, the drinks are strong, and the vibes are on point. Weekends typically bring with them live music.
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. Keep an eye out for Vidigal’s amazing street art! You’ll find colorful murals all around the community. Of particular note is a painting of a beautiful woman with locks of colorful hair.
6. Don’t miss the hike to Dois Irmaos! Make the trek at sunrise for next-level views.
When we were in Vidigal, we found it safe to walk up and down the hill. Alternatively, there are moto taxis and public vans available. We felt safer in Vidigal than we did in almost any other area of Rio, but always ask the Vidigal locals for updated information.
Have you visited the Vidigal Favela? What did you think about the experience?
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What an awesome place, with such friendly people! I am sure you worked hard at building relationships – but that is the best part of travel, no?
Wandering Educators recently posted…Heading out of Los Angeles
I LOVE this! Absolutely the best, by far, article I have ever read about Vidigal. I lived there for four months before moving to Copacabana, and I never felt unsafe inside, and totally agreed – the views were the best I’ve ever seen (never ever did I imagine I’d have an apartment with a clear view of the ocean!!!)
Great great great great information :)
(one other tip about the favela tours – go with a real local, someone who actually lives in that favela community, its more recommended. It is more respectful and yes one of the biggest complaints of people who live in the favelas regarding the tours is that it dehumanizes them, their children, and their community.. it is not a zoo. Going with a local helps have a better experience for all involved)
Steph recently posted…Try One New Thing Every Week : When Life Gives You Lemons
Fascinating. I loved Brazil and considered doing something like this during my time there, but didn’t make time. Glad to read an in-depth discussion of it!
Lillie recently posted…This Ireland Castle Hotel Made Us Smile and Laugh
Rio is a best places to visit in summer , thanks for sharing .
Aggouni recently posted…The most beautiful images National Geographic of April 2015
Hi! Great article!
Just a clarification, pacification doesn’t mean that drug lords are not in the favela. They are still there, but they have reached an agreement with the police ;)
Back in 2013 when I visited Rio I stayed in Vidigal and I loved my time there. I really feel like it was the heartbeat of the city – so much to do, very lively, and the people were amazing. It felt like I fit right in and people didn’t even blink when I walked by. When I make it back to Rio, I will probably stay there again <3
Chanel | Cultural Xplorer recently posted…Where to Stay in Chiang Mai: 137 Pillars House