RIO DE JANEIRO part 1 – favelas and carnival

We get off Uber. It’s midnight, no one in the street, a mountain of rubbish ahead of us and over 200 stairs leading to the favela. We only know that our Couchsurfing host – Chico lives in the fourth house on the left, there are no addresses here. At the top of the stairs there is a homeless dog, and a black man emerges from the darkness, and by no means it is Chico…

First things first 🙂

Rio de Janeiro

Finding the host turned out to be quite easy. We were expecting huge problems in finding accommodation during the carnival, but we had it settled in mid-December. Our host, Chico, didn’t have any comments on Couchsurfing, but everybody starts somewhen. The contact was trouble-free, even though we spoke Portuguese. The first astonishment aroused lack of address – well, maybe there are such customs in Rio. Besides, Chico assured us that the place is safe and we have nothing to fear. Okay, we’re going to there. We get out of the car and it turns out that we will live on the favela… We are a bit afraid, but completely wrong in the light of later events.


It turns out that the favelas are not as scary as we think. What is the favela really like? Well, it is a settlement of not very wealthy people, didn’t wanting to live on the outskirts of the city, who managed the hills lying in a reasonably good location. Because the city authorities weren’t interested in land so difficult to build on, people were building “in the wild.” No one has any home, land or even address documents. We lived in “the fourth house on the left walking up the steps from Rua Alice”. Initially, the favelas weren’t supplied with media, but the city closed its eyes and even helped, when people started building illegal connections. It was one of the elements of the “civilizing” program at the end of the last century. Once the drug dealers were really in charge of favelas, but the authorities carried out a series of pacifications, in other words, operations aimed at eliminating criminals living in favelas. Yes, eliminating. During such actions, many gangsters were killed, who were armed as well as the police and fiercely defended their positions. Still some favelas are considered less secure – for example, Rocinha, in which on the day of our departure a real war broke out between the so-called Policia Militar and drug dealers. A foreign tourist died there, and the traffic on the highway bordering on the favela froze, because the drivers quickly hid behind the concrete shields. However, in most favelas it is safe, and the residents more often use the term comunidade – community. In general, the principle prevails that nothing will happen to anyone inside the favela. In particular, residents and their guests. If it comes to assaults and robberies, they are comitted outside the favela – criminals descend down to richer districts and break into homes or attack people. However, we preferred to be cautious and we didn’t venture deeper into ours, let alone into other favelas.

Here we live – favela Julio Otoni

Returning to our first moments in Rio – a strange man who emerged from the darkness turned out to be the neighbour of our host. Unfortunately, he didn’t know, that Chico lived next door and we finally called him through WhatsApp using roaming. A minute of data transfer cost us over 20 PLN :O Fortunately, it paid off – we found the fourth house on the left. In Chico’s’ house there are 5 cats, 3 dogs and 14 Couchsurfers! We decide to spend the first night on the terrace, because the temperature prevailing here (30 degrees at night) is for us a thermal shock. We wake up many times, but as a reward we observe the most beautiful sunrise that we have seen in our lives.

A view from Chico’s terrace


It turns out that the carnival also looks completely different than we imagine in Europe. What the media show us is the performances of samba schools. They are huge and colorful parades, held in a specially built for this purpose sambodrome. Tickets for such performances cost a lot (a few hundred BRL – Brazilian real, at the moment the exchange rate is about 1.06 PLN), so we give this pleasure away. The soul of the carnival in Rio are really so-called blocos – street events taking place from noon to night. In the past in Rio, during the carnival, there were mainly performances of samba schools, but in the end, the city took over from Salvador the custom of organizing events on the street. In each district every day for the duration of the carnival many blocos are organized, walking around the city  we bump to one once in a while.

On the first day of our stay in Rio, we go with Chico and Couchsurfers to bloco called Bloco de Barba. What is the party like? In the center of the bloco there is a scene (it can be permanent or mobile – then the bloco turns into something like a procession), around the scene a lot of people – all have disguises, and the most popular disguise of men is… woman’s outfit. The most comical are the big, muscular negroes in skimpy skirts and braids. At the beginning, we were quite surprised, in Poland we look at a guy dressed as a woman in a strange way. It turns out that in the past a woman’s outfit (and in fact belonging to a sister or mother) was the only option available for dressing up for poor people, especially in the provinces. The society is a bit richer today and the costumes are of all types (my favorite was a shower with a curtain and a working handset powered by a water bag in a backpack), but the most popular among the guys are skirts 🙂 Everyone is dressing up: old, young, even dogs. Among the colorful crowd there are many traders with food and drink – most of all with beer transported in large thermal containers with ice.

Ready for the carnival!

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of pictures from the carnival, because there is a huge crowd on the blocos, that’s why the camera stayed at home. Disguises are often skimpy, and Brazilians don’t like to part with their phones – that’s why the most common cache turns out to be panties or a bra. The backpack is out of the way, because for the robbers it’s easily accessible for from the back and very uncomfortable in front.


After bloco, we are all going for a walk around the neighbourhood and after a long hike we reach our favela on the hill. Tired after traveling, bloco and overwhelming heat, we fall like flies in the evening. The next day we have an appointment with Kuba – a friend of my friend’s dad who has lived in Brazil since the 1970s.

In the next post we will write about more things that have surprised us in Rio, the assault on the street and why we should put security above savings [click].

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