Rio and the Santa Marta Favela, Brazil

Leaving Buenos Aires, Argentina, I still didn’t feel the travel high I usually experience in a new country, and I was disappointed. I took an overnight flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, stopping via Sao Paulo for four hours. I arrived at the dismal domestic terminal to find all four ATMs would not accept any of my three Australian bank cards. I had money in each account, yet I couldn’t get cash out. It’s not often I lose my cool, but I came close to it that morning – I was tired, and frustrated that none of my cards would work. I limped around the arrivals terminal wondering what to do, until someone suggested I try the HSBC ATM in the departures terminal. I nearly cried when it delivered money without hesitation – thank you HSBC! (Note: none of my cards are from HSBC, it’s just the one machine that worked, and I’ve also found that the Banco do Brasil ATMs work for most international cards).

Obtaining local currency meant I could then leave the airport and attempt to find my hostel. Local buses are never the easiest way to travel when you don’t know the area or the stops, and although the map from the airport was really good, I still got off the bus too early and had to walk another 20 minutes to the hostel. Tired, walking with luggage that was 15kg but felt like 50kg, in 25oC heat with 80% humidity, made me grumpy. Even though the beach I walked along was spectacular, I was hot and sweaty, and needed a shower and a few hours sleep before I could appreciate it. Flights at odd hours with long stopovers (that create sleep deprivation and don’t coincide with hostel check in times), versus more expensive flights at more convenient hours and locations, are the frequent choice of the budget traveller – although they are becoming more difficult to manage the older I get..

The famous Copacabana and Impanema beaches were as beautiful as expected, and they stretch for many blocks – I walked the length of both in one day and it took me two hours! There were many interesting sights at the beaches, and you quickly get used to seeing all types of bronzed and brown bodies parading the sand in g-string bikinis (women), and sungas (men) – seriously, Google ‘Brazilian sunga’ images and you’ll see what I mean.. The funniest thing I encountered was a woman who came for money after I took a photo of a sand sculpture, and upon asking what country I was from, she immediately began hopping around, hands positioned as paws, imitating a kangaroo and squealing “Oostraya, Oostraya”!

As well as visiting the beaches in Rio, I went on a walking tour of the city, took the cable cars up and down Sugar Loaf Mountain for the amazing views, and went on a tour through a favela. The favela tour was the best thing I did during my short stay in the huge city, not only because I had a personal guide who answered all my questions, but also because I am fascinated by people – how they live, what they do, and the communities they form. To have such a knowledgeable guide was a bonus, and after taking the tours of the Santa Marta favela for a few years, Daniel knew some of the people living there, which made the whole experience more intimate and exceptional.

A favela is ‘a slum in Brazil, most often within urban areas…definable by a lack of public services’ (Wikipedia), yet the Santa Marta favela I visited was much more established, and colourful, than I expected. My conceptions of rickety structures made from tin, cardboard and loose bricks, all leaning against one another to remain upright, were incorrect. I was surprised how well built the houses were, and how solid the buildings appeared. Blue water tanks sat atop of many houses, and concrete was everywhere – assisting in the construction of the houses and shops, and paving of the many steps and footpaths. The abundance of electricity wires and water pipes made the favela look just like a crowded, built up city – with perhaps more exposed and visible building elements than some people are used to.

Yes, there was more rubbish laying around than anyone would probably want, but I guess that’s expected when people have to carry their own rubbish bags down to the bottom of the large hill for collection. I imagine most of us would struggle to keep our houses immaculate if we were expected to walk up and down as many steps as some of these houses required. Santa Marta now has a lift installed which has undoubtedly improved the living situation for those in the higher sections of the favela. Although very slow, the lift allows transport of approximately 20 to 25 people at a time, along with a section for items such as shopping and household goods, and provides easier rubbish removal, faster access for medical aid and better community integration between different levels of the favela.

I found the whole place really interesting, and with Daniel’s thorough explanations of the history and formation of the favelas, I knew I wanted to learn more about the people in these communities. Santa Marta is occupied by ‘Unidade de Policia Pacificadora’, or a Police Pacification Unit (UPP) – a special police unit aimed at reclaiming territories previously controlled by drug traffickers – so it’s deemed one of the favelas that has been ‘cleaned up’. Even though I didn’t see any guns, fights, or heavy drugs, I was sure everyone living here had some riveting stories, and once again, I wished I spoke another language – this time Portuguese. I desperately wanted to converse with the people and learn what they and their lives were really like. I wanted to absorb it all, and learn from them – more than I could in just a few hours. Santa Marta, and Brazil, you have my attention!

Santa Marta, Rio Brilliant Tour Guide, Daniel

Santa Marta, Rio

Santa Marta, Rio

Santa Marta, Rio