In Brazil, a Second Life for the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro
Andre Vieira for The New York Times
By DANIELLE RENWICK
Published: September 23, 2011
ON a recent Friday night in Rio de Janeiro, a mix of young locals and tourists sipped caipirinhas and danced along to a samba-infused rock band at the Maze, a combination bed-and-breakfast and night club. The moonlit vistas of Sugar Loaf and Guanabara Bay commanded nearly as much attention as the music; between sets, partiers flooded up to the roof for fresh air and to take in a view that bests those of any hotel on Ipanema Beach.
The view comes courtesy of the venue’s unlikely location: it sits atop one of Rio’s favelas, slums best known to the rest of the world as centers of drug trafficking and violence. Not too long ago, few tourists would have ventured to the Maze, but that, along with the favelas’ reputation, is beginning to change.
Starting in 2008, in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics — Brazilis hosting both — Rio’s government began an effort to wrest control from local drug gangs and install community police units (called U.P.P.’s) in its favelas. The result has been a significant decrease in crime, and an increase in tourism, as mom-and-pop restaurants, pousadas and music venues with gritty charm and unparalleled views are attracting visitors, Brazilians and foreigners alike, to the hillside communities.
When Bob Nadkarni first opened the Maze (Rua Tavares Bastos 414, No. 66; 55-21-2558-5547; jazzrio.com) in the Tavares Bastos favela in 2005, the spot attracted “tourists with an adventurous side,” said Mr. Nadkarni’s son, Bruno, who grew up in the space before it was converted into a bed-and-breakfast and now manages its music nights. (Tavares Bastos has been considered relatively safe since 2000, when the state’s Special Operations Police Unit moved its headquarters to the community.)
In nearby Santa Marta, the first favela to receive the U.P.P., a lookout point features a statue and mural of Michael Jackson, who shot a music video there in 1996. Steps away, the friendly owners of Bar do Zequinha (Rua do Mengão), serve inexpensive plates of their specialty, frango à passarinho, crispy chicken topped with fried garlic and parsley.
Below, Praça Cantão bustles with weekend concerts and dance parties. When the local samba school Mocidade Unida do Santa Marta rehearses nearby, visitors can take in the sounds from Bar do João (Rua Jupira 72; 55-21-8294-7775), which serves standard but satisfying Brazilian fare just across the street.
In Chapéu Mangueira, a favela overlooking Copacabana Beach, Bar do David (Ladeira Ary Barroso 66; 55-21-7808-2200) is another nexus of activity. On a recent Sunday afternoon, locals and tourists in plastic chairs dined on the restaurant’s signature seafood feijoada. As children kicked around a soccer ball, two police officers stopped in to say hello to the owner, David Vieira Bispo.
Mr. Bispo opened the restaurant last year, shortly after the community police entered the favela. “The tourists only started coming after the U.P.P.,” he said. “But people here have been very receptive. They’re proud of their community.”
Up several breathtaking flights of stairs, in the adjacent Babilônia favela, sits Feijoada do Pituca (55-21-2295-3771), an outdoor restaurant known for its namesake black bean and pork stew, live samba and one of the best views in Rio. The owner, César Zerbinato, opened the restaurant shortly after the U.P.P. arrived, catering to the growing number of tourists who hike a now-safe nature trail in the area.
“People come because they’re curious,” said Mr. Zerbinato’s niece, Debora Zerbinato. “They only hear about violence and trafficking. They want to see what it’s really like.”