Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil’s Largest Favela

The densely populated urban fabric of Rocinha

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Widely known all over the world for the golden sand beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, Christ the Redeemer Statue and the Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro is by far Brazil’s most famous city. Alongside Rio’s fame and glamor, the city is also home to hundreds of informal settlements, known collectively as Favelas. The largest of which, Rocinha, is the country’s most populous favela, which counterintuitively recently became a popular tourist destination among intrepid travelers.

A Couple of Insights about Favelas

Following the abolishment of slavery in Brazil on 1888, many of the freed slaves were facing the challenge of finding an adequate place to live in. Their lack of any property forced most of them to seek shelter in the steep hillsides across Rio de Janeiro’s iconic granite mountains. With no help or funds from the Brazilian authorities, the newly established settlements lacked any basic utilities, condemning them to poverty from the very beginning.


While vary in land size, population and socio-economic status, all of those informal shanty towns were given the name “Favela”. The term was first coined by soldiers who fought in the War of Canudos, a military conflict between the Brazilian army and a group of native inhabitants in the country’s northeastern state of Bahia.


The soldiers, many of whom were former slaves, encountered an indigenous plant known as “Morro da Favela”, notorious for its ability to inflict a great deal of soreness upon contact with the skin. After the war ended, some of the conscripts who returned to Rio, founded a town on the city’s hilly outskirts, calling it a “Favela” to reflect the hardships of their new home.


Nowadays, favelas are widespread all over the country, and while some can be considered dangerous, others are perfectly safe. Nevertheless, regardless of their crime rate, all favelas are often branded as unsafe, poor and unwelcoming by many, while in reality, this common assumption is somewhat exaggerated.

Rocinha’s Past and Present

Story has it that during the 1930’s, the US Great Depression triggered the economic collapse of Brazil’s coffee industry. As a result, many coffee plantations across the state of Rio de Janeiro were abandoned, including Fazenda Quebra Cangalha, slightly west of Leblon. Its premises were then invaded by people from the lower echelons of society, ultimately dividing it into a series of small farms. Peddlers who sold the farms’ fruits and vegetables throughout Rio dubbed the place as “Rocinha” (the Brazilian term for small field).


In the decades that followed, Rocinha quickly developed into an informal suburb of Rio’s glamorous neighborhoods. While initially, the vast majority of the buildings were makeshift housing made of wood and other castoff materials, those were later replaced by mostly concrete 3-4 story buildings. Due to its extreme topography of steep slopes, Rocinha couldn’t sprawl its way endlessly but rather had to be tightly packed into an area of a measly 145 hectares.


There are several conflicting demographics figures as to how many people actually live in Rocinha, but some estimates put the number as high as 200,000 inhabitants, making it by far the country’s largest favela. Given Rocinha’s exceedingly limited space, it ultimately means that the town is as dense as a sardine box.


Despite its rough start and plenty of challenges to cope with, this cramped favela is regarded safe and economically stable. In fact, it is the only favela in Rio where banks, police stations and other amenities are widely available. Its sheer proximity to some of the city’s richest neighborhoods also makes it relatively easy for its resident to commute to and from their workplace. Evidently, each day Rocinha gets half-empty during the morning and noon when its dwellers are busy making ends meet, and then get filled again during the evening when most residents arrive back from their workplace.

Visiting the Favela

Following a massive crackdown by the local police on Rocinha’s drug dealers in 2011, the favela steadily became safer for outside visitors. As of today, the neighborhood is considered one of Rio’s safest areas, with more and more foreigners discovering the formerly notorious favela each year.


Probably the easiest and best way of exploring Rocinha is by an organized walking tour, bookable online. A small minivan will often transfer the dozen or so participants to the favela, where they will wander around its narrow alleys as the guide introduces them to key points across Rocinha, while also elaborating about the history and daily life of the local inhabitants.


The fascinating tour usually includes a visit to one or two eateries, where visitors can try Brazilian pastries or sip a glass of refreshing suco de caju (cashew apple juice) and caipirinha. As the tour’s participants follow the guide along the extremely narrow labyrinth, they have a rare chance to interact with locals, who are almost always friendly and hospitable.


Most tours end at Oscar Niemeyer Footbridge astride the Fernando Mac Dowell Highway. Designed by the world-renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer a few years before he died at the age of 104, the concrete pedestrian bridge was inaugurated in 2011. It was built as the Brazilian government sought to improve the image of Rio’s favelas before the hosting of FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic games in 2016. Beside offering a safe passage over a busy autostrada, it also boasts a spectacular panoramic view of Rocinha’s densely populated streets, sprawling throughout the verdant hillsides.


Take note that while taking photos is perfectly fine in the vast majority of cases, the favela is also home to several areas where cannabis sale is rife, therefore making them less favorable places for photography.