A listless dog drifted by as two stocky men took a seat in the plaza. The men engaged in quiet yet intentional dialogue, as an elderly gentleman limped past clutching a small plastic bag of groceries. Several policemen looked on, assault rifles resting against their light blue button-down shirts.
A fine mist began as I waited for my friends at the entrance of the Vidigal Favela. Gazing upwards, one could view the very top of Dois Irmãos, the verdant peak we had gathered to climb. The hill appeared to emerge from a wild yet untamed web, the massive network of quaint pathways, messy wires, partially constructed buildings, and prevailing bustle of one of Brazil’s shanty towns.
If you’re looking to combine an active walk boasting unparalleled views of Rio, in addition to respectfully peeking behind the scenes of a colorful favela, consider climbing Dois Irmãos. It’s a sought-after excursion that can be done in half a day.
Intrepid types have attempted the hike on their own, but this is not recommended. Vidigal (vi-jee-GOW) is a relatively peaceful favela and generally open to tourists; however, its labrynthine paths can confuse those with even the best sense of direction. More importantly, favelas are volatile areas, regardless of (and some might say resulting from) police presence.
Pacification of favelas began in 2008, for reasons of bringing increased security to the often riotous shanty towns. In tandem, it is a government effort to quell violence ahead of the 2016 Olympics. Pacification has arrived in the form of the uniformed offers comprising the Pacifying Police Unit (“UPP”), deemed a success by some and a failure by others.
Prior to pacification, there was no state presence; however, UPP’s are now in approximately 25% of Rio’s favelas. One of the benefits has been improved infrastructure in the form of wireless capability. In some favelas, however, gang warfare has simply shifted; redistributing violence from inter-gang to between police and the local community. Unfortunately, Brazil’s economic climate is not currently robust, and funding has been cut related to public security. Pacification is expected to continue through 2018, though its sustained future is uncertain.
Getting there: Vidigal’s main plaza is reachable by bus. It’s two stops after the Marriott Hotel, and on the right hand side. This means be on your feet and ready to jump off the bus as you pass the Marriott, allowing time to politely edge past other passengers.
Reaching the start of the trail: An adventure in and of itself, the trailhead is accessed on the back of a motorcycle, which will carry you up the winding streets for an exclusive and up-close view of the favela. If you’re a larger group, a van is your best option. Both motorcycles and vans line the plaza and can be rented for a small fee. The ride is a quick 5-10 minutes.
To bring: Sturdy shoes with a tread. The trail can be slippery, and you’ll be clambering in rocky areas with precarious drop-offs. All the more tricky in wet weather. Bring water, and you may want mosquito repellent as well.
Not to miss: On the walk down, you’ll pass striking street art which jumps out to be photographed. But don’t pass up a snack at the Tapioca Cafe, called Casa da Tapioca, on rua Armando de Almeida Lima. They hand make tapioca pancakes, a Brazilian specialty made with the starch extracted from the manioc flour. Try a savory one of shredded beef and cheese, or a sweet version with bananas.
For an energetic and knowledgable guide at a modest price, I can recommend none other than Lee Weingast. She has a deep understanding of Brazil’s language and culture, and is a seasoned excursion leader on Dois Irmãos. Contact her directly for information at email@example.com.