Dona Marta favela sits on an impossibly steep hill in the district of Botafogo in Rio. With just 8000 residents, it’s a wee baby in comparison to some of it’s more well-known sister favelas such as Rocinha. So, what makes it special?
Two words: Michael Jackson.
The singer caused controversy when he recorded the video to his single ‘They don’t really care about us’ among local residents at the top of the hill. He was accused of exploiting the poor by local officials who were concerned that images of poverty would affect tourism to Rio. At the same time, others argued that the exposure would act to highlight the problems that were being faced.
There are rumours that Michael Jackson negotiated with drug dealers to get permission to film in the favela. This was perhaps not sending out the best message, but just over a decade later, there have been a lot of positive changes. In 2008, control of the favela passed to Rio’s first Pacifying Police Unit, and a cable car has also been constructed, so that people can avoid struggling up the tight alleyways over hundreds of steps to reach the higher levels.
But, is it safe to visit?
Tourism has taken off in Dona Marta favela. You can now take tours of the streets with approved tour guides, or ride the cable car over the rooftops, to glimpse views of everyday life from relative safety.
I turned up one morning with my Dutch friend Amber. We inquired about the guided tour first, but it sounded pretty pricey, so we asked around and people told us it was common for tourists to wander through the favela on their own.
‘Use your cameras,’ one man said. ‘It’s a safe area now. There are locals appointed to help you find your way. You won’t find any problems.’
Why wouldn’t we believe him? They even had a tourist map printed on shiny paper to show you the recommended routes, how to find your way on and off the cable car, and where MJ filmed his music video.
It took about 5 minutes for me to feel uneasy. First of all, the cable car was out of service. We crept up the main street, which was surprisingly colourful, and I decided to test the theory that it was safe to whip out a camera in public view of the residents. Two subtle shots later, I was being eyed up by a very questionable toothless character whose ragged shorts hung loosely from his bony frame.
We pushed on, exuding an air of confidence we didn’t feel deep down, and stopped to talk to a friendly guy who owned the favela barber’s shop.
I watched a man and his child play with a stray cat in the street. I was beginning to relax when the guy who clearly wanted my Canon rounded the corner brandishing a pneumatic drill!
Any sensible person would probably have left at that moment, but for some reason, we decided that to push on, in blistering heat, up one of the steepest hillsides in Rio, in the middle of a potentially dangerous district would be a better idea.
A couple of blocks later, we hit what seemed to be a dead end. The only exit routes leading up were so narrow it was hard to tell if they were alleyways or simply steps to people’s private residences.
A local guy noticed us – hardly surprising since we were two pale-skinned girls, one with red hair, the other blonde, and both over 5″10′ – and offered to lead us up to the famous MJ location. Trusting him implicitly, we followed him up increasingly derelict passages, sometimes squeezing between crumbling buildings or pushing past electricity hubs overloaded with illegal wires.
It was only when the guy took a phone call that Amber and I got the chance to discuss our shared opinion – that, while it would be great to believe that this guy was being the model citizen showing us his neighbourhood out of the goodness of his heart, it was also conceivable that he might rob us and cut our bodies to little pieces.
We called to him while he was still chatting away and told him the climb was too much for us in this heat, before rushing back down in a mild panic as we tried to remember which of the hundreds of seemingly random paths led back to the main street.
I do believe that the situation is improving significantly in many of the Rio favelas. They’re much safer than they used to be, but my advice is that it’s always better to be safe than sorry – especially when you’re new to an area. If you decide to look around a Rio favela, make sure you do your research on its safety, take precautions, and perhaps splash out a little on this occasion and get yourself a proper tour guide.
Or you could skip all this silliness completely and just chill out on Ipanema beach watching the sunset, as we did later that same day…
Where to stay in Rio
I tried out a few hostels in Rio and my favourite, by a long shot, was Books Hostel in Lapa. In fact, it was one of my favourite hostels in South America. I went back to it twice after visiting other parts of Brazil, and I visited it in the evenings when I made the mistake of trying out a hostel near Copacabana Beach for a few nights. The guy who runs is – Felipe – is awesome, and there is a sense of homeliness to it that makes almost every backpacker extend their stay. Decorated with quirky graffiti murals and left-behind shoes, and with a small bar serving cachaca and beers every evening, it’s the perfect place to socialise with new friends before checking out the famous street parties of Lapa.