Slum Tours of Sao Paulo

One of the most appalling and fascinating aspects of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro here in Brazil are the so-called "favelas". The Brazilian equivalent of a shanty town, these have generally grown up on public land right alongside much more affluent areas. While mired in poverty, they are also hotbeds of entrepreneurs, with highly localized economies, creative solutions to infrastructure problems, and even profit-making tours offered of some of the larger favelas.

Here is a view of Favela Morumbi, one of the largest such zones here in Sao Paulo. Something like 19% of the population of Rio de Janeiro lives in favelas, and a smaller number here in Sao Paulo.


More here in the NYT on the "poor-ism" and the controversies around organized favela tours


  1. The bit about giving 80% of the profits to the slum he tours in raises this interesting question: if the tours are that successful at reducing poverty, the tour operator won’t have a business anymore. “Tour the up-and-coming middle-class suburb – watch the glass-fronted offices and flats going up – see the yuppies in their natural habitat – take a drink in a genuine Starbucks” doesn’t have the same appeal. And if the donations haven’t been used to build a sustainable economy, they’ll be right back where they started.
    Perhaps the answer is to turn the slum into a theme park, complete with a ferris wheel made out of old tyres and a bunch of happy animatronic urchins singing “It’s A Poor World”.

  2. Nicely put. Couldn’t agree more.

  3. As usual Paul, your timing is impeccable. My wife and I were having just this conversation on the subway last Monday on our way to Carnegie Hall. We were waiting for the train and I was expressing my interest in somehow seeing the areas of the Bronx I would never go myself. How fascinating it would be to take a “tour” of those areas with guides who knew the area and could ensure some degree of safety. She was appalled at the idea, claiming it was exploitative and one of my “worst ideas ever.” And now you point out this article.
    I agree with the positive points — it’s not about exploiting, it’s about educating, we simply cannot know how lucky we are until we see those who aren’t. It builds perspective.

  4. João T. da Costa says:

    Fact: tour agencies strike deals with drug lords in the favelas of Rio in order to gain safe passage, so to speak, for their groups. How does that change the equation?

  5. Paul, this should be similar over here in Mumbai, India where we have a place called Dharavi which has around 1 million people in it spread over 175 hectares according to wikipedia

  6. Uh, Sam, I think it’s a LOT of bus tours to have a meaningful impact on an economy of about 1.2 million (20% of 6mm). As for the theme park idea, do you have any idea how expensive it’s gonna be to pay people to live in abject poverty?
    I think the whole idea of poverty tours is completely gross. Honestly, is poverty so foreign, so far from our personal experience that a New Yorker needs a guide to the freakin’ Bronx?

  7. Fry: That was sort of my point. It makes it difficult for slum tours to claim they can make a serious difference to the communities they tour.
    That aside, let’s forget “meaningful impact”. Take a relatively small, inexpensive change you can make to a slum, such as installing a clean water pump. If part of my tour involves pointing at people collecting water from a stinking open sewer, and that’s one of the bits that gets my sunglassed sunhatted tourists going “ooh” and “eugh” and snapping away with their cameras, then that conflicts with any desire I may have to make that small change. Another cheap and effective improvement to a poor area: giving someone a mobile phone, which can be a huge spur to entrepreneurship. But seeing a slum-dweller chatting into a mobile phone is going to be a bit jarring for the tourists – I might explain the good it’s doing, but it’s still not going to fit with the image they’re paying to see.
    Call it good business and be done with it. Tourism has been voyeuristic since its infancy – Thomas Cook, which is still going strong today, arranged package tours for people to gawk at the devastation wreaked on Paris by the fighting between the Paris Commune and the French government in the late 19th century.

  8. The favela pictured here is Paraisopolis, or Paradise Town in English, one of the largest shanty towns in Sao Paulo. It’s inside one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, called Morumbi.
    This picture sums it up: