by Natalie Paris from The Telegraph, August 8, 2017
News that a British family were shot at after straying into a favela while touring Brazil has sent shock waves through the tourism industry.
Brazillian officials made a huge effort in recent years to clean up the country’s image before the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.
But the security force brought in to keep visitors safe during the Games has been long gone and the shooting suggests that some parts of the country remain dangerous for visitors.
A British woman suffered two shots to the abdomen on Sunday after she and her partner and their three children drove through a favela in Angra dos Reis as they reportedly went looking for water.
Angra dos Reis sits on the coast opposite the popular island holiday spot of Ilha Grande on Brazil's Emerald Coast, south of Rio, and is where ferries for the island depart.
A group approached the car and told the family to get out before opening fire, authorities said.
A police spokesman said that language difficulties had been to blame both for the family ending up there and also for them not understanding the order to leave. The woman was treated in hospital and was in a stable condition.
In 2015, a Brazillian pensioner was shot dead in front of her husband as they tried to follow a smartphone navigation app to the beach at Niteroi, a suburb of Rio, but instead found themselves in the gang-controlled Caramujo favela.
With long distances to cover and miles and miles of coast to explore, more adventurous travellers might be tempted to hire a car in Brazil. This is not recommended by experienced tour operators however.
"At Last Frontiers we would never recommend self-drives around any of Brazil's large cities, especially for those who don't speak or read Portuguese, mainly because of the chances of getting lost," said Edward Paine, managing director of Last Frontiers.
"We advise all clients travelling to Brazil to stick to individually planned itineraries where expert guides can be arranged to escort them to the main attractions and activities planned.
"The areas of Latin America well suited to self-drive are Argentine and Chilean Patagonia, where there are few roads and alternative means of transport are either limited or expensive."
Such tailor-made tours are also operated by Journey Latin America and Abercrombie & Kent. They offer an enlightening and safe way to see the city and also factor in some beach time without the worry of getting around under your own steam.
How safe are favela tours?
Favela-specific tours are a safe way to visit the few tourist-friendly favelas and get a taste for local life. While it is hard to argue that they are not voyeuristic, money goes to local merchants and artisans and also into local schools, so tours are also undoubtedly beneficial.
It is easy to arrange one through a major operator here in the UK or to book one through an operator once in Rio.
Most typically, they take in the sights of Vidigal, which the Brazilian government made safe in 2012 or Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, on a hilltop with amazing views. It was also “pacified” by the government although tourists should not visit without a guide.
Even if on a tour, it is important to be careful about taking photos, however. Experts suggest that residents connected to drug gangs can mistake this for police activity or worry they will be identified outside of their community.
The Foreign Office advice for British tourists states: “There are high levels of poverty and very high levels of violent crime in shanty-towns (favelas), which exist in all major Brazilian cities. The state government has implemented a Pacifying Police Force (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora - UPP) in several favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
“While this has improved security in some favelas, all favelas are unpredictably dangerous areas, and remain high risk given the level of violence within them and the severe strain on police resources."
It continued: “You’re still at risk even if you visit favelas with organised tours. Violence, particularly aimed at police and officials, can occur at anytime and overspill to areas close to the favelas. You should take extra care and be aware of local conditions at all times.”
Visiting favelas outside of a tour
Visiting even the more peaceful favelas without a guide is dangerous, making independent travel in these areas off limits. Travellers should avoid visiting any favelas independently.
“Brazil’s favelas are not inherently dangerous places and offer a different perspective on life, but in the pockets where drug gangs dominate, intruders and outsiders are taken very seriously,” said Donna Bowater, a journalist who lived and reported on Rio for four years.
“Since Rio alone has hundreds of favela communities, it’s impossible to get a sense of all of them or how the land lies when visiting on holiday. But if you are travelling, especially by car, doing a bit of research is imperative.
“Favelas are distinctive places. On GPRS, you can often identify the larger ones where you see a sudden warren of small, windy roads – oftentimes on a hillside. And on the ground, many favelas are made up of houses built with characteristic red cinder block bricks.”
The Foreign Office warns: “Take extra care when using GPS navigation in Brazilian cities, particularly Rio de Janeiro, that the suggested route doesn’t take you into a favela. Check with your hotel or the local authorities if unsure.”
What to do if you accidentally stray into a favela
“If you end up in a favela by mistake,” Ms Bowater continued, “it’s advisable to keep windows down in cars so that you can be easily identified as non-threatening. Drug traffickers operating in favelas are most concerned with rival gangs or police.
“It’s often said also that drug gangs prefer to avoid conflict with tourists as this attracts unwanted attention to their territory.”
For more information, see the latest Foreign Office advice for travel to Brazil.