Conscious Traveling: Connecting Tourists to the True Culture of Rio Slums

I couldn’t help but be mesmerized when I first visited Rio de Janeiro. No city landscape is so dramatic, no culture so effervescent.

It’s seductive. Jagged, vertiginous peaks nestle arced beaches that wash up at the feet of bronzed deities. Electric percussion vibrates the balmy night air, rippling in your cachaça , lime, and sugar cocktail. I couldn’t help but be mesmerized when I first visited Rio de Janeiro. No city landscape is so dramatic, no culture so effervescent.

But, the hypnosis waned when my gringo bubble of sightseeing and hostels teeming with partying foreigners became impermeable. Even though I had learned Portuguese to survive in an English-less country, I was missing so much. I longed to be a part of the culture and meaningfully bond with Brazilians, so I resolved to return.

The next time I had to stray beyond Copacabana to stumble upon what I sought—and it was in the least likely place. The color-dotted hillside of 300,000 inhabitants jutted out at me, overwhelming and intimidating. There was Rocinha, Latin America’s largest favela , an originally informal settlement that has transformed into a bustling community.

I wasn’t ignorant of the violent and poor reputation favelas have from “City of God,” “Elite Squad,” and other media. In fact, I’d swiftly rejected an invitation to Rocinha during my initial trip to Rio. Quickly, I realized my mistake during the two-minute motorcycle taxi ride into the favela. The energy inside was palpable. Baile funk music thumped from apartment windows; savory feijoada stew aromas wafted into my nostrils; graffiti painted a history of resilience.

Meeting Zezinho, my contact in Rocinha, fascinated me as he explained how his Favela Adventures shows visitors favela reality through the eyes of local guides while investing its profits in a free, DJ school for favela youth. The $20,000 of top-of-the-line equipment used nightly by groups of young adults in the bedroom of his tiny apartment was transparent proof of his impact. Surprising was that the model was so uncharacteristic of what I’d read about favela tours, usually framed as “poverty safaris” run by outsiders with little benefit for the communities.

I kept coming back, getting as much favela as I could, a futile pursuit in the sprawling labyrinth of alleys and stairs leading to cramped shops and bars. Moreover, sharing a home for weeks with residents, I felt safe and welcomed amid a sense of togetherness and constant activity on the streets. Certain the favelas were the real Rio, I wanted the world to experience their vibrancy, yet in a socially responsible way.

Shortly thereafter, I created Favela Experience to offer travelers homestays and apartment rentals in Rocinha and other favelas. As a social enterprise, our mission is to immerse guests in local culture while generating livelihoods for favela residents and breaking pernicious stereotypes. In a year, we’ve hosted dozens of travelers, earning excellent reviews and profiles in Forbes and The New York Times .

Now, with the FIFA World Cup approaching in June, we have the chance to leave a positive mark on an event notorious for its negative social legacy. Only through our Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign until noon Pacific Time this Saturday, February 1, you can book our World Cup accommodations at a 20 percent discount or secure another one of our rewards. With more funding we can expand our housing inventory for the tournament and generate months of income for more favela hosts. Ultimately, your backing brings us closer to our vision for more meaningful travel that develops communities.