Tag Archives: brazil

World Nomad’s Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

To link in with the previous post on travelling by bus from Brazil to Bolivia through Paraguay, here is a short piece that I submitted to the World Nomad’s Travel Writing Scholarship 2012 competition:

On buses and food, and food on buses

It’s not my finest moment but it’s done now. Submitted. End of.

The biggest challenge was keeping it within the 2,000 character limit (and that included spaces) whilst still capturing enough detail.

I don’t know if it makes any difference how many people read and comment on the piece or not… some competitions seem to work like that… but of course, as ever, I’d love feedback from you (and if it’s really bad or super constructive, maybe do it on here instead!).

Not to self: never do things in a hurry.

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Brazil to Bolivia by bus (and an apology to Paraguay)

You know when there is no other option but to laugh? The bus in front of me was about as far away from luxury as I could have hoped for and I was going to be on it for the next 22 hours. At least. Oh joy. Would I even make it to Bolivia?

The previous night I’d left Foz do Iguaçu at midnight on board the amazing comfort and space of a Sol del Paraguay bus destined for Asunción in Paraguay. Although I’m now pretty hardened to long distance bus travel, when unexpected luxury enters the mix, it’s a wonderful surprise.

Just across the border into Paraguay there was a visible return to South American poverty. Tens of makeshift tents lined the roadside leading up to the bus terminal of Ciudad del Este, little hives of activity, some adults and lots of kids spilling out onto the pavement. Blankets and bodies and unforgiving concrete. Such a contrast to the comfort that I was privileged to be experiencing.

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Sunrise in Bolivia, not far past the first border crossing

The bus drove on into the night, a smooth service that allowed me to sleep for a few hours. I almost wished the journey to be longer. But come 06:00am, I was back to a chaotic reality of cramped shops and money exchange stalls within Asunción bus station.

It would be unfair of me to comment on Asunción (or Paraguay as a whole) because my time there consisted of bus terminals, taxi rides, border crossings and a daytime sleep in a hostel with an unusually old clientele. I was battling infection, sore throat and a high temperature. The real threat of Dengue fever (discussed on the news the very night I was there) was enough to make me want to push on to a more trodden path where my poor Spanish and ill health would be less problematic.

So Paraguay, I am sorry for not stopping by and giving you a chance. Another time.

Having bought Bolivia bus tickets for that same night, I split a taxi with two English girls. The ride right across town cost 40,000₲. It sounded a small fortune but in reality Paraguay is South America´s second poorest economy and 40,000₲ is just US$9.32 or £5.92. We passed by some NSA buses. We’d booked through NSA. Their buses looked great. We were in for another nice journey.

So back to the start where I’m boarding the bus for Bolivia in Asunción bus station. Although I laughed when I saw the actual bus, I also felt that little trapdoor of gloom pull open and frustration start to bubble out of its depths. Despite a snatch of sleep in a hostel during the day, I still physically felt like absolute crap. Disgusting toilets (avoid use), limited stops with bush hideouts, 03:00am border crossings and military checks and a man who nicked my window seat were all things I had to look forward to. All I really wanted were crisp, cool sheets on a comfy, bug free bed in a Westernised country. And I wanted a cuddle from my mum. Or someone nice.

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One of many immigration stops en route from Paraguay to Bolivia

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Another military stop and´the bus´

The bus was pretty full. Although close to the front, I couldn’t see out: not only had the co-driver shut and locked the door to the front section but heavy curtains blocked any view. In my experience, this is pretty standard for buses in South America.

Across the aisle was sitting a thick set, broad bottomed woman with long, glossy hair. She took out a cup and flask from her bag and started to make up some mate. Sipping slowly on the straw, she eventually finished, put everything away and reclined her seat. She turned on her side, had a bit of a wriggle around and was finally comfortable, cushioned by the chair and a good dose of curves.

Raul, the guy who had taken my seat, received a call shortly after we set off. He smiled down the phone. ‘I’m on the bus’, he said, ‘it’s great. Air conditioned, food, reclining bed seats’.

And I thought, hell yeah, who cares about a seriously shabby appearance, about a looped Bruce Willis movie where the sound is screwed, about dry bread and chicken nugget dinners, about the many stops and bumpy, dire roads I was due to encounter over the next day. It really could be worse.

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Buses leave regularly from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay for the five to six hour journey to Asunción. If you want to leave from Foz do Iguaçu, as I did, then Sol has a service leaving at midnight that costs R$40 (£14.55). Buses for Santa Cruz, Bolivia leave Asunción at 20:00pm most nights (not Thursday and possibly not Sunday). A number of offices on the top floor of the terminal sell tickets but the most reputable seems to be the official NSA office where tickets cost 250,000₲ (£37.02) (cash/card) or US$60 (£37.73) (cash only). The journey takes 22 hours and includes many military stops and border checks including stamps in and out of Paraguay and Bolivia. It feels like an extended process where the first check point is in the middle of the night, the last some time around midday. There are basic meals on board but I would recommend bringing some water, at the very least.

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Blowing the budget in Brazil

Português: Verso da moeda de 10 centavos da se...

Brazil is undeniably beautiful and fun. I partied, I indulged in good food and I visited quirky places and and beaches and natural wonders. But despite staying part of the time with a friend, I still spent a lot of money. Because, as all backpackers I’ve met agree, Brazil is expensive. Having overtaken the UK in 2012 to become the sixth strongest economic force in the world, it’s easy to see how exchange rates aren’t going to be particularly favourable for many of us.

Overall, my daily budget in Brazil came to R$90.74 (£43.02) per day but it’s worth being aware that I spent quite a lot of my time in in the main cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and on Ilha Grande, none of which were the cheapest of places.  My expenses were pretty standard with no major splurges other than nights out. I did visit Iguazu Falls, which cost R$172(£62.55) for both the Argentinian and the Brazilian sides but was totally worth every penny. And the only actual purchase I made was a pair of Havaianas for R$18 (£6.55). I love living in flip flops and as I was visiting the birthplace of the worlds ‘best’ flip flops (or thongs, if you must), it had to be done.

Here’s a rough idea of costs:

R$ £
Hostel bed R$45 £16.36
1.5l bottle water R$3 £1.09
Cheapish meal out R$30 £10.91
Bus travel (per hour) R$10 £3.64
Taxi ride (2km-5km) R$10-R$20 £3.64-£7.27
Club entry R$30 £10.91
Beer R$6 £2.18
Capairinha R$14 £5.09

With very little effort, I way overspent in Brazil. But on my travels I’m not obsessing about sticking to a daily budget and I’ve accepted that you just have to go with the reality of the costs and deal with it. Even if it means cutting your stay short.

Next up: Bolivia, South America’s weakest economy, where I knew my money would go a little further. I hoped that less time in Brazil and more time in Bolivia would balance things out a bit.

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Iguazu Falls: Brazil, Argentina or both?

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The Devil’s Throat, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Some people I met tried to tell me Iguazu wasn’t worth it. Give it a miss, they said. I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. And I’m equally as glad that I went to both the Brazilian side and the Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls.

I was staying in HI Paudimar Falls in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, a great set-up of a hostel with a social, laid back vibe, friendly staff (once you got past the newly arrived stage), excellent facilities, the luxury of a swimming pool and a little bar serving mean caipirinhas for R$4.

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Views from The Devil’s Throat over to the Brazilian side, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The hostel arranged everything for my visit to the Argentinian side of the falls, including the option to do a boat trip depending on what I decided when I was actually there. Costing R$75 (£27.27), this trip included speedy transits through border crossings and entry to Parque Nacional de Iguazu. Additional costs were the boat rides into the waterfalls, starting at R$50 (£18.18).

Exploring the Argentinian side took the full day and I didn’t get to complete all of the mapped trails. It was an amazing day full of walks, boat rides and the feeling of being right in amongst the powerful rush of the falls. It all felt close and loud and immediate. The ground smelt damp and earthy and the air was thick with humidity and spray.

A trip out to the Brazilian side of the falls, if you’re based in Foz do Iguaçu, is easy to organise by yourself. Catch the No. 120 bus from Avenida Jorge Schimmelpfeng to the Parque National do Iguaçu, costing R$2.60 (£0.95) each way. Entrance is R$41.10 (£14.95) for foreigners and includes a short bus ride to the start.

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Iguazu Falls, Brazil

I jumped off at the first viewpoint with a small crowd of others. Something very noticeable was the lack of people compared to overcrowding on the Argentinian side. No bad thing. Together with a friend I walked along the pathway, stopping at various miradors to take in the scenery.

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The Devil’s Throat in the distance, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Here on the Brazilian side the sound was less intense and the views of the waterfalls were more distant; wide and open they allowed you to get a sense of scale and perspective.

Towards the end was the one opportunity to get closer to the water; to get a little damp from the spray and take in an undisturbed view of El Garganta del Diablo – The Devil’s Throat. Yes, overall it felt more removed than the Argentinian side but it actually allowed one to appreciate the place as a whole.

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Iguazu Falls, Brazil

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I was glad to have visited both sides in order to get a broader, fuller picture of the place. The Brazilian side was a short trip out, needing no more than a few hours whereas visiting the Argentinian side of Iguazu required a full day.

If I had to suggest an order it would be to do the Brazilian side first and build up to the Argentinian side. And if you only get the opportunity to do one? Go for Argentina. It’s a powerful experience.

On the Brazilian side there are also options to do rafting and rappelling (at extra cost) and close by is a bird park that I didn’t visit but fellow backpackers highly recommended.

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Ignorance at Iguazu Falls (but a whole lot of energy too)

I don’t know whether to cry or slap him. A casual flick and the cigarette butt tumbles into the wide jungle river. He saunters off. I think I shouted ‘no!’, but maybe I just thought it. Precious nature, one of the world’s natural wonders, contaminated by an ignorant man.

I’m at Iguazu Falls (ak.a. Iguassu Falls or Iguaçu Falls) on the Argentinian side. Paying R$75 through the hostel has turned out to be a good option with quicker, stress-free border crossings from Brazil and easy entry to the park.

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Catching the train to the Devil's Throat at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Whiskered fish in the jungle river at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Once through the turnstiles, a two train trip takes me towards the Garganta del Diablo – the Devil’s Throat – where I wander along springy, metal walkways over an extensive jungle and river landscape, stopping only to watch black whiskered fish on a feeding frenzy, two foot masses competing for crumbs thrown in by rule-breaking visitors. And then I see the guy and witness the cigarette incident, and I’m upset.

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The Devil's Throat, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Feel the spray at The Devil's Throat, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

But time to appreciate what else is going on. The roar, no, the constant pounding of water is all-consuming. As it falls, lines and shapes in the stream mutate and tumble downwards with force, only to be bounced back up as puffs of cloudy spray.

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Views away from The Devil's Throat at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Views away from The Devil's Throat in Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I take some photos and then put away my camera. I squeeze myself into a gap, shut out the crowds and turn my face to be kissed by misty wetness, and I allow myself to be calmed by nature’s rumble.

And I stand and stare. In the truest sense of the word, it is awesome. If I was a believer, I’d have thanked God at this point. Instead I thank life (and my ticket company for reversing my flight back to South America so easily).

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By the bottom of Bossetti Falls at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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San Martin Island and The Devil's Throat, Iguazu Falls in Argentina (Brazil land on the left)

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The beach on La Isla San Martin at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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San Martin Falls and surrounding waterfalls at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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San Martin Falls at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Mbigua and Gpque Bernabe Mendez Falls at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I take a short, free ferry ride and eat a picnic lunch on the little island of San Martin, a place with a mini sandy beach and a steep, stepped climb to vistas of the San Martin Falls. I have a voucher for the boat ride into the falls that I can choose to use or return later to the hostel. At R$50, I’m weighing up cost over experience. Should I just go for it?

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A taster soaking at a smaller waterfall en route to The Devil's Throat at Iguazu Falls

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More of a soaking in the heavy spray of San Martin Falls at Iguazu Falls

Experience wins. Absolutely worth it. The only disappointment is that we don’t go in as far as I would hope beneath the rush of the Devil’s Throat, but we do still all get a good soaking and the thrill of the being so close to the power and force of the water is indescribable.

And it’s a blessing to get wet; the sun has been shining with such ferocity. Not that I’m complaining. It has been a perfect day to visit Iguazu.

Less than fifteen minutes later and I’m back on land. I sit on a rock to dry off and take in the scenery. I’ve forgotten about the man and his cigarette. I am just here, in the now, drinking in the beauty and energy of this amazing place. A precious moment.

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Drying off and taking in the views at Iguazu Falls

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Sun, sea, sand and… snorkelling on Ilha Grande

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Ilha Grande, Brazil

It was my first experience in a triple bunk hostel in a place that clearly practised rack ‘em and stack ‘em, where tripping over bags and inhaling recycled breath was to be expected.

I’d sailed into the simple docks of Abraão on Ilha Grande where touts eagerly awaited new arrivals offering rooms at rates that easily competed with my pre-booked hostel bed.

Once checked in, me and a friend set off to explore the village. It didn’t take long. Consisting of places to eat and shops stacked high with overpriced souvenirs and Havaianas, Abraão is fully established as a tourist spot.

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One of the main streets down to the beach in Ilha Grande, Brazil

Part of its appeal is the lack of vehicles. People walk and cycle about the place and little boats take visitors out on day trips to more remote beaches on the island. Sixteen trails of different lengths and difficulty are mapped out for walks across the island but it’s the beaches that are the main attraction, some perfect for lounging and swimming, others for snorkelling, others still for surfing.

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Praia Preta, Ilha Grande, Brazil

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Going snorkelling at Praia Preta, Ilha Grande, Brazil

I hired some snorkelling equipment (R$15) and made my way over to nearby Praia Preta with its dusting of black sand. I wasn’t the only one with that idea. Walking away from the crowds and right along to the rocks, however,  resulted in a pleasing reward in the shape of an enclosed bit of privacy.

Swim, snorkel, sun dry, read, chat, picnic, repeat. Good times.

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Praia Preta, Ilha Grande, Brazil

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Private hideaway, Ilha Grande, Brazil

And then what else to do on the island other than window shop, eat out and indulge on tasty desserts from outdoor sweets trolleys, and sit under twinkling fairy lights on the beachfront whilst listening to street musicians as night took hold?

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Sweets stall, Ilha Grande, Brazil

Overall, with more money I could have stayed here longer, exploring secluded bays, maybe doing some diving. But Brazil is expensive for backpackers, and little islands with inflated prices proved to be even more problematic. After three nights on Ilha Grande, I bade farewell to this cute little place and boarded a boat back to the mainland.

Getting to Ilha Grande from Rio de Janeiro is pretty straightforward and takes between three to four hours. You can either take a bus with Costa Verde from RODOVIARIA (main bus terminal in Rio) to Angra do Reis where you can catch a ferry or local boat to Vila do Abraão, or book a direct transfer through your hostel/hotel. The latter can work out a little cheaper if you factor in a taxi ride to the bus terminal. All in, travel to the island should cost you in the region of R$85. Speedy return transfers are easily booked when on the island and depart three times per day.

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Brazil celebrates: an International Women’s Day present

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International Women's Day, present from hotel

Brazil, with its first female president, seemed like a good place to be based for International Women’s Day in March 2012.

If I’m honest, as with so many celebrations and important days when you’re travelling, I really had no idea that anything special was meant to be happening.

But I arrived back into my hotel room after a busy day sightseeing in Taubaté (yes, the hard life of a traveller) and there, on the coffee table, was a big, balloon modelled flower along with a little note.

A nice and colourful surprise that got me thinking about the many strong and influential women out there doing all sorts of things to ensure a better, safer and more equal future for us all.

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Just how sexy is Ipanema beach?

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Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Famous for being the place of beautiful girls, Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro is alive with energy and activity.

Back in 1962, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes wrote the song “The Girl from Ipanema” after being inspired by a tall, pretty brunette in her late teens.

Since then, Ipanema has gained itself somewhat of a reputation for being sexy, a place for people to feed their eyes on physical beauty. Does it live up to its image?

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Hanging out on Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The idea of a beach in a city always sounds quite appealing but in reality, Ipanema beach is a display of bodies packed in tightly along a narrow strip of sand.

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Surfing Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro

Surfers gather at the top end of the beach, the braver going nearer the point and dodging rocks. Teenagers play volleyball and women spill out of string bikinis whilst men stand around chatting in tiny trunks, showing off some upper bodywork.

But not everyone is perfect; there are plenty of thigh ripples and love handles on display too. It’s quite a relief really. Maybe not conventionally sexy, it definitely makes it more real. And that’s more sexy, right?

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Christ! What views

I hate ticking things off of a travel list but this iconic statue drew me in. Religious or not, Christ the Redeemer is really one of those things that you can’t and shouldn’t miss whilst in Rio de Janeiro. If nothing else, the views that show the city sprawl in amongst islands and beaches are worth the trip alone.

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Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro

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Views from Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro

Built between 1922 and 1931 and set within the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, Cristo Redentor is a popular guy. On this sunny day in March, despite it not being a busy day, it still felt packed. Good luck getting a photo without extras in the background.

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Crowds at Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro

From various viewpoints spot the famous Maracanã stadium, Rio’s largest favela of Rocinha, Sugar Loaf mountain and Copocabana and Ipenema beaches stretching off into the distance. Politely fight for a space by the railing if you want to capture the scenery.

And if you can’t make it to Brazil, it won’t be too long before you can swing by Primrose Hill in London instead, if plans to build a replica Christ the Redeemer statue go ahead.

Return minibus trips cost 25 from nearby the tram station (another option but book ahead or get there early) and drop you by the ticket office, where you queue again for another shuttle bus and eventual entry to the statue (26 real for shuttle and entry). Three hours should be enough time to get up, see the statue (and alter inside the base of the statue). On busy days, expect to queue for a lot longer.

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Favela tourism. Really?

Rocinha favela Rio de Janeiro 2010

Slum tourism, poverty tourism, poorism, call it what you like. Gaining in popularity, it´s an area of travel that is debated regularly, a topic that is complex and full of emotive response.

On my way in and out of Rio de Janeiro I drove past many, many favelas. Some just looked like rundown villages, nothing unusual when I compared them, for example, to places in Peru. Apart from this is Brazil, rich in resources, rich financially (Brazil, for example, overtook the UK economy in 2011). But whilst Brazil may well be developing at quite a rate, the disparity between rich and poor is still very apparent, both financially and healthwise. And many millions of people still live in extreme poverty.

By definition a settlement of jerry-built shacks lying on the outskirts of a Brazilian city, slums and favelas are realities of developing countries, neighbourhoods where the most desperate fringes of society try to survive life by whatever means necessary whilst living in cramped, cobbled together set-ups rife with feuding and criminality.

Various movies including City of God and Slumdog Millionaire have drawn the world’s attention to the harsh realities of favela and slum life and have been said to encourage ‘slum tourism’, much to the disgust of many.  Rio de Janeiro is visibly tapping into this trend with hostels in the city inviting middle-class travellers to spectate at favela football matches, take favela tours, go to favela parties. Favela hostels are also starting to make an appearance.

But how appropriate is it really to make favelas into a tourist attraction? And why the intrigue? Do we really need to see extreme poverty, taste a little danger in order to feel better about ourselves? Is it not voyeuristic and intrusive and a little sick to want to observe and capture other people´s misery? Is it not disrespectful?

Can slum tourism, however, actually be a good thing?

If you learn something about a different way of life, if it makes you more tolerant and understanding of other people, then that´s obviously a positive, and if your money gets to the right people and isn´t hijacked by the criminals and drug lords who run some of the slums, then maybe there is some good that can come out of all of this. Exotic Tours, for example, suggest that ´Your visit will help a local school.´ The idea of creating employment for the local community is undoubtedly another upside to favela tourism with companies such as Favela Adventures claiming to be run ´100% by residents in the favela of Rocinha´.

I´ve read so many different reports on favela tours and have a number of conflicting feelings about the whole debate. I didn´t take a tour or attend the eardrum bursting parties. For now, it didn´t appeal, didn´t feel right.

Slum tourism, poverty tourism, poorism, call it what you like. But please, don’t romanticise it.

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