The pull of Rio's shanty towns

Rio de Janeiro's numerous slums, or favelas, are notorious for being full of drugs, crime and guns. But, a growing number of favela dwellers are trying to change that image, wooing foreigners with their own style of hospitality. The BBC's Emma Joseph reports.

Louis Bento sits on the balcony of his house in the favela and tells me why he loves his neighbourhood so much.

Perched just above one of Rio de Janeiro's most famous beaches, Copacabana, and with a breathtaking view of the bay, it's easy to understand why.

After all, as Barry Manilow famously sang, it was at Copacabana that people fell in love.

One in three of Rio's estimated six million residents live in the slums, according to UN figures. Many have their own transport networks, schools, and some hospitals.

Louis is university-educated and is from a new generation of favela dwellers who take great pride in the place where they grew up.

The 'real' Rio

A growing number are turning their homes into hostels so that people from all over the world have a chance to enjoy what his family describes as the "real Rio experience".

In the past year, at least half a dozen other hotels have sprung up in Rio's slums, many of them with spectacular views of the city.

The Bentos' three-storey house is nestled right at the heart of Chapeau Mangueira.

Many of the houses in this favela have been built over two or three floors. Some residents have received grants from the government to extend their homes and install good sanitation and drinking water.

Walking through the house, there are all the modern conveniences - television, DVD and, most importantly, a computer with e-mail.

"All of my clients get in touch by e-mail," says Louis. Most of them come from America.

Image problem

"Foreigners get something here that they will never get in the fancy hotels," he says.

"They get a chance to be with the real people. If you see the films about favelas in Rio they are all about violence, 99% of the people here are good people who work. Why don't they show this side of the community?"

What appears to be the sound of gunshots rings out across the neighbourhood.

"Oh no, that's just fireworks," explains Louis. "It's because the football is on."

As the fireworks continue to explode and the Sun begins to set in the slum, Louis gets an unexpected visit. An American woman has walked up the hill and through the labyrinthine maze of alleyways, to get to the hotel.

Golbourne is an Iranian American, who stayed at the hotel and has very fond memories of her visit. On the night I was there, she brought her aunt and mother to meet Louis.

The two of them embrace each other, and Golbourne explains why she could not resist coming back to the favela hotel.


"You come in through this jungle of brick and cement, and then you get into this beautiful paradise," says Golbourne, who first stayed at the Bentos last New Year's Eve.

"I walked in and the whole family atmosphere was amazing. There was all this food, all this love, the fireworks, the beautiful view and I remembered my way and I came back. That, in itself, was something of an achievement as there are no street names and no signs."

Golbourne does admit that there are risks involved. "You do hear gunshots," she says. "That is a reality.

"Most people think the favela is unsafe, but I feel safer in here," explains Golbourne. "You are more likely to be robbed down there in the well-to-do neighbourhoods, because nobody in here steals from their neighbours, " Golbourne says.

But, perhaps the most important thing for people like Golbourne is that she feels as though she is investing in the future of Rio's two million slum dwellers, many of whom still live on a few dollars a day.

"When I help Louis's family I know that it's going to something of substance, because after all this is where the heart of Brazil comes from."

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