The Reality of Rio

Lisa McCurdy
3 min readFeb 27, 2019

(This post first appeared on my work-related blog in the Summer of 2016, but I wanted to re-post it in the same place as all of my other travel-related material)

August 2016: Let me start off by saying that I myself have not set foot into a Favela in Rio de Janeiro. There are a number of companies that offer ‘tours’ in busses of the Favelas but, to me, this sounds extremely wrong. People living in Favelas are not zoo animals to be ogled and I can’t wrap my mind around this idea.

Most people’s understanding of Favela’s comes from the movie “City of God,” made in 2002, which is based on a true story about growing up in a Favela (Sidenote, it actually does exist, the Cidade de Deus, and a judoka who grew up there just won the gold medal in the Olympics. I digress). The film is difficult and violent, but truly eye-opening.

Today’s Rio is an interesting city in that the “poor” and “rich” areas are side by side — there aren’t really stark divides, it can even be as simple as a good street and a bad street. The majority of Rio is more moderate than one end of the scale, but more than 25% of the city’s population of 6.32 million live in Favelas.

Favelas are informal communities that have grown within the confines of the city. They were established without government oversight and, for the most part, are run internally, with the occasional intervention from Rio police. (As the Olympics approached, these interventions became more frequent, but that’s another story for another day.)

A short documentary clip by Vox media provides some really good information and history on Favelas, as well as exploring the non-violent parts of their personalities:

So, why am I writing about this when I’m mostly writing about sailing?

Well, I came across this photo the other day, and unfortunately, the photographer's name was not credited but it did strike me. It was captioned, “The Other Side of the Olympics.”


The photo shows children from a Favela (I’m not sure which) watching the fireworks from Maracanã Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics in Rio. It’s such a stark contrast of realities that it really speaks to the personality of this city.

While here in Rio, I’ve lived almost entirely in a bubble that stretches from the Marina da Gloria back to my apartment. This bubble is dotted with Force Nationale soldiers, policemen and women, friendly neighbors and, for the most part, clean streets. I travel from bubble to bubble, from the Marina (guarded by police and metal detectors) to the Media center in Barra (through more security), and then back to another bubble in Copacabana (behind a gate and fence)…it’s all very regulated and planned out so that visitors don’t have to see anything unpleasant, to be exposed to anything less than ideal.

But, my experience is not the entire story of Rio. While I don’t have the time or resources, or to be perfectly honest the intention, to spend more time in the nitty-gritty of this city, I do think it’s important to acknowledge the entire picture. That picture, above.

The Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in 2014 exacerbated Rio’s divides even more, creating a whole new set of economic problems. News outlets seem to delight in reporting the next mugging, the next violence, the next viral outbreak here. Communities were destroyed to make room for new Olympic stadiums. And it’s true, Rio has a ton of problems. But the majority of the people here are nice, they’re helpful, creative and funny, and even if they didn’t want the Olympics, they’re embracing the people who have come here to compete, to report, and to spectate in the warmest possible way.

It’s a very difficult city to understand and to explain, but that’s what makes it so special.