Going on a Favela Tour definitely gives you a perspective of Brazilian society beyond the basic tourist attractions. This part walking, part mini-bus tour is 3 hours long and takes you inside Rochinha, the biggest slum in Latin America.
To get there, you drive up the hill through one of Rio's wealthiest neighbourhoods with picturesque views of Christ the Redeemer before hitting narrow streets littered with garbage. The houses in the favelas are built with a mishmash of materials and are randomly stacked on top of each other like Jenga building blocks. About 20% of Rio's population live in one of the 500-some favelas and earn a salary of around $350/month. It's the classic example of a city of contrasts between Rio's social elite and the poorest of the poor.
Here, there are strict hierarchies of gangs and drug lords in charge (forget the po-po) and they are far less tolerant of criminals within the community. Apparently residents don't even bother locking their doors because crimes like robbery or sexual assualt are punished by dire consequences or even death.
So I admit I felt uneasy at the beginning of the tour. You never know who will be around the corner and if you just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, like in line of gun fire or in the middle of a drug transaction... well lets just say be careful and always stick close to your tour guide. Also be respectable and DO NOT take photos of anyone in the favelas without getting permission first. Buildings and anything scenic is fine but they actually have people on the lookout and I was with some tourist who were asked to erase photos because they accidently snapped shots of something they weren't supposed to see. Yes, there is criminal activity happening all around but as long as you don't intrude and appear nosy, you are welcome and left alone.
With this said, the Rio Government is stepping in to improve the sitatuion and has created programs for education, leisure, legal housing, proper street maintenance and overall making the neighbourhood safer. These Favelas Tours are also initatives to create awareness to the public that this part of Brazilian society is often wrongfully stigmatized and misunderstood. So if you are ever visiting Rio, this eye-opening experience is definitely not to be missed!