Slum city ...a boy plays football in the favela; (below) Rocinha is only a kilometre from Rio’s famed beaches.

Slum city ...a boy plays football in the favela; (below) Rocinha is only a kilometre from Rio’s famed beaches. Photo: AFP, Lonely Planet

Ben Stubbs takes a guided tour of South America's largest favela, close to the world's most famous beaches.

The sentry in a singlet motions for me to cross the street towards him. I walk slowly, not taking my eyes from the machinegun cradled in his lap. He demands to see my camera. He balances the weapon on his knees and flicks through the images until he finds the one I snapped moments earlier with him in the foreground.

"Delete it."

My head bobs in agreement and I press the trash icon, hoping it's enough to satisfy him. He nods and waves me into the largest slum in South America.

I am in Rocinha, a favela – Portuguese for slum – of 300,000 people in the heart of Rio de Janeiro. My guide, Luiza Chavez, is showing me the other side of this glamorous city more commonly associated with golden beaches and bikinis.

Chavez takes tourists through the favela to observe the reality of life for the city's poor and marginalised. She grew up in Rocinha and is now an accredited guide. More important than her government accreditation, though, is the approval of the resident drug barons, who rule Rocinha's streets and have given Chavez permission to guide foreigners through the favela with their protection.

Rocinha sits in the cradle of a lush valley where smoke from cooking fires floats up towards the Two Brothers peaks, the barrier between the favela and Rio's famous beaches. It's is a jumble of multi-coloured houses, winding alleys and small shops pressed shoulder to shoulder in the tropical heat.

Our exploration of Rocinha isn't a tourist tour, Chavez insists; it's a social experience. The only reason tours exist is that the profits fund employment, education and medical programs in the favela. Half of Rocinha's residents can't read or write and 1 per cent have AIDS.

These tours create valuable opportunities for residents. We wander along the main street, dodging barefoot kids chasing footballs and shirtless men who watch as I pass. Chavez has been guiding people through these streets for 12 years and believes it has a positive impact on tourists and local people. "It shows a side of reality that most people don't even know exists," she says. "Other companies run drive-by tours . . . where tourists don't even get out of the van. They treat it like a safari and we're the wild animals."

One of the first stops is a locally run creche on the edge of the favela. It operates with donations and volunteers and provides shelter and care for 96 children while their parents are working elsewhere in the city.

We continue past an open sewer and turn into an alley, ducking the thick braid of electrical wiring overhead. We pass hairdressers, an internet cafe, a bank and general shop. The alley is dark; I look up and see three and four hastily constructed storeys above me.

Chavez says more than 85 per cent of the people in Rocinha are from north-east Brazil, who have moved here in the hope of finding work in the city and a tax-free existence in the favela.

The best slum residences are up high and the poorest are below, in the dark, among rubbish heaps and the sewer.

A regular home in the favela rents for $US40-$US50 ($47-$58) a month. Chavez says there are well-off citizens in Rocinha with five-storey houses, rooftop swimming pools and three-car garages, only metres away from the shanties of the poorest. As we walk, Chavez explains that while Rio's favelas are dangerous places, most people who live in them are ordinary Brazilians trying to survive.

We continue to weave up and down stairwells and along passageways and I appreciate Chavez's presence – I'm completely disoriented in the concrete maze.

We pause in the shade for a moment and I ask about the gang influence. She doesn't like them but says corrupt police are worse, so the only security is afforded by gangs with guns prowling the streets. If Chavez's watch is stolen here, all she needs to do is mention it to one of the gang members and the watch will be returned within the hour.

While there are thousands of citizens living and working here, the local government ignores many of their needs. Take the open sewer, for example. Chavez says residents have asked for help to cover the sewer many times without success. She says the national government has announced a $US11 billion budget to build and upgrade venues for the 2016 Olympic Games, ensuring there are equestrian grounds and synchronised swimming pools while slum dwellers wade through overflowing drains during the wet season.

Rio de Janeiro has 1009 registered slums, many of which suffered terrible damage and loss of life during mud slides earlier this year. Rocinha has a concrete fence around its entire eastern side below the Two Brothers peaks, which largely protected it.

We enter an uphill street of banana stalls and outdoor beer bars known as Vila Apiah, in honour of a former Italian resident who lived in Rocinha. Ten Americans teach English here, a Belgian priest holds mass at one of the 80 churches within the favela and a Chinese family runs a grocery shop.

On a narrow stairway I bump into two boys who look no older than 16. It takes me a moment to register that one is holding a machinegun half his height and the other has a revolver poking from the top of his basketball shorts. They speak quickly into their walkie-talkies and run off. My heart is still thumping when we approach a group of toddlers playing cops and robbers in a pile of smashed bricks with fluoro water pistols. Chavez berates the children for playing with the imitation weapons.

When we exit the favela, the streets seem quiet and diluted. In the rancorous, close-knit community of Rocinha, the good, the bad and the ugly are on display for all to see. Chavez and I say goodbye with two kisses on the cheek, in the Brazilian way, and she thanks me for visiting her home, the urban jungle of Rio de Janeiro.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Aerolineas Argentinas and Gecko's.

FAST FACTS
Getting there Aerolineas Argentinas has a fare to Rio of about $2090 lowseason return from Sydney, including tax, flying via Auckland to Buenos Aires (17hr including transit time), then to Rio (3hr). Melbourne passengers pay about $100 more and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. Australians require a visa for Brazil, which must be obtained before arrival.
Touring there The writer joined Gecko’s BA to Rio 12-day overland adventure. Highlights include Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Honey Island and Rio de Janeiro. The trip costs $2680 a person and includes all transport, accommodation, some meals and activities. See geckosadventures.com. To see Rocinha, the Rio-based Exotic Tours runs interesting and responsible three-hour walking tours of the favela for $US35 ($41). See www.exotictours.com.br.