Rio de Janeiro favela tours and accommodation: Why tourists are flocking to the city's seedy underbelly

It almost feels festive. Daylight is fading on another brilliant Rio de Janeiro day; far below us, the last hardy sun-worshippers are packing up and scurrying away from Copacabana beach. This great city is shifting modes, from the beach to the bar, from day to night.

Up here in the favela, drinks are being served. Couples and groups of friends have gathered on the deck at Bar do Alto to enjoy cocktails and take in the view. The burble of conversation is broken only by the occasional crackle and fizz of fireworks being set off nearby. One soon soars into the purple sky and bursts high above us. It feels like the party is about to begin.

"Those fireworks are to warn the other residents," says Leticia, my guide, interrupting my reverie. "To tell them that the police are nearby."

Ah. Every now and then you forget where you are. You forget that although the Morro da Babilonia favela has been "pacified", it's still a favela. Dodgy stuff still goes down here, especially once night has set in.

But maybe that's part of the appeal for the drinkers tonight at Bar do Alto. They've had to get here the hard way, climbing the endless concrete stairs that begin in the fancy Leme neighbourhood below and lead up through Morro do Babilonia, past ramshackle homes and staring eyes, past schools and community centres and places of worship, to a cocktail bar set right at the top.

If it seems strange that there's a popular bar in one of Rio de Janeiro's notorious favelas, it shouldn't. Bar do Alto is one of a growing number of establishments – from bars to restaurants, hostels to art galleries – that have begun popping up in parts of the city previously known more for drug trafficking and violence.

In Morro do Babilonia, the closest favela to famed Copacobana, there are at least 10 hostels, plus the award-winning Bar do Alto, and the more upmarket bar, Estrelas da Babilonia. Just across in neighbouring Chapeu Manguiera favela, you can see the twinkling lights of Bar do David, which recently won first place at the Comida di Buteco, Brazil's awards for bar and pub food.

And there are more across the city. In Tavares Bastos favela, near Ipanema Beach, Maze has become a popular nightlife hotspot. In Santa Marta, Bar do Zequinha is attracting a mix of locals and curious tourists with its cocktails and food. In Vidigal, perhaps the city's most tourist-friendly favela, Bar Lacubaco serves traditional seafood stews.

Not so long ago, the success of outliers like these would have been unthinkable. Rio's favelas – home to more than 10 million people living across almost 1000 settlements, none of which are even included on city maps – were infamous no-go zones.

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Most aren't officially on the electricity grid; some don't have sanitation services or even garbage pick-ups. The residents are often the poorest of the poor, living in the hills high above Rio's elite.

Over the last decade or so, however, things have been changing. Rio's Pacifying Police Unit – the UPP – has been systematically reclaiming favelas from the drug lords and their gangs. More than 200, including Morro do Babilonia, where I'm now sitting with cocktail in hand, have been declared "pacified".

That's what encouraged Rubens Zerbinato, who was born and raised in the house beneath my feet, to turn the rooftop of his family home into a bar, to encourage the citizens of the asfalto – the asphalt-paved streets of Leme – to climb the stairs and enjoy the view. Tourists, inevitably, soon caught on, and most days there's now a steady stream of the curious and the daring making their way up and down through Babilonia.

And with a shortage of hotel rooms in the city for the Olympic Games, many tourists have opted to find accommodation here in the favelas. 

Tonight, as kids kick a football in the street nearby, and fireworks sparkle and fade over the hilltop, the scene at Bar do Alto is friendly and relaxed. It's not fancy – just a few wooden tables and chairs looking over one of the best views in the city – but it is fun.

Rubens is mixing drinks, plenty of his now-famous caipichopps, a play on the traditional Brazilian caipirinha, with shots of apple flavouring to turn the drinks iridescent green. People of all creeds and colours are chatting and drinking. There's Brazilian hip-hop playing over a stereo. Copacabana lies far below, gradually dissolving into a carpet of twinkling lights.

Maybe those fireworks are a sign that all is not quite as it seems. But they do add to the atmosphere.

See also: The 20 must-do highlights of Rio

See also: Video - 36 hours in Rio

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

chimuadventures.com/destinations/south-america/brazil.

GETTING THERE

LATAM Airlines offers seven one-stop flights a week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, aboard 787 Dreamliners, with connections to Rio de Janeiro. Call 1800 126 038, or see latam.com.

DRINKING THERE

Chimu Adventures offers personalised tours of Rio that can include visits to the favelas bars and restaurants. Call 1300 773 231, or see the website above.

* Smart Traveller warns travellers to exercise a high degree of caution when travelling to Brazil.

See smartraveller.gov.au

The writer travelled as a guest of Chimu Adventures

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