We were reversing down the winding road of the favela Vidigal in a mini-van packed with locals. Even the motos couldn’t fit through the 2-inch gap between us and the other van driver who decided to pass us when we finally found a spot to pull into on the side of the road. The van driver us was drunk and refused to reverse, because it “wasn’t his fault” that an enormous garbage truck was trying to wind down the roads of Vidigal. The worker in the passenger seat of the garbage truck got out of to attempt “traffic control.” As he tried to force the angry drunk van driver to reverse the rest of the way down the hill in order to let the garbage truck through, he sipped on a beer that he hid in his oversized work glove and drank with a long straw to cover the Brahma symbol on the beer. Eventually, he gave up and sat down in front of the market to watch the scene with the rest of the locals.
I was stuck in the backseat of the van, in a seat that was broken and kept leaning back so far that my head was suddenly in the lap of the older woman sitting behind me (I apologized but she seemed completely indifferent to the situation). I sat in awe of where I was and the situation unfolding around me. I had a feeling that this type of scene wasn’t so uncommon for the locals. The 10-year-old girl squatting down next to me (they cram in as many people as they can in these vans, and all the seats were already taken) was calmly eating her acai. Meanwhile, I was clinging onto my friend’s arms in fear that I was about to see a moto crash, or at least a fight break out with the drunk van driver next to us and everyone yelling at him to back up already.
Vidigal was not what I was expecting from a favela. It was certainly more “tourist friendly,” with açai and temaki restaurants lining the bottom of the hill. The main reason for the tourist friendly environment was exactly the reason that Jon, Luis and I had come there: the incredible hike from the top of Vidigal to the peak of Dois Irmãos. The journey to the trail head is part of the appeal. The best way to get up the hill of Vidigal is with a moto that speeds up the hill at unthinkable speeds, getting within centimeters of hitting vans, pedestrians and fellow moto drivers alike. The road is only made a maximum of one vehicle, but this does not deter the fearless drivers to speed up the winding road despite being unable to see if another car is coming around the corner. We decided to take the van up instead of the motos to try to “stick together.” After being stuck in the traffic jam of the century for over 20 minutes, I understood why the moto is the preferred method to get up the hill.
Once the drunk van driver finally backed down the hill, the garbage truck successfully made its way down the hill and out of the favela. We got up to the trailhead unscathed. In order to reach the trailhead, you have to cross a football field where the neighborhood boys were playing a heated game.
Each outlandish step of the journey to the trailhead made it hard not to wonder, is this safe? I mean it is one of Rio’s largest favelas. However, after my ride up the hill I realized this was not the kind of favela we had read about, void of rights and services. Vidigal had all the traits of a community. I was riding up a public transport system to get around the neighborhood. The neighborhood had everything: shops, restaurants, hair salons. The reason we were stuck in the traffic jam in the first place was because of a garbage truck. That’s right, public services coming up the hill! The houses were sturdy, well-structured buildings. And the locals were out on the street saying hi to their neighbors as they passed each other on the street.
The hike itself was absolutely incredible, with cute little monkeys on the trail, views at various points on the hike and the best view saved for the top! There was even a local in the middle of the trail selling açai!
We took the moto back down the hill. As I rode with my moto driver, I told him how much I had enjoyed the hike and how safe I felt in Vidigal. He told me that Vidigal is extremely safe for tourists. Locals depend on the tourism and it has created many jobs and opportunities in the favela. He urged that you were more likely to be robbed in Copacabana than in Vidigal. He also reminded me that Rio was the cidade do amor… I couldn’t argue with him there.