With David Beckham and Madonna reportedly owning pricy pads in Rio De Janeiro's favelas and with hotel owners competing to construct luxe hotels in these previously ignored areas, Brazil's shanty city's are now less slummy and more stunning. The mishmash of houses packed and stacked like wobbling jenga cubes are seen as key investment properties, no longer so hidden from society.
In a city with Christ the Redeemer, Ipanema beach and Sugar Loaf mountain, favelas are the newest addition to the list of tourist attractions, both in taking a guided tour, visiting bars and restaurants or even sleeping in a favela guesthouse. Since the time when they were first built in the late 19th Century, originally designed as somewhere to house former slaves who'd arrived in Rio with no money, no chance of finding work and certainly no land ownership, Rio's favelas have exploded. Growing faster than the bustling city has.
'Slum Tourism' can be found, not just in Brazil, but also India and South Africa, where you can take guided tours to peak into the world of those who call these slums home. In Rio and Sao Paulo these tours are a lucrative commercial business. Trained tour guides, usually led by residents, take you around a pre-planned circuit including stopping off at community centres or schools that have been funded for with the tour profits. You can find Wi-Fi, banks, cafes, shops and places of worship tucked away in the myriad of winding alleyways.
When I was in Rio I asked a Brazilian guy working in the hostel where I was staying, what he thought about the boom in slum tours. He scratched his head and rolled his eyes asking me if I'd pay to visit the ghettos of Paris or rough estates in London. For them, the favelas are the same thing. A place you live or go because of necessity, because you don't earn enough (if at all) and the rents are too high elsewhere so you have to live like sardines amongst dangerous gangs, drug dealers, sporadic gun shootouts, unsanitary facilities and pollution in poverty.
The Brazilian government keen to clean up their most visited cities before the influx of tourists, according to some, created favela rehabilitation programmes, moving thousands of residents out to rural areas, getting tougher with crimes and placing police units inside to track down gang leaders and drug traffickers. In the last few years, and thanks in part to the cash spent on the 2014 World Cup and the planned 2016 Summer Games, favelas have had a makeover especially in Rio. Many have been upgraded to fuse them back into the inner city, attracting middle classes to move in and live there meaning more tourist friendly bars, restaurants, cafes and guesthouses have opened for business.
But going on one of these slum tours brings up the question of ethics. Are they just voyeuristic excursions or simply showing a rounded view of the city as a whole? Warts and all?
My sceptical hostel worker did have to admit that one good thing about these favela tours is that they draw attention and awareness for the favela dwellers, the underprivileged population who live there. To show that these people are far more than drug lords and criminals that they've been perceived for so long. They also show travellers the darker underbelly of the huge cities that Rio and Sao Paulo cannot shy away from.
Going on one of these tours, sleeping in a favela guesthouse or having dinner in a tourist friendly favela restaurant does offer an alternative to mainstream Rio. So, would YOU spend a night sleeping in a slum?