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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tourists Find Charm in Rio's Favelas

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Most of the sprawling, hillside slums over Rio's posh Ipanema beach district are places where middle-class Brazilians would never go. But a growing number of tourists are shunning pricey hotels and shops to get a taste of the "real Brazil."

Gabe Ponce de Leon is one -- he came to Rio as a college exchange student in 2001 and lived the high life until he discovered the slums. Teaching English for pocket money, the New York City native got his first taste of a favela when a student took him home to Rocinha, a place whose very name makes many Brazilians fearful.

"Rocinha looks daunting from the outside, like an impregnable fortress," said Ponce de Leon, 27. "But inside it's like a hamlet, with kids playing in the streets, and you know all your neighbors."

Ponce de Leon decided to rent a room in his student's home for 145 Brazilian reals ($75) a month and immerse himself in the favela life.

"There's a lot of fun there. There are samba groups, funk dances and more bars than any other business. It's a cop-free zone, no lawyers, no bureaucracy, no corporate regulations or commercialism," he said.

Barbara Caroli of Italy caught her favela fever after glimpsing the thousand points of light gleaming each night from the jumbles of hillside houses.

"I felt it was an invitation," said Caroli, who quit her job at a real estate agency in Milan, moved to Rocinha, married and opened a preschool. "This is life. There are shootouts, and sometimes you can't sleep because of the gunfire, but you almost never see a body."

While there is no exact count of how many foreigners live in favelas, Rio's Federation of Favela Associations says the number has risen sharply, from dozens a decade ago to hundreds today.

Most got their first taste of favela life on Jeep and walking tours began in the 1990s. More recently, bed and breakfast inns have opened up in some of the less violent favelas.

One service, called "Favela Receptiva," offers rooms in favela homes, plus airport pickup, free breakfast, bed linen and telephone service.

For many years, Rio's 600 favelas occupied a romantic space in the Brazilian imagination, as the birth place of samba and the carnival groups that draw thousands of upper-class Brazilians to Rio's Samadrome parade grounds each year.

That changed in the 1980s as heavily armed gangs defended a rising cocaine trade. Today, few middle-class Brazilians have ever visited a favela, and few have any desire to do so. Stray bullets are a constant hazard, and shops often close on orders from drug bosses.

British painter Bob Nadkarni made his move in the 1970s, to the Tavares Bastos favela, at the top of a winding cobblestoned street reminiscent of the colonial era, where the road ends abruptly and a labyrinth of alleys, shops and bare-brick apartments begins.

Nadkarni discovered the favela when his maid got sick and he had to take her home. One glimpse of the spectacular Sugarloaf mountain view was enough -- he decided to build his own home there.

Now he rents rooms to visitors and features a monthly jazz night that attracts scores of outsiders, Brazilian and foreign.

Nadkarni, a burly man of 64, says many Brazilians are unjustifiably afraid of favelas.

"They'll even brag about it, and compete to see who is more afraid," he said. "But I couldn't live anywhere else."