Brazilian Shantytown Has $1M Views

Favela: It's a word that arouses both fear and fascination. Its feral side has been captured in films such as "City of God" and more recently, the award-winning "Elite Forces."

In Rio, there are an estimated 700 of these shantytowns clinging precariously to the city's hills. About 1 million people inhabit these poverty-stricken enclaves, often at the mercy of the drug trafficker.

Every so often, police conduct raids to clear the area of traffickers but these actions often result in the dead bodies of innocent bystanders.

But aside from the danger and corruption that the favela has come to represent, it is a vibrant community that has been luring tourists to see this other side of Brazil.

Away from the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, a visit to a favela is one way of avoiding the anodyne experience of a typical package holiday with the rest of the tourists.

One such fellow who's giving tourists an alternative view of Rio is British filmmaker Bob Nadkarni. For the last 26 years, Nadkarni has made his home in the Tavares Bastos favela in downtown Rio. Climbing up the steep cobblestone hill, it's easy to see why he fell in love with this area. The view is incredible.

On arriving at the top of the hill, where the favela begins, one only has to ask someone for "a casa do Bob" — that's Portuguese for Bob's house — and someone will direct you through the narrow alleyways all the way to The Maze, Bob's guesthouse and art gallery.

The entrance to the guesthouse is surprisingly deceptive. Climbing up the stairs to the house you enter the hall and then before you is the picture-postcard sight of Rio, a millionaire's view of the city right before your eyes.

Nadkarni first discovered the Tavares Bastos favela when he was dropping his maid home one day. Seeing the view from where she lived, he was immediately smitten and promptly moved to the same favela, building his house from scratch.

For two years he walked the 2-mile stretch up the steep hill, carrying sacks of cement to build his home. The locals, amused by this gringo, placed bets that he wouldn't last there. Twenty-six years later, he's still there.

There's a distinctly bucolic feel to the place, despite the fact that you're right in the middle of the city.

"It's a little bit of our own lost past," Nadkarni told me as we were wandering through the alleyways. "When people come here they find something they can't get anymore in a big city."

And the tourists agree. Here is a place where people can drop by with some food and prepare a barbecue for the guests and have a chance to relax away from the buzz of Rio, and why not sit back and take in the spectacular view while enjoying a conversation with the other guests.

Jo and Dominique were two guests that weekend who had flown in from London.

"I couldn't be anymore pleased to be here," said Jo. "It's so very different from a hotel and it's nice to be in a place where there's real Brazilian life."

Much of the reason why the guesthouse flourishes is the fact that it is remarkably safe. One reason is that perched on top of the favela stands the barracks of the BOPE — the Brazilian SWAT forces that strike fear into the heart of the drug traffickers and corrupt police officers.

When BOPE moved in seven years ago, the gun battles and drug traffickers disappeared, leaving the community breathing a sigh of relief.

Since then the favela has gone from strength to strength — it is now finding fame as a location set for films and TV — including the last "Hulk" movie.

"We've got rid of the bad side," Nadkarni said. "That struggle to get out of that lower-class citizen situation, which the only out way would have from drug running. Now we've got rid of that we now live in paradise regained."

The Maze is open all year around and rooms start at $43 per night.

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