I don't know why I did it. Maybe it was because it was cloudy so beaches or views weren't appropriate.
The tour was of the largest favela (shanty town) in Rio, called Rocinha, which in true Rio style is located in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in Brasil. We also visited a smaller favela, Vino Canoas, in which they support a community school.
I'm not a fan of poverty tourism, which I think demeans everyone involved. After the patronising "Oh ... so you're poor?", there is always the unspoken coda "Glad I'm not." Where I feel this tour differed is that as well as recognising the obvious negative elements, there is also a strong emphasis on the positive aspects such as the creativity and skill present in the favelas if it is only given an opportunity to express itself.
If it helps, I did feel thoroughly worthless by the end of the trip and utterly in awe of the incredible work that these people have done for years on end.
Favelas orginated when ex-slaves were promised a piece of land to fight for the government in the civil war of 1893. When they had the temerity to claim it, they were given a piece of the hillside above Rio as that difficult land was unfashionable at the time. Now, of course, that land commands some of the best views in the city. And as more people came in from the coast, extra floors were added and the favela became (un)progressively more crowded.
Now, almost 20% of Rio's 6.2m people live in one of the 600+ favelas. It's a complete other world that few tourists and indeed few Brasilians visit.
But you can. See local artists, find the old F1 track, talk to the schoolchildren and walk through the crowded maze of rickety buildings. But don't worry, most of the time you are driven round in a van as your guide, Christina, shouts hellos to passing friends.
But the part that affected me most was the "Para Ti" ("For You") community school (www.parati.inf.br). Normal schools in the favelas are usually half days to allow them to teach twice as many children. Those free afternoons when they aren't in school are the times when kids can get lured into the lurid side of life in the favela. So an Italian couple living next to the favela set up a place where children could spent that half day constructively. Over 20 years later, it´s still going strong.
I used "Favela Tours" (Tel 3322-2727) who operate two 3hr tours daily at 9am and 2pm. The price was R65 (US$30), with half of that going to the local community. They´ll even pick you up at your hotel. Their website www.favelatour.com.br has more info.
I'm not sure I quite knew what I was getting myself into when I called and booked the tour for that afternoon, but I'm glad I did. Fun isn't the word, but it was one of the most interesting tours I've done and showed the Rio beyond the beaches.