No visitor to Rio de Janeiro can fail to be dazzled by the white sand beaches, the mind-boggling mountain formations and the man-made sights such as the Christ statue. But nor can visitors fail to notice the favelas that cling to the hillsides - a powerful reminder that the very rich and very poor live side by side in this city of glaring social divides.
The word favela is usually translated as "slum" or "shanty town"; this crude translation does a gross injustice to these complex and fascinating communities. And while their bloodily violent history means that the majority of visitors will give the communities very wide berth, a responsibly led favela tour is a safe way to gain a better insight into the favelas and the way they work.
Rio de Janeiro's favelas are complex communities — Photo courtesy of Favela Experience
The idea of favela tours remains a controversial one - with critics talking about "poverty tourism," and there are certainly some tour operators in Rio whose sole interest is in exploiting these communities to make a quick buck. But there are others - the most notable being Marcelo Armstrong's Favela Tour - that have built up strong links with the communities they operate in.
Marcelo Armstrong pioneered favela tourism back in the 1980s, way before it became fashionable, and his tours are the most respected in the city. Marcelo and his team of experienced, knowledgeable guides take visitors to two Rio de Janeiro favelas - Rocinha, the largest in the country, and the smaller Canoas.
Visitors are picked up from their hotel or hostel and taken by van to the communities. They're then led to various points of interest, discovering stunning views - the residents of Zona Sul favelas enjoy lofty vantage points from which to admire the beaches, mountains and jungle - as well as visiting stores and taking in capoeira performances by local groups.
Marcelo treats the communities with respect and, because of this, those on his favela tours are respected and welcomed into the communities they visit.
While Rio's favelas were long controlled by rival drug factions, many were pacified by military police in the run up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and most are now occupied by UPPs - Police Pacification Units. While these have been far from universally successful (Stories of police brutality abound.), they have opened up many favelas to tourism. Some adventurous visitors even choose to stay in some of the many guest houses, hostels and home stays that now operate in the communities.
Favela Experience is one company working with local residents to offer affordable accommodation to visitors looking to experience another side of the city, with accommodations ranging from bunk beds in favela homes to lively guest houses.