The tour starts where the asphalt stops, at the top of a steep alley that begins just a block from the beach and wends its way up behind the pricey high-rise towers to a starkly segregating boundary. On one side lies the legal part of the city, served by cab drivers and postal carriers and ambulances; on the other side lies the no man's land of irregular slum housing known in Rio de Janeiro as a favela.
Our guide into this particular unknown is 31-year-old Marcelo Quirino, a lifelong resident of this irregular hillside community known as Babilonia, which clings to a hillside just a Frisbee toss from one of Rio's most famous beaches. Smiling, dressed in a clean white shirt and pressed khaki walking shorts, Quirino introduces himself to his small tour group: a pair of American women, lawyers in Rio de Janeiro on business, a Dutch tourist and a Canadian reporter.
Middle-aged, middle-class and not especially trendy, we represent the cutting edge of tourism, at least according to a report on world travel trends unveiled in London recently at World Travel Market, the flagship trade fair of international tourism. According to Euromonitor International, "safe-danger" or "controlled-edge" experiences represent a hot new growth area in travel. The thinking: Tourists jaded with the soft adventure of bungee jumping and whitewater rafting will instead line up to tour violent fringe communities, or traipse through former combat zones and chat with child soldiers.
This expanding niche -- dubbed "poorism" by some media outlets -- sparks questions. Much effort is often made by travellers to experience a country's character (and wine and dine like locals.) Do reality tours provide meaningful experiences and a true window on the world? Or is it simply exploitation of the poor?
This trend of "safe-danger" or "reality tours" first began in South America with tours of marginal shantytown communities, such as the ones in Rio de Janeiro. According to figures from the latest Brazilian census, there are more than 500 f avelas large and small in Rio de Janeiro, home to about 1.5 million people, or nearly 25 per cent of the urban population.
Tourism in these shantytowns began in 1992, when a then 24-year-old middle-class Brazilian named Marcelo Armstrong set up Favela Tour, and began taking tourists into Rio's largest shantytown, Rocinha.
Armstrong had worked as a guide at an African Club Med, and thought people were looking for something that brought them a little closer to the reality of the country they were visiting. The business struggled for years, both for respectability and for tourists, but then in 1995 it was listed in a Lonely Planet guidebook, and has never looked back.
From Rio, "reality tourism" spread to other cities in South America, and to the rest of the world. In Argentina, there are tours of the villas miserias or "misery villages" on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, while in India there are visits to the tanneries, pottery sheds and soap factories of Mumbai's massive Dharavi shantytown, and walking tours amid the drug addicts and the homeless of Delhi railway station slums. Africa, according to the Global Trends Report (which reported on a range of travel trends from singles travel to "babymoons") could be the real gold mine for controlled-edge tours, given its abundance of marginally controlled communities and wealth of recent warfare.
Already, South Africa offers sleepovers in bed-and-breakfasts in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, site of some of the most violent repression of the Apartheid era.
In Somalia, an enterprising Mogadishu resident has opened an unofficial Black Hawk Down museum. Sierra Leone, recently emerged from a 10-year civil war, should leave off trying to sell nature tourism and concentrate instead on safe danger, the report suggests.
"Africa has more than a sufficient supply of destinations offering controlled-edge experiences," says Euromonitor's Global Trends Report as reported in British media. "Places such as Freetown in Sierra Leone could offer a package in which tourists are escorted by armed guards around no-go areas in highly volatile cities."
Many of these tours channel some of their profits back into the communities they visit, but that still may not justify turning the community itself into a tourism attraction, according to Professor David Fennell of Brock University, the author of the book Tourism Ethics. "Maybe you give 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 per cent of the profit back to the community, but you've now commodified these people, you've turned them into a product in the service of an industry. I'm not sure that's ethical."
Around the world, it's hard to gauge how many tourists are going in for edge tourism, Brock says. Reliable statistics aren't kept on these kinds of tours. But he is fairly sure the numbers are likely to grow, driven by two factors.
The first is the Western tourist's hyper-inflated sense of entitlement. "We feel we have the right to go anywhere we want on the planet," Fennell says. "Everest. Antarctica. The Amazon. Wherever. If you put your money down, you have a right to go."
The second factor, he says, is a basic aspect of human nature, albeit a "somewhat perverse" one. "You see people living in a shack or a shantytown, and it makes you feel good about yourself. It makes you think, 'How fortunate I am not to be in that situation.' "
Back in Babilonia, Quirino leads us up a flight of concrete steps to the pride and joy of this favela, a newly built two-storey community centre that houses the residents association, the low-wattage, ultra-local radio station and the community kitchen. On the concrete apron out front, three or four kids on tricycles zoom around the courtyard, under the watchful eyes of their mothers. All around, small brick houses on stilts stand jumbled up cheek by jowl, a cat's cradle of overhead wires testament to the electricity coursing through the heart of the community.
"How does it feel," I ask Quirino, "to know that the people you show around your community may well have spent the morning hiking through the rain forest, or looking at snakes and monkeys in the zoo?"
"Clearly, the people who come here don't look at us in the same way as they look at someone from Germany or Canada or even the way they would look at someone from the asfalto," he says, using the Brazilian term for a resident of the flat, middle-class, legal part of the city, "but I don't think they see us as animals. The people who come here are mostly very curious. They ask very basic questions: "Do you have water?"; "Do you work?"; "Does [President]Lula [da Silva]ever come here?"
They go away surprised, Quirino says. Surprised that the community is not as poor as they expected, and surprised at the level of organization that exists.
These Babilonia walking tours are still a relatively new initiative. Though begun with high hopes in 2005, a disagreement within the local residents association over how to divide the profits and a lack of organization have left the project on a somewhat shaky footing. Quirino is now the only one pushing the scheme, taking tourists whenever he can slot them in between his full-time studies of international relations at university. As yet, fewer than one hundred tourists have made the trip.
Later, via e-mail, I contact two Canadians who took the journey with Quirino in October, 2006, and ask them why.
"I was looking for a way to really understand what these places are, and who live in them," says Catherine-Amelie Meury of Toronto. "Voyeuristic? Maybe. But it felt better not to bring a camera, just our curiosity and humanity."
"It was shocking," says fellow Toronto resident Yanik Baron. "The living conditions are worse, the comunidade makeup is more complex than I could have imagined . . . and the people in there are nicer than you would imagine. Real people, trying hard to make a living outside a system that merely pities them."
Elsewhere in Rio, the granddaddy of shantytown tourism, Armstrong's Favela Tour, took more than 800 visitors a month on a four-hour journey through Rocinha.
"A very small percentage are thrill seekers," says Armstrong, who keeps detailed statistics on his clientele. "Backpackers, who think they're doing something underground, getting out on the edge. That's maybe 10 per cent of my clientele. The vast majority are older, more intelligent, more curious. To be honest, I think I attract a better class of tourist."
Armstrong's website and flyers emphasize the discovery and the cultural aspect of touring a favela, not depravity and danger. But as Favela Tour has grown and shown the success of shantytown tourism, other operators have also come slumming. There are a half-dozen tour operators now in Rio offering visits to Rocinha. Some make it part of a package, with a morning visit to the rain forest to see the trees and tamarinds, and an afternoon spent looking at the poor.
"There's one called Jungle Tours," Armstrong says, "They tour the favela in open jeeps, painted in camouflage. To me, that seems inappropriate. Voyeuristic."
At the fringes of the business, there are a couple of operators that emphasize the edgier aspect of touring a favela: the violence, and possibility of running into the drug-dealing gangs that patrol and enforce order inside many Rio favelas.
"The traffickers are there. I don't cover up that fact on my tours," Armstrong says. "But to make it the focal point of the tour glamorizes the violence, instead of pointing it out as a problem that needs to be dealt with."
Back in Babilonia, Quirino is leading us past an informal checkpoint, a spot where the drug-dealing network that enforces order in Babilonia has stationed a guard. This foot soldier in the drug war is but a kid, by his looks no older than 19, wearing flip-flops and baggy shorts, a .38-calibre revolver tucked into his ragged waistband. He looks at us, and at Quirino, and just nods. It's so subtle, the others in the group don't even notice.
"Everyone here knows me," Quirino explains, "and they know that you're with me. That makes it okay."
This informal network of recognition is one of the reasons tourists can't simply tour a favela on their own. Outsiders who enter are normally accosted and asked to explain who they are and where they're going. If they can't give a convincing answer, they are turned back. As for the presence of armed drug traffickers in their midst, as a lifelong resident of a favela, Quirino's perspective is somewhat different from that of a middle-class Brazilian.
"In the U.S., they call Hezbollah a terrorist organization," Quirino explains. "But in Lebanon, Hezbollah provides schools, health care, housing for the people who had their homes destroyed. Hezbollah is something that grew up in the absence of the state, to provide services the state wasn't providing. For us, the traffickers are much the same."
In the absence of the state, the drug traffickers provide basic services such as law and order. No one steals inside a favela, Quirino explains, for the simple reason that those who are caught are executed. There's no rape or other violent crime either: Inside the favela, there is zero crime, because there is zero tolerance; the only punishment is death.
We hear singing and hike up to a small clearing where a dozen kids -- the youngest about two, the oldest maybe 10 -- stand beating an abandoned refrigerator, whacking it to a syncopated beat while singing the chorus to what Quirino tells me is a very old soldier's marching song. One of the American women snaps a photo. The kids smile and giggle, but keep the beat.
"The Brazilian middle class never come here," Quirino tells me. The statistics kept by Armstrong of Favela Tour show this to be true: In all the years he has offered the tour, fewer than 1 per cent of his clientele have been Brazilian. "Historically, the Brazilian elite have tried to ignore us. Block us from view. Pretended we're not even part of the landscape," Quirino says. Numerous favelas, Babilonia included, have had its houses bulldozed and their residents expulsed, only to slowly grow back again.
Quirino's great grandmother was one of the first residents of Babilonia. She moved to the hillside near the turn of the last century, after spending the first part of her life as a slave. His family has been on the hillside ever since.
The fact that foreigners want to come and see how they live, Quirino explains, helps give favela residents a sense that they are a genuine part of the city, as integral to Rio as the Sugarloaf or the Statue of Christ on the mountaintop.
"That's not just important, it's importissimo," he says.
He leads off just a short distance to a viewpoint where the city opens up below us. Behind us, the fridge-thwacking shifts to a slightly different beat and the kids' chorus breaks out into Cidade Maravilhosa, the anthem of Rio de Janeiro. Marvellous city, full of a thousand enchantments, marvellous city, heart of my Brazil. All of Copacabana lies spread out before us, an eight-kilometre crescent of sand and sun and high-rise buildings, visible here like no where else in Rio.
Pack your bags
TOURS IN RIO
Babilonia Residents Association: 55 (21) 2542-0063. Led by resident and university student Marcelo Quirino.
Favela Tour: 55 (21) 3322-2727, . The original slum-tour company, founded in 1992 by Marcelo Armstrong.
Indiana Jungle Tours: 55 (21) 2484-2279, . The tour company that takes people through the Rocinha in camouflage-painted jeeps.
Be a Local: 55 (21) 9643-0366; . This company takes tourists on visits to favelas, and to late-night funk clubs in the favela.
Reality Tours and Travels: Mumbai; 91 (22) 228-33872, . A four-and-half-hour tour through a boys' shelter, Kamathipura (Mumbai's red-light district) Dhobi Ghat, a Mahim slum, and Dharavi.
Salaam Baalak Trust: New Dehli; 91 (11) 9873-130383, . A charitable organization in Delhi. It offers "a walk into the street life of Delhi," which takes tourists through a day in the life of street children at the railway station.
Semester-at-Sea: Chennai; . It organizes "reality-based" education programs. The Chennai part of the program takes guests on a tour of the Nampet Choolaimedu slum.
Soweto B & B Association: Soweto; . Guests can sleep over in the Johannesburg township. The tour of the township, featured recently in the film Tsotsi, reveals shacks, hospitals and the Nelson Mandela museum, while the money from the tours helps to regenerate the area. Trips can be booked as part of longer itineraries with Rainbow Tours: 44 (20) 7226-1004, .