When I first moved to Rio in 2007, most people I met feared the favelas. It was the height of the drug war, and police and traffickers were constantly engaged in shootouts. My limited interactions with these neighborhoods would be during raids, when other journalists and I would gather in sanctioned-off areas wearing bullet-proof vests for protection. 

While many of these communities are still affected by violence and other problems (i.e, poor trash collection, limited health care services, etc), their relationship with outsiders has changed. A 2013 study by the Brazilian Ministry of Tourism found more than 50% of Rio’s tourists (both national and foreign) are interested in visiting a favela. 

View of Christ the Redeemer statue and Favela Santa Marta.

Access to mobile and internet communication has also improved allowing entrepreneurs, like Thiago Firmino, to connect with people from all over the world.

“For fourteen years I was a professional dancer and DJ,” Firmino said, as we spoke from his open-air laje (rooftop). “The tours were just something I did on the side. As demand grew, I retired from music and decided to do this full time.” 

Thiago Firmino (left) with Jared Leto and Favela Santa Marta Tour guide Pedro Monteiro Photo courtesy of Thiago Firmino/Favela Santa Marta Tour

Launched in 2010, Favela Santa Marta Tour has brought millions of visitors to this small favela, including celebrities like Jared Leto, Alicia Keys and Bradley Cooper. 

The guided walking tours can last anywhere from 40 minutes to 5 hours. On the day I went, I joined a group of fifty teenagers from several different countries who were visiting Rio with an international NGO. 

As we entered the favela, their bright red t-shirts beamed under the noon sun and 35 C degree heat. Our tour included Capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) lessons, kite making and a steep hike through Santa Marta’s vielas (alleyways or streets).

Tour group and locals face off in Capoeira “roda”

Established in the 1930s, the vertical favela was built on top of the 350-meter-high Dona Marta mountain, in the south zone neighborhood of Botafogo. The land originally belonged to the nearby Santo Inacio school, which allowed some of its more humble workers to build homes there.

Santa Marta, which is home to roughly 5,000 people, is best known as the backdrop for Michael Jackson’s 1996 video “They Don’t Care About Us.”


Jackson’s clip opens with a shot of Rio’s internationally renowned Christ the Redeemer statue and a female voice saying “Michael, they don’t pay attention to us” in Portuguese. It quickly transitions to the pop star singing and dancing in the favela and in Pelourinho square in Salvador (the capital of the state of Bahia).

The American icon’s visit was received with mixed reactions by both authorities and Rio’s favela residents. A 1996 New York Times article, captures the tension: 

The knowledge that the poverty here will be used as an international image of urban misery has sparked an emotional debate dividing the ‘Marvelous City,’ as Rio likes to be called […] Ronaldo Cezar Coelho, the state secretary for Industry, Commerce and Tourism, complained that such a video would damage the city’s image […] Rather than opposing the filming of the video, the residents of Santa Marta from children to older people seem to be fairly crackling with the excitement about it.

At the time, the favela was controlled by the Comando Vermelho gang. It is rumored that director Spike Lee paid the drug leadership a sizable fee in order to be authorized to film. Jackson also hired 50 favela residents to provide security, the NY Times article reported.

Firmino walking through Santa Marta

Firmino was fifteen when the King of Pop’s helicopter landed in the favela. Nearly twenty years later, he still recalls the influence the visit had over him and his community. 

“Michael Jackson indirectly changed all of our lives,” Firmino said. “All of those people wanting to visit: celebrities, tourists, even the pacification program, they all came because he put us on the map.”


The first time I went to Santa Marta was in 2008, when the police seized the favela from the Comando Vermelho. This time, the black helicopters that circulated belonged to the BOPE (Rio’s elite police squad) and carried officers with long arms instead of the American icon.

The police takeover took several hours and dozens of suspected drug traffickers were arrested. No one was injured (which was rare in confrontations between police and gangs at the time) and the operation to set up the first Police Pacifying Unit was seen as a success.

Elderly woman stands outside of her apartment in Santa Marta favela as tour goes by.

According to Rio de Janeiro state’s public safety department, Santa Marta was chosen as the model for the pilot program due to its size and because it only has one main access.

However, most of Santa Marta’s residents did not embrace the program at first. For years, the relationship between these communities and the state had been fractured. Abandonment by the government led the traffickers to establish a parallel system, which provided the favela with black market versions of services that were lacking (i.e, electricity, cooking gas, cable television, etc). Many moradores (the people who live in the favelas) saw the police as the enemy.

“We were the guinea pigs, so they had to work out some kinks,” Firmino said. “We have had our ups and downs, but I think overall it has been a good thing for Santa Marta. That doesn’t mean it works in every favela.”

The UPP program recently celebrated its sixth anniversary in Santa Marta and has been established in nearly forty other favelas throughout the city. While gang presence has been reduced in Firmino’s neighborhood, other areas still struggle with the remaining embers of drug violence and police corruption.

Services, like free wifi and a tram system (known as the plano inclinado) that helps people living in the top of the favela reach street-level, were set up in Santa Marta but costs for the favelas residents have increased.

“There are people who have left now because they can’t afford to live here anymore,” Firmino said. “Our electrical bills have been especially high recently.”

In addition to attending neighborhood assemblies, Firmino uses his Facebook to show pictures and write about what’s happening inside of the favela. The messages reach his nearly 5,000 friends from all over the world.

“If we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will?” Firmino said, as he looked out to the brick houses below. “The favelas need to be heard.”


In 2013, a wave of protests took over Rio de Janeiro and many other major Brazilian cities. Throughout the country, people spoke out against government spending, corruption and price gouging in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

During this time, Firmino took a break from the tours and joined a troop of citizen journalists (known as media ninja in Brazil) to document what was happening in the streets.

Thiago Firmino (second from right) with other media ninja representativesPhoto courtesy Thiago Firmino

“I followed the protests as a photographer,” Firmino said, as he showed me some of his framed pictures (including one with Alicia Keys). “I must have covered about 100 marches. I was there fighting for the favelas and for Brazil in general.”

For months, his Facebook page chronicled different aspects of the social movements and preached messages of action and change. As the protests reached their peak, Rio police’s containment plans escalated. Participants often left the marches bleeding and hurt from rubber bullets and tear gas.

“When I was there as press, it made me feel a bit more protected,” Firmino said, despite the fact that dozens of journalists (myself included) were equally at risk. “The police didn’t see me as just another favelado (a person from the favela).”

He also gave Santa Marta residents the opportunity to express their grievances on his YouTube series “Historias da Pacifição.” Residents faced Firmino’s camera with complaints of fallen trees or lack of water that were affecting their daily lives.

“I’ve acted as a social activist inside Santa Marta for years, I knew it was time to take it to the asfalto (which means ‘asphalt’ and it refers to non-favela neighborhoods in Rio). I wanted to participate in order to see better things for my favela, for my family and for my son.”

Children fly kites on top of roof tops. Sign on house reads: “Model favela for whom? Gentrification.”


Firmino’s Favela Santa Marta Tour now employs three English-speaking guides from other parts of Rio.

“When my parents were younger, they had to leave the morro (nickname for favela) in order to make money,” Firmino said, as we sat in his living room with his 13-year-old son Gabriel who was watching television. “Now people from the asfalto come here and work with me.”

Firmino and his team were awarded the 2014 Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor and have become the go-to reference in favela tourism for some of Rio’s top hotels, like the Copacabana Palace and Sofitel. The area where Michael Jackson filmed his famous video is now one of the main attractions on Firmino’s itinerary. Following the pop star’s 2009 death, a memorial was built on the lookout point that served as his dance floor during the shoot. It includes a bronze statue of Jackson with his arms open towards the favela and a colorful mural of his face designed by Brazilian artist Romero Britto.

Tour group with statue of Michael Jackson in Favela Santa Marta.

When we reached the landmark, my group posed and took snap shots with the effigy but they seemed more excited to fly kites with the local kids. At the end of the day, some look tired and dehydrated but none of them seemed concerned about their safety.

“If I am able to convince one, ten, fifty people on each tour that there is more to the favelas than crime and misery then I am doing my job,” Firmino said. “I’ve had an incredible life, I’m proud to be favelado.”

(All photos and videos by Flora Charner unless otherwise noted)