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Mabel Taravilla, 29, doesn’t consider that a problem. She rents a bedroom for $200 a month including breakfast, sharing Mr. Mendonca’s house with his wife and their two children.

“It’s cheap and peaceful and not linked to the drug wars,” says Miss Taravilla, an anthropology student from Acobendas, Spain.

For many years, Rio’s 600 favelas occupied a romantic space in the Brazilian imagination, as the birthplace of samba and the carnival groups that draw thousands of upper-class Brazilians to Rio’s Sambadrome parade grounds each year.

That changed in the 1980s as heavily armed gangs defended a rising cocaine trade. Today, few middle-class Brazilians have ever visited a favela, and few have any desire to do so.

While some favelas offer spectacular ocean views and a population more accustomed to foreigners and tourists, most lay behind the back of the towering Christ the Reedemer statue, on Rio’s low-lying north side, and are brutal, dirty places with homicide rates approaching those of war zones. Stray bullets are a constant hazard, and shops often close on orders from drug bosses.

A cruel form of justice meted out by drug gangs makes Rio’s infamous street crime less common in the favelas, where people with a high tolerance for risk are sanguine about flying bullets.

British painter Bob Nadkarni made his move in the 1970s, to the Tavares Bastos favela, at the top of a winding cobblestoned street reminiscent of the colonial era, where the road ends abruptly and a labyrinth of alleys, shops and bare-brick apartments begins.

Mr. Nadkarni discovered the favela when his maid got sick and he had to take her home. One glimpse of the spectacular Sugarloaf mountain view was enough — he decided to build his own home there. Now he rents rooms to visitors and features a monthly jazz night that attracts scores of outsiders, Brazilian and foreign.

Mr. Nadkarni, a burly man of 64, says many Brazilians are unjustifiably afraid of favelas. “They’ll even brag about it, and compete to see who is more afraid,” he says. “But I couldn’t live anywhere else.”


Favela Receptiva: Bed-and-breakfast, phone 55/21-9848-6737 or 55/21-2232-9710. Rates vary. Also offers a service that can arrange rooms in favelas, airport pickup, etc., 55/21-2247-2623.

Walking Tours of Rocinha: go to; 55/21-7827-3024 or 55/21-9978-2401; $28.

Jeep Tours: Three-hour tour of Rocinha:; 55/21-2108-5800 or 55/21-9977-9610; $38.

Jazz Night: Hosted by Bob and Malu Nadkarni,; 55/21-2558-5547. Performances on first and third Fridays of each month; $7.50.