The Future of Travel

At the heart of travel is a curiosity to experience the unfamiliar, the exotic. Yet, the most transformational travel goes beyond this—it’s an intentional act of challenging ourselves to overcome discomfort, the complacency of our habits, and the one-sidedness of our world views. The anxiety we feel in these situations means we’re growing, and through this process we gain unquantifiable rewards. We appreciate our privileges, we question the foundations of our cultures, and we develop a sense of oneness with those who aren’t “us” but now are closer than ever to being a part of “us.”

We can’t empathize with the street vendor struggling to pay her children’s school tuition when we stay in sterile, luxury hotels and resorts. We don’t understand a country’s self-concept when we’re shepherded from sight to sight by a flag-toting guide reciting a history lesson memorized from a Wikipedia page.

That was the travel of our parents’ generation, but our generation longs for something more. We seek the nuanced, unsheltered reality, and, above all, we seek authenticity. It’s not enough for us to taste “the world’s richest dark chocolate” from a duty-free shop in the airport. We must meet the city’s oldest chocolatier family and sweat in a stuffy room as we mash the cacao beans with the 80 year-old woman who lives for chocolate.

At the same time, we know travel should enrich more than just the traveler. Conscious of the adverse effects of travel on developing communities, cultures, and the environment, we seek to use travel as a wider force for good. As such, we’re now adding volunteering, purchases from local artisans, and low-impact lodging to our itineraries.

The industry is just starting to wake up to these shifts, and countless studies are revealing just how different Millennials’ travel preferences are from our parents. A report by digital agency HUGE sums it up nicely: “Authenticity is the watchword for the next generation of travelers. Travel companies that want to appeal to the Millennial generation need to offer experiences that provide global, socially conscious perspectives.”

And that’s exactly why I started Favela Experience. Having first visited Rio’s favelas a year ago, I quickly saw the dichotomy between their beauty and how the world perceives them. There’s an unmatched energy here that pervades in the streets and alleys. You can’t pass through here without being overcome by the clashing sound waves of funk carioca beats blaring from a window, yells of football fans celebrating a Flamengo goal, and the whizzing of mototaxis. What’s more is that favela residents are welcoming, hardworking, and resilient people who want the best for their families and communities. Of course, this all contrasts the sensationalism and stereotypes that movies and news feed us.

Nonetheless, I’m not alone in seeing the draw of these fascinating communities as apparently over half of all visitors to Rio plan to go to favelas. Moreover, PRI’s The World even went so far as to say favelas are fast becoming “cool” tourist destinations.

So, with a desire for cultural immersion and positive impact in favelas, my solution came from my year spent in various homestays around Latin America. I learned that living in the homes of locals is the best way to experience a foreign culture, and the income that hosts earn can be significant. So, I asked, why not bring this type of authentic accommodations to Rio’s favelas, and eventually the rest of the developing world? I envisioned an online marketplace tailored for this local context, allowing travelers to rent rooms and apartments while increasing the incomes of host families. Guests and hosts would share meals, explore the city, and experience local nightlife together, facilitating cross-cultural understanding and changing favelas’ negative reputation.

If this works, then travelers will leave with a broader perspective and residents will earn income to invest in their families’ education, health, and housing. Maybe, just maybe, the world will be a better place for it.


What are favelas?

Most people outside of Brazil don’t know what favelas are, and many people who think they know what favelas are, either oversimplify them to “slums” or understand them by their negative stereotypes from media such as “City of God” and “Fast Five.” The reality of these communities is much more complex and fascinating, and I’m only just beginning to learn about them.

Favela of Rocinha

Rocinha: Latin America’s largest favela with 300,000 residents



Basically, favelas are squatter settlements, which were first settled illegally. Favelas began in Rio in the 1890s, and they grew to prominence in 1897 upon the return of 20,000 soldiers to Rio from the Canudos War in Brazil’s Northeast. During that military conflict, the soldiers were close to a hill called “Favela,” which ultimately became the name for the first hill in Rio they occupied in mass. The name of that hill is now Morro da Providência (“Providence Hill”), but by the 1920s, “favela” became the de facto name for such squatter settlements in Rio. I’ve also heard that favelas’ name comes from the favela plant (which when cut down, quickly grows back) because of the forced removal of favela residents and their subsequent return. Regardless, in the last century, around 700 favelas came to exist in Rio, and now at least 20% of the city’s population resides in these communities after waves of immigration largely from poor Northeastern states.


Drugs, Violence, and Poverty

For people who have learned about favelas through mass media, you’re familiar with the negative stereotypes about these communities. Yes, there is some truth to these stereotypes, but they’re sensationalized because stories of drug kingpins and police shootouts sell movies and newspapers much better than descriptions of peaceful, family barbecues and the success of local business owners. Still, I’ll address the elephant in the room before moving on.

With a legacy of government neglect and social exclusion, discontent in favelas grew into resistance that organized into leftist rebel groups during Brazil’s military dictatorship that lasted into the 1980s. Over time, the Marxist and Liberation-theology-inspired factions lost their ideological roots and resorted to drug trafficking as a lucrative business. Unlike the export-focused cartels in other parts of Latin America, Brazilian groups such as Comando Vermelho (“Red Command”) and Amigos dos Amigos (“Friends of Friends”) primarily satisfied domestic demand for drugs, particularly marijuana and cocaine. Nonetheless, the favela-based drug gangs kept order in their communities, and the main reasons there’d be violence would be when police invaded favelas and when gangs fought with each other over territory.

Now in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, a new government initiative has installed “pacifying police units” (“UPPs” in Portuguese) in many of the more prominent favelas, especially in the city’s exclusive South Zone. Whereas favelas never had permanent police presence before 2008, now the ones with UPPs have heavily armed officers stationed in the more open parts of favelas. Still, in favelas like Rocinha with an unofficial population of 300,000, many areas continue to have drug trafficking because they are a labyrinth of unmapped alleys and stairways, which the UPPs struggle to pacify. After the arrival of the UPPs, drug-related crimes and homicides have decreased, but it seems that traffickers have fled to other favelas or Rio’s periphery. Moreover, residents seem to be disillusioned with the lack of fulfillment of social programs promised as part of the UPP presence.

Ultimately, poverty has plagued favelas since their inception, and while national economic growth and some progressive social programs have brought 30 million Brazilians out of poverty in the last decade, favelas remain poor. The minimum wage here is around 300 US dollars per month, and those meager earnings don’t go very far when monthly rent for a 200 square-foot room is at least half that. The fact that real estate here costing more per square-foot than the most expensive parts of Manhattan is in close proximity to favelas crystallizes Rio’s harsh inequality. A perfect example is the five-star Sheraton Hotel and Resort within a few hundred feet of the favela of Vidigal.

Favela of Rocinha

“Welcome to Rocinha City:” Rocina truly feels like a city within a city.


Daily Life

In spite of this poverty, favelas might surprise you in terms of their level of development, especially if you understand them as “slums.” Public utilities and services such as running water, electricity, internet, public transportation, and more are very common, but they’re generally of lower quality and reliability than the formal city. Also, most homes are permanent structures made of cinder block, and some rise as high as eight stories.  Residents really began to invest in their homes when the government granted them property titles about 20 years ago, and now some initiatives have even given land titles to a very limited number of residents.

Businesses, both formal and informal, are widespread. There are restaurants, grocery stores, banks, clothing stores, hardware shops, electronics sellers, and more. Rocinha, Latin America’s largest favela with 300,000 residents, has national chain stores and even had a McDonald’s at one point.

Still, it’s very difficult for outsiders to begin to comprehend the atmosphere and reality of favelas without at least visiting them. Here‘s a short, artistic video that I think captures the essence of Rocinha quite well.

Favela of Rocinha

Many favelas are built on hillsides, so Rio’s one of the few cities where the poor get the best views.


Favelas and #changebrazil

While I don’t think the Western world is hearing much about what’s been happening the past few days in Brazil, I’d be remiss not to mention it now. What began as protests over a 20 cent (equivalent to $0.09 US dollars) bus fare increase in Sao Paulo has now snowballed into a national movement for sweeping social, economic, and political reforms. Spurred by the widespread use of social media (Brazil is only second to the US in Facebook usage.), the country is now seeing its largest protests since the end of a military dictatorship in 1985. Though protesters’ demands are numerous, they seem to center on better public services, greater socioeconomic equality, and government transparency. This Economist article summarizes the movement well, but since mainstream media here is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy families, I recommend reading independent coverage, such as my friend Julia Michaels’ blog.

Though the protests aren’t happening in favelas, the gripes of their residents are well represented in this nation-wide protest movement. As the wasteful and nontransparent spending for the World Cup and Olympics is a major theme, favelas are also victims of forced evictions and police abuses in the name of preparation for these mega events. In addition, just last Friday Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff came to Rocinha to announce the next phase of the national Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (“Growth Acceleration Program”) infrastructure projects here in Rocinha. A large part of the $700 million US dollars destined for Rocinha include the construction of a cable car similar to one already in operation in the Complexo do Alemão favela. Many Rocinha residents are outraged, considering this an unnecessary excess given pressing sanitation, education, and health issues in the community.

Complexo do Alemão (RJ)

The Complexo do Alemão cable car (Photo credit: Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento)

It’ll be interesting to see what real changes come out of this national movement and how favelas are affected. In the meantime, CatComm‘s RioOnWatch blog diligently covers the mega events’ transformation of Rio’s favelas.


Disclaimer: Much of the information in this post is anecdotal, based on my time in two of Rio’s best known favelas, Rocinha and Vidigal, as well as the Portuguese Wikipedia article on favelas, which is somewhat different from the English Wikipedia article.



Am I crazy? Am I crazy not to get a job in consulting or banking, earning nearly six figures straight out of graduation as many of my classmates are? Am I nuts for moving a hemisphere away to city where I haven’t spent more than a few weeks? Am I insane to have no certain means of supporting myself in the near future?

The most delusional part is I’m running a travel business in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, notorious for their drugs, violence, and poverty. I’m also living in these same places, known as favelas in Portuguese.

Most people think I’m pretty crazy. On the last day of Entrepreneurship class, my professor announced that I was a “freak” for what I’m doing. To be fair, he meant it in the most endearing way. Even my own father pleaded with me to, “get a job, any job in the United States!” That’s understandable, considering my education through college cost a half million dollars. What’s the IRR on that investment?

Before you put me in a straitjacket, allow me to plead my case.

As I see it, I have 10 to 15 years during which I’ll have no spouse, children, or mortgage. This is the only chance I’ll have to pour my soul into my ambitions without risking ruining relationships or watching my house foreclose. Really, what’s the worst that could happen? In a year, I could be 24, broke and unemployed. That’s not nearly as bad as 44, broke, unemployed, with no credit, and a family that hates me. And even that’s not nearly as bad as 44, a lucrative yet demanding and unfulfilling job, and a family that hates me.

Many people say they want to be entrepreneurs someday, but an entrepreneur’s greatest asset is time. Time allows you to fail and learn, providing more opportunities for success. Moreover, I know I’d become complacent with the false sense of security from a good, steady paycheck. It’d be so much harder to suddenly fall from that lifestyle to an entrepreneur’s lifestyle than to just be an entrepreneur starting now.

Did I mention I’m trying to save the world? Or, at least a small fraction of it to begin with. As someone who won the genetic lottery of skin color, birthplace, and chromosomes, I wonder, “What did I do to deserve this?” Though it’s a distant reality, I believe in equality of opportunity, so I want others to have the chances I’ve had. I also believe business approaches have the greatest potential to solve the social problems that cause inequality of opportunity.

That’s why I’ve come to Brazil to grow a business that can generate livelihoods for at least dozens, maybe hundreds, and hopefully thousands of people. Favela Experience, my venture, provides authentic homestays and apartment rentals for travelers in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, doubling the income of favela host families. Our guests experience the vibrancy of under-appreciated favela culture alongside locals while hosts earn more money to invest in their families’ health, housing, and education.

We’re not a charity because as a for-profit we’ll have more incentive and possibility to scale our impact. We make money by charging a minority of booking fees, and our hosts don’t receive handouts but rather earn by providing a valuable service to guests. Still, we unabashedly believe we also can and should make a good living doing this.

It helps that I absolutely love what I’m doing in the world’s most beautiful city. However, this will be by far the most challenging and educational endeavor I’ve ever attempted.

Am I scared? Absolutely, but my fear ensures me this is worthwhile. When all is said and done, I’m proud to be a freak.