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Flavours in the favelas: Brazil foodies go off the beaten path

Ahead of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Rio's pacified favelas are the newest hot spots for both locals and foreign visitors, who are spending more time at the former no-go zones.

A woman eats lunch near a window overlooking Copacabana beach at the Bela Vista Bar located in the Pavao-Pavaozinho slum in Rio de Janeiro
A woman eats lunch near a window overlooking Copacabana beach at the Bela Vista Bar located in the Pavao-Pavaozinho slum in Rio de Janeiro

RIO DE JANEIRO // Adriana Peixoto would fit right in at the trendiest Rio de Janeiro bar with her hipster glasses and the big black tattoos on her calves.

But for a weekend gossip session over drinks and seafood paella, the 35-year-old audio-visual producer and her friends settled on a venue that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: a bar in a "favela", one of the hillside slums that were long ruled by ruthless drug gangs and off-limits to outsiders.

The vast majority of Rio's murders still occur in the favelas, some of which are plagued by sporadic shoot-outs. But under a five-year-old "pacification" programme aimed at making Rio safer ahead of next year's Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, police once kept out now have bases in nearly three dozen of the 1,071 slums dotting the city.

The pacified favelas are the newest hot spots for both locals and foreign visitors, who are spending more time at the former no-go zones than traditional tourist magnets like the Christ the Redeemer statue. Now, there's another reason to visit: the growing buzz about the best food and drink the pacified favelas have to offer.

What many favelas lack in basic sanitation, they often make up for with breathtaking views of the ocean and exclusive neighbourhoods below the steep rocky outcroppings.

With its view of the Atlantic's azure waters and its low prices, the Bar Lacubaco in the Vidigal slum could give many conventional Rio restaurants a run for their money. Where a dinner for two routinely adds up to more than Dh750, Lacubaco's main courses are about Dh25 apiece.

Owner Fabio Freire said Vidigal's off-the-grid status helps him keep costs down in what has become Rio's hippest favela, thanks to a prime oceanside location between two of the city's highest-rent neighbourhoods.

"I buy my meat from the same suppliers at restaurants down there on the 'asphalt'," said Mr Freire, 38, using slang for non-slum neighbourhoods. "But I don't pay for electricity, I don't pay for gas and I don't pay property taxes, so all that slashes my overhead and I can pass the savings on to my customers." People in the slums typically illegally tap into the electrical grid to obtain power.

Lacubaco is located on the main street that slaloms up to the top of Vidigal, but some of eateries are harder to reach via narrow, zigzagging, traffic-clogged streets. Whole sections of some favelas are accessible only via steep staircases, and restaurant owners in the slums say the tricky logistics of keeping ingredients in stock is among their biggest challenges.

To get to the Complexo do Alemao shantytown, you have to take a commuter train to a French-made ski lift that glides over a sea of concrete block houses and has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Rio's O Globo newspaper recently reported that the Alemao lift now has more weekend users than the lift that whisks tourists up Sugarloaf Mountain or the little train to Christ the Redeemer.

Americans, Germans, Japanese and Britons are among the tourists who visit the favelas. The highest profile foreign visitor so far has been Britain's Prince Harry, who toured the favela during his South American trip last year.

Security remains an issue in some pacified slums. Several public schools in Complexo do Alemao were closed in recent days under pressure from a gang upset over the killing of one of their members.

"Foreigners tend to be more open, more curious and harbour fewer prejudices about favelas than Cariocas from the asphalt," said Sergio Bloch, the editor of the guidebook The Gastronomical Guide to the Favelas of Rio, using the Portuguese term for a Rio resident. "Maybe it's because foreigners weren't exposed to the decades-worth of frightening news about violence in the favelas, they go there with a more open heart."

He said he sometimes hears from Cariocas who are eager to try the traditional shrimp stew known as vatapa at the Barraca das Baianas stand in the Rocinha favela, but "want me to guarantee that nothing will happen to them there".

"Of course I don't think it will, but who can make that sort of guarantee anywhere in the world?"