(CNN) — It’s a mild, sunny winter afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Rocinha is hopping. People swarm through the narrow streets, vendors hawk their wares, music trickles out of apartment windows in buildings packed closely together.
At first glance, Rochina is just another crowded neighborhood. Look again. It’s actually a slum –one of the 500 to 600 “favelas” that dot the hills in and around Rio. Many of the buildings are badly in need of paint, there’s little running water or basic plumbing, and drug lords are said to rule.
Still, many of Rio’s poor clamor to live here. Rocinha isn’t just another favela, but the “first world of favelas” — South America’s largest and most developed slum. Varying counts put the population anywhere between 150,000 to over 250,000 people.
The area boasts more than 700 shops, selling everything from cigarettes to groceries to clothes. A local weekly newspaper chronicles life in Rocinha, and, yes, even a Web site is devoted to this vibrant slice of Rio.
Rocinha’s progress hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the late 1990s, authorities decided to put the slum on the tourist map. Rocinha’s proximity to Rio’s famous Ipanema Beach was one factor.
“Some people thought, ‘Well, it’s next door to all the fancy Ipanema hotels — so instead of scaring tourists away, why not bring them here and show them it’s not such a bad place at all’,” explains Carlos Costa, who runs the local newspaper, the Rocinha Noticias.
“Many of our residents work at these hotels and homes in Ipanema, so it’s a bit strange to see the rich people and outsiders come through here –looking at our homes and streets. Normally, people stay far away from Rocinha, unless they’re here to buy drugs, like many of the rich people do.”
Luke Downdney agrees that the scenario is ironic. Downdney, who hails from Britain, works with one of the city’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations, Viva Rio.
The group helps establish institutions such as legal services and support groups in Rocinha and other favelas. It also serves as a link between the police and favela residents. And sometimes Via Rio volunteers help foster peace in trouble spots, using projects such as a boxing club to bring together youngsters from rival gangs.
The problem with trying to establish tourism in Rocinha, Downdney says, is that the favela operates outside the structure of the city. “You’ve got a place that for all practical purposes officially doesn’t exist, a place that’s basically illegitimate.”
For example, Downdney points out, no official power grid or water line exists in most of Rocinha, so people illegally tap into the power lines and water mains that crisscross the slum.
Many of the businesses aren’t registered and a majority of the homes are built without permits or safety standards. “So on one hand, you’ve got a slum that’s invisible on paper,” Downdney says. “But on the other hand, the authorities want to encourage visitors to come pour money into it.”
And therein lies the rub. Money. In recent years, the Rio city government has apportioned funds to help favelas based on how poor they are. But Rocinha’s “success” is its biggest obstacle to qualifying for such funds. According to official standards, the slum doesn’t qualify for maximum government assistance because its economic output surpasses minimal levels.
“It’s absurd,” says Costa, the newspaper editor. “The city all these years has pretended the favelas don’t exist. Then they say they’ll give the poorest ones money.
“But what about Rocinha, where so many are still struggling? Sure, we’ve done our best against all odds. But don’t forget, many of our people are still struggling. We need the help.”
The irony isn’t lost on those who dreamed up the tourism venture, but they hope the goals succeed.
In an interview with the Brazilianist magazine, Thelma Santos, the project manager for the Rocinha Tourist Development project, voices hope that by “maximizing its tourist potential,” Rocinha can make money.
To help show tourists around, the organizers have hired groups of young people from Rocinha to serve as guides. These youngsters take visitors on walking tours of the meandering streets and lanes.
One of the highlights is Costa’s newspaper project, in its small but meticulously maintained office.
Then there’s the legal affairs consultancy set up by the Citizens’ Council and Viva Rio, where Rocinha residents seek free help on issues ranging from problems with local authorities to counseling on domestic violence.
During a rest stop, you can sip a delicious café zino at a roadside stall. The Rocinha samba school and nightclubs draw crowds on weekends, and the entertainment often includes famous singers such as Fernanda Abreu, whose music is inspired by life in the favelas.
But turn a corner, and you’ll suddenly come across Rocinha’s main canal, polluted by raw sewage, a health hazard that sickens residents and horrifies visitors.
You can’t help but notice the dilapidated homes and children who live and play in filth. And you’d best stay away from neighborhoods at the very top of the hill, where young, heavily armed guards keep watch over the turf of drug lords and crime gangs.
For every one example of success in Rocinha, there are multiple crises, says Luke Downdney. To ignore this is dangerous, he warns, because the situation will only get worse. “It’s a great idea to make Rocinha more visible,” he says. “But in the process let’s not sweep the problems under the rug.”
In Carlos Costa’s newspaper office, there’s an arresting picture painted by an artist in the favela. It’s a nighttime view, from a balcony in Rocinha, of glittering Ipanema Beach and the mountainside Christ statue at Corvocado.
Noticing a visitor admiring the picture, Costa says, “That’s how many people here see their life. More of the world may start coming to see us in Rocinha — and we welcome all of you. But if you give us a choice, most of us would probably rather be out there.”