Rio is a city of marked highs and lows; mountains and cliffs soar over smooth beaches, cool winters follow scalding summers, and the wealthy live alongside the poor.

Amidst the generally cheery dispositions of cariocas, there runs the bitter undercurrent of a drastic income divide.

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Rio de Janeiro, like all Latin American cities, has a less glamorous side

Nowhere is the disparity more apparent than in Rio’s western reaches, in the valley between the Morro Dois Irmãos and Pedra da Gávea mountains. Comprising a few unremarkable high-rises on the secluded waterfront, the neighborhood of São Conrado is home to some of Rio’s richest. Further inland is the vast expanse of Rocinha, the largest favela, or slum, in Brazil.

Since many of Rocinha’s inhabitants aren’t officially documented, the government’s official count of about 70,000 runs much lower than common estimates of over 200,000. But as I stand at the base of the hill (by the same name) on which Rocinha rests, I get the feeling that this not merely another favela but a city in its own right, an urban jungle nearly as grand as Rio itself.

Our family rarely goes on guided tours, but our hostel offered us a free one-on-one afternoon tour (not usually included but available for purchase). In terms of safety, Rocinha gets an undeservedly bad rap, but a guide is a good idea for anyone who wants to venture away from the main roads, for Rocinha’s myriad alleys and unmapped passages are sure to confuse even the most savvy traveler.

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From left: Mom, Erik (our guide), me, and the head of Rocinha’s surf school

We meet our guide, Erik, outside a large supermarket at the bottom of the hill. Erik is a Rocinha native and has lived here is entire life. Just talking to him, I can tell that his sense of the neighborhood is both intimate and extensive.

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Rocinha’s striking Niemeyer Bridge stands out against the earthy backdrop of Morro Dois Irmaos

The crowded core of Rocinha awaits us across the expanse of Avenida Niemeyer. We cross the iconic Oscar Niemeyer footbridge, created (like the avenue) by Oscar Niemayer, the architect responsible for much of Rio’s — and Brazil’s — modern design. Towering in front of the favela, the bridge’s Soviet brutalist arch stands as more an imposing gateway to Rocinha than anything else.

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As we stroll through a local market, Erik explains that there are two ways to summit Rocinha: either we ride in a van, or on the back of a mototaxi. For us, the answer is simple.

The next 3 minutes or so of my life are some of the most exhilarating. This is no ride on the open road, and the wild traffic of Rocinha waits for nobody. We weave between trucks, fly over speedbumps, wind around tight corners, and dodge cars that appear out of nowhere.

Since Rocinha reaches so far up its hill, the cost to ascend is R$5, but for the fare we get a trip that’s both a rapid tour of the neighborhood and a rollercoaster ride. In neighboring Vidigal, it’s R$3, but Vidigal is much smaller, and the drivers are a little less wild.

From the top, there’s a view straight into the heart of Rio de Janeiro. Below us, the rich neigborhood of Gávea hides within the thick foliage of the Tijuca Forest.

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A hazy Rio morning, as seen from Rocinha

We walk down — or rather, back down — the road, and it becomes clear that life near Rocinha’s main arteries is quite comfortable. Here, people are on the grid, vitally connected to the city’s amenities. Erik explains that, even within Rocinha (considered a ghetto by most of Rio’s wealthy), there are class divisions. Head away from this thoroughfare, he says, and the quality of life deteriorates dramatically.

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After a delicious chicken and cheese pastel at a busy corner cafeteria, we stroll through a narrow alley just off the main road. This alley in particular is one dotted with all sorts of bakeries, most of them operated out of the living rooms of Rocinha grandmothers. Amidst the constantly dripping gutters and uncollected garbage, the unmistakable scent of freshly baked bread wafts through the passage. It’s hard to resist and, ultimately, we cave, stoppping at a cake shop. Mom insists on getting an entire bolo de laranja (orange cake). I, of course, am made to carry the cake through the streets of Rocinha for the whole day.

Several alleys and what feels like miles later, and we find ourselves at one of Rio’s best kept secrets. Hidden in the middle of Rocinha is an urban escape, accessible by all but known of by few. At the entrance is a middle-aged man lounging in a sofa; we pay him R$2 each to spend as much time on his roof as we like (for locals it is free).

The roof feels as if it’s hanging over nothing, as if there is no building beneath it. There is, of course, not so much as a handrail or even a rope, to prevent us from plummeting to the busy street below. From here, the absolute center of Rocinha’s urban sprawl, I can see how this neighborhood slopes up, how it clings and conforms to the hill’s jagged outline. To me, Rocinha looks like a landslide, each house frozen in motion as it tumbles from the hillside.

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This is our last stop. From here, we head downhill. Erik says he knows a shortcut to the bottom, but that it involves going through some of Rocinha’s poorest parts. We descend many steep staircases into the depths of the favela.

Here, untreated sewage runs in the streets and garbage covers the ground.

Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are often portrayed as dangerous slums, dens of crime and centers of rampant poverty. While that’s not entirely true, our brief jaunt through one of the city’s poorest places serves as a powerful reminder — a reminder that Brazil’s new prosperity has failed to trickle down to its poorest people. I realize that, behind the facade of growth and development, this nation has a very long way to go.

Out of this neighborhood we emerge once again onto the lively main street. As we wind our way to the base of the hill, retracing the steps we took on our mototaxis, Erik bids us goodbye. We thank him for showing us the real Rocinha, his Rocinha, a city full of secrets hidden away in unnamed streets and alleys, a mountain that comes alive with the unified life force of its myriad inhabitants, the perfect embodiment of everything that Rio is — exceptionally diverse, inescapably gritty, flawed, and boundlessly glorious.

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