RIO DE JANEIRO — Tiana Martins stepped gingerly into the red cable-car gondola, giggling from nerves as the doors slid shut, the ground dropped precipitously beneath her feet and she sailed off over the conglomerate of bare-brick shacks that is the Alemao complex of shantytowns.
Three years ago, the communities below made national news as law enforcement swarmed up their narrow alleyways, sending drug dealers who’d long controlled the area scurrying. Millions watched the dramatic scenes on television.
Now, with “police pacification units” established within Alemao’s 13 favelas as part of a statewide public security plan, the previously impenetrable community is open to visitors. And a remarkable cable-car system linking six of its hilltops over a 2.3-mile route has become a popular tourist attraction.
Of the nearly 12,000 people on average who ride it every day, fully 65 percent on weekends and 36 percent on weekdays are not from Alemao. Most are visitors like Martins, a Rio native who was curious about a side of her own city she’d never glimpsed. But foreigners are also signing up for the half-hour round-trip ride into — or at least over — a world they’d only heard of on news reports.
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Danish tour guide Rasmus Schack was visiting Alemao and taking the cable car for the first time to gauge whether future tours here would be a good idea — and he liked what he saw.
“You can see that the locals really appreciate that people are coming here to visit, and that could have a positive impact for them in the future,” he said. “Maybe they could have local guides, more businesses focusing on the visitors. It’s very interesting, and it is an opportunity for them as well.”
Chatter on board the gondola on a recent Saturday soon revealed that all on board had come expressly to ride the 10-person cable-cars and get to know this long-forsaken part of Rio.
Soon after the fire-engine-red cab took off, Martins forgot her jitters about the height and began to gawk at the view, pointing out Rio de Janeiro’s landmarks to her husband and two boys as she stood up and snapped photos with her iPad.
“How beautiful!” she said as the Penha church, perched atop a 111-meter (364-foot) sheer granite boulder, came into view. Her husband, Tiago de Melo, and another couple began calling out the sights: to the left, the airport, and beyond it, the Guanabara Bay, a liquid silver mirror reflecting the few clouds above.
In the distance, the craggy mountains of the Orgaos mountain range cut a jagged outline against the blue. To the right was the massive Christ the Redeemer statue, soaring on its own hilltop, and then the great floating arches of Stadium Rio, a 46,000-person stadium popularly known as Engenhao.
Just as interesting was the view that spread out below. Before the cable cars, Alemao was not only off-limits because of armed dealers from Comando Vermelho (Red Command) keeping guard. It was also inaccessible because navigating it required something no outsider had: an intimate knowledge of the landscape, an immense stretch of unfinished, flat-roofed brick houses set in a maze-like configuration over the Serra da Misericordia (Mercy Mountains).
Now, life in Alemao is laid out in full view. Soaring over the roller-coaster of hills, passengers in one of the 152 gondolas can look down on women hanging laundry or chatting on corners, and on children playing on the rooftops, running through the streets or flying kites. In one of the few open spaces, a game of soccer was drawing cheers from onlookers. The scent of barbecue wafted up, along with various beats from stereos turned up loud to get the weekend going: samba, forro, funk, and at times a cacophony of all these combined.
At the last station, called Palmeiras, visitors and locals stop by stands selling locally-made crafts and souvenirs, while barbecue and beer sellers also do brisk business.
The price for a ride, kept at a very low 50 cents at first, has now gone up to $2.50 for visitors. But they’re still 50 cents for residents, who also have the right to two free rides a day.
And while public transportation elsewhere in Rio is unpredictable at best, the cable car stations are organized and clean, with well-ordered lines and uniformed greeters who make sure patrons get on and off safely.
But the best aspect of riding the cable car is the sense of place it provides, intimate and distant at once, said rider William Andreas Wivel, in Rio from Denmark for an internship.
“It is a visually amazing experience — aesthetically very beautiful,” he said. “It’s like being in a bus or a train, very safe, but you get close up, you see how people live.”