Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – There have been no fireworks displays on Copacabana Beach to ring the New Year and the carnival festivities have already been suspended. These are just a few of the ways Rio, known as Brazil’s “Wonderful City”, has been stripped of its joy and wonder by the COVID-19 crisis.
Brazil recently marked a dark turning point in its battle against the coronavirus: more than 200,000 people have died, giving the South American nation the second-highest death toll in the world after the United States.
But amid the headlines, a favela in Rio de Janeiro appears to be capitalizing on the pandemic by encouraging tourism in its backyard.
The Babilonia district may be far removed from the ancient city of Babylon that gave it its name, but the slum has its own lost hanging gardens.
It’s a modern-day wonder that Brazilians and foreigners are discovering thanks to the coronavirus – and it’s helping locals put food on the table during uncertain economic times and record unemployment rates of 14.6%.
“When the pandemic started, national parks were closed and beaches banned, so people started looking for places to exercise safely outside,” activist Adriano da Silva told Al Jazeera.
“Suddenly 60 or 70 people showed up here, wandering the hidden forest paths of Babilonia, not knowing what dangers they might face,” he said.
Like many favelas in Rio, Babilonia and its neighbor Chapeu da Mangueira arose at the foot of a mountain with lush vegetation.
Above the neighborhoods, a four-kilometer circular forest path crosses six different lookouts that provide some of the city’s most breathtaking views.
Hikers can admire a panorama of green hills, blue seas and white sandy beaches while listening to birdsong or being watched by cautious tribes of little monkeys.
The two-hour hike also includes bunkers built by the military to defend what was once the Brazilian capital after the country joined Allied forces in World War II.
But local residents like da Silva want hikers to enjoy the area safely.
“What most tourists don’t know is that there is another war going on here. Drug gangs sometimes fight for territory in the forest or use it as an escape route from the police, ”he explained. “It’s only safe to hike here if you go with a local guide – and that’s where we came in.”
The residents’ associations of the two favelas have joined forces with the police to create their own tourism agency, Amastour.
Amastour guides know not only the trails, but also how to ensure the safety of hikers.
Tour guide Milena Costa was working at a hotel before COVID-19 forced her to close. It is just one of 50,000 Brazilian tourist establishments that went out of business between March and August 2020, according to a study by the National Confederation of Trade, Services and Tourism.
“I consider myself one of the lucky few who have been able to find work. I have a four-year-old son to feed and food prices have gone up, ”Costa told Al Jazeera.
The beaches are now filled with people acting like the pandemic is over, and I needed a safe place to exercise with my daughter outside. I never expected to find the security I was looking for in a forest behind a slum.
Every weekend, when it’s not raining, she drives 60 to 70 people on the Babilonia trail. Many are residents of Rio themselves, such as Maria Aparecida Fontes, who has lived in the city for 30 years but never thought of exploring the mountain overlooking Copacabana.
“I used to stay at the beach, but the pandemic has changed my ways,” Fontes, who works as a receptionist at a vaccine research center, told Al Jazeera.
“The beaches are now full of people acting like the pandemic is over, and I needed a safe place to exercise with my daughter outside,” she explained. “I never thought I would find the safety I was looking for in a forest behind a slum.”
Costa said that in addition to guiding tourists like Fontes on the Babilonia Trail, “the outlook for 2021 is pretty bleak.
“At least I have something to rely on, unlike millions of people who found themselves unemployed and depended solely on emergency aid, which has just been cut off,” Costa said.
In January, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro ended emergency financial assistance it had been providing to some 68 million Brazilians since the start of the pandemic.
At the time, profits were reaching 60% of Brazil’s population, reducing the number of people living in poverty to an all-time low of 50 million, according to the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Brazilian think tank.
But without these benefits, millions of people will fall back into poverty.
“Brazil’s donations during the pandemic have been among the most generous so far,” Marcelo Neri, economist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
“In nine months, the government spent the same amount as in nine years of the Bolsa Familia [Family Grant] social assistance program, ”he added. “But the money is running out and this year 16 million Brazilians will return to poverty.”
When the pandemic began, national parks were closed and beaches banned, so people began to look for places to exercise safely outside.
Not far from Babilonia, another mountain hosts the favela of Santa Marta. Until the pandemic, Thiago Firminio made his living taking tourists to the place where Michael Jackson filmed his music video for the song They Don’t Care About Us 25 years ago.
A bronze statue now stands where Jackson danced with local residents – but the place itself is empty.
“We used to have a lot of tourists and Michael Jackson fans, but the coronavirus hit us very hard,” Firminio told Al Jazeera. “Most of the people here depend on emergency aid. People lost their jobs but had money to spend on local commerce, and that at least kept us going.
Besides the surge in COVID-19 cases and record high unemployment, Brazilians also face high inflation.
The prices of staple foods like black beans, cooking oil and rice have increased by up to 30 percent.
“Honestly, I don’t know how we will survive without a job, without money and without a vaccine,” Bruna Ferreira told Al Jazeera. The Santa Marta resident lost her job in a store at the start of the pandemic.
Compared to Santa Marta and the other slums in Rio de Janeiro, Babilonia is a little miracle.
Tour guides charge $ 2 to accompany visitors on the trail, and the number of clients continues to grow.
“After the visit, people hang out and end up eating at our local restaurants and getting to know the neighborhood. Some even reserve places in our hostels, ”da Silva said.
Many Brazilians fear that Latin America’s largest economy is on a downward trajectory as it lags behind neighbors like Argentina and Chile in vaccinating people against COVID-19.
But for enthusiastic explorers seeking a respite from the chaos of the city below, a hike through the Hanging Gardens of Babilonia offers both a breath of fresh air and a spectacle for sore eyes.