RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — 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 state-wide public security plan, the previously impenetrable community is open to visitors. And a remarkable cable-car system linking six of its hilltops over a 3.5-kilometer (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.
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.