safety in Rio de Janeiro

Reports of a British woman being shot after driving through a favela on Sunday, 6th August have been all over the news, notably in the UK. I know this as it was my mum who was the first person to text me about it, right after I had seen it reported here in Rio through The Rio Times. The woman was driving in Angra dos Reis, a coastal town about 150 kilometres from Rio, with her husband and three children. They reportedly entered a favela by accident whilst searching to buy water. A group from the favela approached the car and ordered them to leave. Not understanding Portuguese, the family hesitated, causing the group to shoot at the car. The woman was shot twice in the abdomen.

Thankfully the woman survived yet the incident has once again raised the question – is Rio de Janeiro safe?

Angra dos Reis is a quiet coastal town and one of the major ports to go to Ilha Grande, an island just a 45-minute boat trip away. Tourists go to Angra dos Reis every day to take the boat to Ilha Grande and these numbers increase by the hundreds during peak season. So how did a foreigner get shot in such a touristy area?

This is not the first time an incident like this has happened. In 2015, a retired Brazilian woman was shot dead in Niteroi after her smartphone app sent her and her husband into the Caramujo favela by accident. A similar case happened in 2016 when an Italian tourist was shot in the head after he and his cousin accidentally entered the Morro dos Prazeres favela in Rio and were mistaken for police by local gangs.

Many favelas are still gang-ruled and outsiders are treated with suspicion. Unpacified favelas may have an enormous drug network behind the scenes and strangers who step into this arena of illegal activity are dealt with seriously. Drug lords won’t take the risk of assuming a lost outsider is in fact an innocent tourist – to them, it could be the police.

So what does this mean for tourists coming to Rio de Janeiro? Here are some key points to remember.

  • Hiring A Car

    Brazil is huge and it is tempting to plan a road-trip adventure to explore this vast country. However, it’s best to stick to public transport. There are several large, comfortable coaches that run between the major cities that make over-land transport very accessible. Likewise, there are plenty of flights to get to more distant parts of the country. But what if you want to simply drive around the city? Again, stick to public transport. The metro and the bus routes will take you to every spot in the city that you could possibly want. If you want to venture to other cities such as Angra dos Reis, Paraty or Buzios, then use the coaches. They are reasonably priced and save the hassle of worrying about parking and driving yourself.

    You could also consider getting a private driver. Casa Bromelia offers a tailor-made concierge service that can plan a private driver for you.

  • Hot Spots and No-go Areas

    To get the most out of your stay in Rio de Janeiro, you can’t go far wrong with sticking to the tourist areas. They are popular for a reason – they offer everything that is wonderful about this city and will stay an unforgettable one. Staying on the beaten path has never felt so good as it does in Rio. We would recommend avoiding favelas, bar a few exceptions that we’ll cover in just a moment. Favelas are complex communities, many of which have high-levels of violence. Despite security issues in Rio improving over the last few years, favelas remain largely unpredictable and can swing from safe to dangerous quickly.

  • How About Favela Tours?

    Favela tours are a good way to learn more about these communities and despite concerns regarding ethics, these tours actually bring money to the area and aim to educate tourists rather than exploit residents. Most of the tours happen in Vidigal and Rocinha, the two safest favelas in Rio. Going on a tour, we believe, is fine although we would encourage you not to enter Rocinha independently. We feel Vidigal is safe as long as you stick to the main road and go to the popular tourist bars and restaurants.

  • Can I Trust GPS in Rio?

    Yes, but pay extra attention when you’re driving. I use GPS all the time when I’m walking around but it’s usually to find specific streets or spots in tourist areas. If you do end up driving, plan your route before you drive. Show a local or someone at your hotel your map to check that no part of the route goes through an off-limit area. If you do end up in a favela, keep your windows up and go back the way you came. However, if your windows are tinted, then it’s advised to wind them down as blacked-out windows can be associated to rival gangs and polcie cars. When incidents like the one on Sunday happens, it’s shocking and sad. Thankfully, it is also rare – most criminals will do what it takes to avoid committing a crime with tourists on their own turf as it attracts police to the area.

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