Is Rio de Janeiro safe? Rio can be an extremely scary place to visit but not because of the reason that you might be thinking.
It seems like the words Rio de Janeiro have become synonymous with the word dangerous. And many people repeatedly ask the question: Is Rio de Janeiro safe? Is Rio de Janeiro safe?!
I first visited Rio around 4 years ago and stayed with a friend in Barra, a neighbourhood or barrio in the West Zone of Rio. Many individuals will tell you that people from Barra live an incredibly sheltered life – the apartment buildings are housed in security patrolled complexes that are usually located near beaches and act like little mini cities – they have gyms, restaurants and even night clubs. In short, there is no reason to leave! But this sheltered visit also made me terrified when I decided to step out of the “Barra bubble.” I would constantly ask question: is Rio de Janeiro safe? When my friend unexpectedly left to visit his mother, I checked into a hostel in Copacabana and my fear became overwhelming [this might have also been due to the fact that I was mugged two weeks prior in Chile]. As I entered into the hostel, I instantly noticed the long of safety precautions near the reception desk. A list that primarily read like this:
Don’t walk here. Don’t do this. Don’t go here. Don’t, don’t, don’t and don’t. My fear was so intense that I decided to skip town for the weekend and relax on the beach in Buzios
Fast forward 4 years. I am living in Sao Paulo and making plans to visit Rio for the second time. As I started to plan our trip, the don’ts started to reappear coupled with horrific stories of muggings and robberies. When my friend and I arrived at the Rio bus station, fear had already consumed us. We decided to walk [at night] the 5 minutes away from the station to catch an UBER. At one point we got so scared that we deliberately ran in front of traffic to escape a “possible”robber [who looked quite perplexed at our strange sprint into moving traffic]. Fear had a tight hold on us for the next couple of days.
The slightest look from a stranger made our hearts beat faster and clutch our bags closer. We jumped when someone walked too close and we power walked through most of our journeys in the city.
My friend left only three days into her journey in Rio and as I started to venture out by myself, something happened. I began to relax and I fell in love with Rio. I realize that my irrational fear was primarily the outcome of an overhyped representation portrayed by international media. This portrayal is often strengthened by erroneous word of mouth marketing that focuses primarily on the bad [robberies] instead of good. But the question still remains: is Rio de Janeiro safe? Not exactly. But is any major city really safe? Rio is a breathtakingly beautiful city that should be explored, BUT with some specific precautions:
Be Careful with Taxis
A couple of days ago a friend of mine posted a comment in one of the Facebook groups. Apparently a friend of hers had gotten into a yellow car that resembled a taxi. The driver then pulled out a gun, robbed her and then dumped her in Centro. If you plan on taking a taxi, make sure the markings are correct. If you want to be sure that you are taking a licensed taxi, you can also download the 99taxi application – an app that is quite similar to UBER. I would also recommend trying to get an estimate of the ride before starting on your journey.
UBER all the way
Numerous stories have been popping up around the world about drivers who see a person looking down at their phone at the side of the street, assume that they are waiting for an UBER and tell that person that they are an UBER car. This also happens in Rio. So, it is INCREDIBLY important for you to check the licence plate of the car before getting in. Also there have been reports of UBER drivers using WAZE, an application that shows the fastest route to a destination. The problem with WAZE is that it sometimes the quickest way to your destination is through dangerous favelas, ones where traveller’s should never be seen entering. Sometimes the driver will ask you if you have a preferred route, this would be the perfect time to tell him that you’d rather have him stick to the main streets instead of the back roads. If you don’t speak Portuguese, UBER in Rio also have the option of UBER English [although it is more expensive].
Is Rio de Janeiro safe? Read Hannah’s story about her experience using UBER and the 5 lessons she learned from behind held up a gunpoint in a Brazilian favela!
Not All Favelas are Created Equal.
Favela’s can be a scary place, especially if you are in the wrong one at the wrong time. But that doesn’t mean you should never enter into a favela [remember there are over 1000 favelas in Rio]. Favelas are vibrant communities filled with friendly people, gorgeous views, interesting shops/restaurants and inspiring local initiatives. There are some favelas, like Vidigal, that you can enter without a guide. In fact, the probability of you being robbed in Vidigal is near zero as there is an unwritten rule in most favelas] that you don’t rob people within the favela. In the end, there are numerous incredibly interesting tours and projects that you can visit in many of the favelas, like taking a tour through Santa Marta, enjoying a surf lesson in Rocinha and/or an organic food workshop in Babilonia. My only advice is to book tours with locals [so that all money is invested back into the community] and avoid the jeep “zoo-type” tours.
Rio’s beaches are stunning, but they are a hotbed for criminal activity. If you take your eyes off your things for just one minute, they can disappear. Just. Like. That. The robbers on Copacabana and Ipanema are pros, so don’t think that you can outsmart them. Bring only what you need to the beach and always keep an eye on your belongs. Also refrain from taking out your phone as snatch-and-grabs are also very common in the more touristy areas. Lately, some younger folks have taken to conducting arrastões, where they literally comb the beaches by surrounding unsuspecting beachgoers in large numbers and create diversions while they pilfer their belongings.
Watch out for the nightlife
Is Rio de Janeiro safe during the night time? Once the sun goes down and the drinks start getting stronger, the delinquents come out to play. A friend of mine went out in Lapa where him and his friend got pretty tipsy. They exited the bar at around 2 am and walked a couple of steps before two women came up to them and began to flirt. They loved the attention as the girls touched their arms before suddenly walking away and getting into a cab. My friend put his hand in his pocket and voila, his phone was gone. Once you started getting tipsy, especially in places like Lapa, make sure to stay in crowded areas and be very wary of pickpockets. Also avoid flashing large amounts of cash and try to avoid taking out money from ATMs [it’s always safer to take out money at bank locations during opening hours]. Do not wander to far get a taxi, instead use 99taxis, UBER or ask the bar/restaurant to call you a cab that will pick you up from your location. If you plan on drinking at one of the beach kiosks, make sure to avoid getting the gringo price, ALWAYS ask the price before ordering the drink or you’ll end up with a R$18 caipirinha like me. Finally AVOID walking drunk and/or by yourself on the beach sidewalks of Copa or Ipanema during the early hours.
Practice calculated paranoia
Many of the things that I did that might seem “unsafe,” I did with calculated paranoia. There were nights where I drank a bottle of wine with a carioca friend on the beach in Copacabana and/or took a bus to some strange part of town in the North Zone to party underneath a bridge! I took these risks primarily because I was in a group made up of cariocas and/or Brazilians, I would never take this risk if I wasn’t with someone who 1) knew how to speak Portuguese and 2) knew where we were going. Even though I’ve taken these risks that doesn’t mean I have fooled myself into thinking Rio Janeiro is safe. In short, never let your guard down.
Be Careful in Centro
The centre has one of the best parties on Monday night at a place called Pedro do Sal. As you arrive, there is music thumping in an open-air courtyard as local vendors are pouring cheap cachaca in large plastic cups. The centre is a fun place to go, but I would recommend against wandering around by yourself and to always be wary of your surroundings. I also wouldn’t recommend solo female travellers to stay in the Centro.
Ditch the iPhone / Samsung
iPhones and Samsung are easy money in Brazil. Given the byzantine tax regime and absurd markups on luxury goods, iPhones and Samsungs start at around USD$1,000 in Brazil. Either bring a toned-down phone for your trip, or just keep it in your pocket until you’re indoors.
Stop acting like a tourist
One of the reasons I love Brazil is that even as a blond, blue-eyed and fair-skinned gringa, I can still blend in. I always felt uncomfortable living in Santiago, Chile because I stood out from the crowd. I was easily labelled as “the foreigner.” But in Brazil, that label is harder to come by. This means that if I act accordingly, I might pass for a Brazilian and therefore be less of a target. As a result I avoid pulling out maps, looking confused [even when I am lost], speaking loudly in English, wearing flashy clothes, jewelry/camera equipment and trying my best to blend into the crowd.
Lighten up on that death grip
The easiest way to spot someone who has a lot to loose [and who is probably a tourist] is a person who is anxiously clutching their bag and/or purse. Fear is a dead giveaway. To ease this fear, I personally bought travel safety purses [a big and small one] that come with extra features like slash-proof handles and locks that give me that sense of security without having to police my bag 24-7.
My last piece of advice?
Try to stay on the southern side of the city. Walk with a purpose and avoid looking like a victim. Never ask a stranger back to your hotel room. If someone spills something on you do not let them clean it. This is a common ruse to steal your wallet. DO try to learn some Portuguese words or phrases as the locals will appreciate the effort. And finally, know where you are going and how to get there before leaving for your destination.
So is Rio de Janeiro safe? You can mitigate most the risks if you take the necessary steps. None of this is to say that you’re guaranteed a stress-free and scot-free visit with a few simple steps. But being a first time visitor to Rio is so much more rewarding if you can find ways to not feel paranoid all the time. Stop asking the question is Rio de Janeiro safe and just enjoy the city. There’s no doubt you’ll want to come back. And when you do, you’ll be wiser, more street smart, and in a position to be a little more adventuresome. But do yourself a favour and wait until next time.
So have you been to Rio? Do you think Rio de Janeiro is safe? Why or why not! Leave your answers in the comment section below