One of the first things people ask me when they’re preparing for their first trip to Rio is: Is it safe? It’s a natural question to ask because Rio doesn’t have a great reputation and you don’t have to look very hard to find some poor traveller’s horror story. So I thought I would put down my honest opinion about the situation as it stands. I don’t purport to be an expert, but I have experience of plenty of countries (first world and developing). If you’ve read some of my posts I hope you’ll see that I like to get off the beaten track and explore a bit but at the same time I’m not completely reckless – if you’re something like that then hopefully this will be useful.

Perhaps another point I should quickly make before getting on with things is that perhaps it helps that I’m not Brazilian. Of course there is a sensible, silent majority, but often the most vociferous Brazilians are those at the extreme ends of the spectrum. There are those who instantly bristle with indignation to hear people from first world nations question Brazil’s security. And more surprisingly there seems to be a group of Brazilians who will tell you that no tourists should come to Rio because it is a virtual death sentence. I haven’t quite worked out what’s going on with this group, but nevertheless, I would like to present a view unbiased by national pride or shame.

So, is it safe?

You tell me a place that you would call safe and I’ll find you someone who’s had something awful happen to them there. I’m not being evasive here, I just think it’s important to understand and deal with the fact that ‘safe’ is not a fixed quantity. I certainly don’t feel unsafe in Rio. But if you’re travelling or going on holiday, it’s all about probabilities. And there are several simple steps that you can take to reduce your chances of being unlucky:

  • Safety in numbers: You are less likely to get robbed if you’re with other people. The more the better. Empty spaces and quiet streets often aren’t a great idea.
  • Drunkenness can be dangerous: I’m not saying don’t get drunk – you’re in Rio right? Just try not to be obviously drunk and on your own. Combining these two is real danger territory in my opinion. Be drunk with a bunch of other drunk people and you’ll most likely be fine. Just try to avoid that solo 20 minute swaying walk to the cash machine or your hotel. Drag a couple of other people with you or grab a cab.
  • Use your eyes: As I said before, nowhere is ‘safe’. But you are less likely to get robbed in Leblon and Ipanema than you are in, say, Lapa or Copacabana. If you don’t know the neighbourhoods, just look around you. If you see messed up houses, tons of street kids, badly broken roads then maybe you should start thinking about grabbing the next cab you see?
  • Use your instincts: I’m sorry to say that there are people living hard lives on the streets in all neighbourhoods in Rio. Don’t assume they’re all out to get you! But be aware that the money you have in your pocket is probably more than they see in a week.
  • Don’t flash expensive items around: Take photos for sure. But after you’ve got your shot, put the camera in your pocket or bag.
  • Try to look like you know what you’re doing: If you look confident and in control people are less likely to see you as potential prey.

OK, so that’s what I reckon in terms of reducing your chances of getting robbed. But you should also think about this:

What will you do if someone does attempt to rob you?

Can I strongly suggest you mentally prepare yourself to give everything over in a quick and orderly fashion? I know it’s a nightmare to lose that camera, passport, bag with all your worldly possessions, but seriously think about the worst case scenario. On very rare occasions, someone fights back or runs and they end up getting seriously hurt or killed. Killed because you decided to fight for your passport, bag or travel snaps? What a pointless way to go.

For the record I have been robbed once in my 4.5 years in Rio. It was broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon in a perfectly fine part of town (actually very close to where I live). I say that because I think it’s worth remembering that sometimes you do everything right and you just happen to be unlucky. It was a scary incident and left me feeling a bit funny for a while afterwards, but it was clear that the guy just wanted my things – it was over in a couple of seconds. I handed him my bag and the things in my pockets, he took them and told me to walk up the hill whilst he ran off down the hill.

Once in 4.5 years doesn’t make Rio unsafe does it? My wife, who has lived in Rio all her life, was with me at the time of that robbery and it was only the second time she had been robbed ever. So don’t come here fearing for your safety – just try to be a little clued up about the things you try to avoid. Do you have any other suggestions? I’d love to hear them.

– Let me know if you have any specific questions or concerns. I’d be happy to look into it and ask around if necessary – TLM.