Safety in Rio

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.

 

9 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. Marcel

    I agree what you reported is something important about even warn the tourists or people who come to Brazil in passing
    your post is a great tool to help people who do not have knowledge about the safety aspect and how it should react on an assault or even take care

    congratulations

    1. tomlemes

      Thanks Marcel! :)

  2. Barbara

    Hello,Tom.
    As a native from Rio, I should say that your advices are pretty right. It´s very realistic. No much optimism nor exageration on the other hand. Congratulations. These info are very useful. Certainly, it will help many people who plan to come over and eventually are afraid. Danger exists everywhere. Big cities can be like that. I lived in the northwest London and I was robbed near my house too. This may sound a surprise for many people who have been in the city but unfortunately it happened to me. Apart from this, I didn´t discourage to keep on living there. It´s quite the opposite actually, I still continue to love London.
    Regards,
    Barbara.

    1. tomlemes

      Hi Barbara – thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear that you agree with my take on this. Many people are a little scared before coming to Rio for the first time – you hear so many things in the press and if you’ve seen Cidade de Deus (City of God), then I think it’s natural to want to have some safety concerns.

      I wanted to try to be as honest as possible – yes, there is a small risk that something could happen. But there is a risk everywhere. I also know people who have been robbed in London (one even with violence). I think the key is to recognise that there is risk everywhere and then do what you can to keep the chances to a minimum. London and Rio are probably my two favourite cities in the world – I would encourage everyone to see them both if they have the chance! :)

  3. Thomas Heywood

    Hi,

    no offense, but getting mugged once in 2.5 years is unsafe in my book. I went all sorts of places in London, alone, drunk, flashing my football scarf and fiddling with a glowing smartphone, and the worst I got was dirty looks.

    1. tomlemes

      Hi Thomas – no offence taken! :) I think the main thing I tried to get across was that the concepts of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ are somewhat arbitrary. If you get robbed in London on a 2 week trip (it happens to many), you’ll come away thinking it’s unsafe.

      For the record, I’ve now been in Rio for 3.5 years and still have only been robbed once. My guess is that it is far easier to get robbed in Rio than London – I don’t think that’s particularly controversial or insightful. But what quite a few people ask me is “is it safe to visit Rio?” and that’s what I was trying to answer. Maybe a shorter, simpler version of what I’m trying to say here is:

      1) Don’t think in terms of ‘safe/unsafe’ – think in terms of risk;
      2) It is possible that you might get robbed in Rio but there are things you can do to minimise the chances;
      3) Try to develop good habits to reduce the likelihood of robbery (e.g. don’t walk around drunk on your own at night, fiddling with your smartphone! ;) ;
      4) Be mentally and practically prepared so that in the unlikely case that you are robbed, you don’t do something silly that could turn a shitty situation into a dangerous one.

  4. Peter

    Why is there a section of the population in Rio who consider it to be the most dangerous city in the world – ‘Cidade Alerta’, daily tv program on canal Record (513 on Net). Full of stories of violence and robbery along with hosts who act more like a preachers. (Unfortunately) The Carioca’s love it.

    1. tomlemes

      Hi Peter, I know the people you are talking about and I also find it puzzling. I guess it is partly that Only in Brazil mentality. Cidade Alerta is truly awful and weird isn’t it? However, I can report that not all cariocas love it! :)

  5. Barbara

    Hello, Peter and everybody.

    As a Carioca I agree with tomlem´s comments. Not only tourists should take care and avoid to expose themselves to danger. All people who live in Rio usually do things to avoid embarassing experience or a danger.

    I told that was robbered in London but London is not as dangerous as Rio in this way so far, surely. Rio is much danger. I know this. I also said that big cities usually are dangerous. Here, in Rio de Janeiro, we really should be alert too. As a woman e.g. I rarely take buses after 11:00 pm. I never wear for example a watch or any kind of valuable object that may attract the robber attention.

    If you´re a tourist, keep your camera in your bag as soon as you finish to take pictures. If wish go out for sightseeing out from ´zona sul and centro da cidade´, don´t go alone or with a friend only. Always with a native or a group of natives. NEVER get on vans. Always prefer buses, underground or taxis. In all cases, basically, at least prefer to go out with friends, specially a native one, if you can. If you have safe habbits, I guarantee that you´ll have very exciting and remarkable days in Rio. If you intent to come over, make a little plan, try to collect some good tips from some brazilians before. Do not take the risk of guessing what you can or can´t do here by your own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>