Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How Safe is Rio de Janeiro?

The first thing everyone asks me is: Is Rio de Janeiro really that dangerous?

This is a tricky question. Personally, I have rarely felt threatened in this city and all of those times have been in the last couple of years. Either the city is changing or having children has thinned my thick skin.

Normally you will find two opinions: 1. the foreigner saying that the city is super safe. Ironically, they say the city when it's unlikely they have ventured outside of the Zona Sul (south zone) more than going to Barra in the Zona Oeste (west zone). 2. The Brazilian who grew up here and knows the real story. Of course they are normally overly cautious when it comes to foreigners as they see them as a target.

The thing is, Rio de Janeiro's danger is spontaneous and generally unpredictable. It is quite possible to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time even if you were being careful. Of course there are areas where you should generally be more aware, for example Lapa, centro, and Botafogo and Copacabana on the emptier streets at night.  Also be warned that there's more snatching of bags in Leblon/Ipanema as that is the tourist zone, but it is not all that prevalent.

What I tell my friends who come to visit is that you don't get to be stupid but you don't have to be scared. You are visiting a city with a diverse economic background. Do not flaunt.

Finally, here are my personal rules:

1. Do not walk in dark empty streets, take a cab. Hell people, I even follow this rule in the states (unless in Coronado)
2. No diamonds on the street (not that I have any)
3. Know where I'm going. This one is easy now that I know Rio but when I didn't I'd do a little research so I didn't get too lost.
4. No prolonged digging around in my purse
5. No talking in English on my cell in centro loudly or for long periods of time
6. Do not leave anything I would not want stolen unattended in public places
7. Enjoy yourself
8. Use cabs with the name on the side. Those cabs work for posts and you are less likely to be taken advantage of.
9. When it's late, do not hesitate to take a cab instead of mass transit. This isn't always necessary, for example if you are going from Ipanema to Leblon. Sometimes though, it is best, like when you are going to Lapa late and the bus would drop you far from your destination.

It comes down to this, the actual real dangerous moments are in places where you will never go as a foreigner. It's just a fact. The other dangers are random and more or less avoidable by paying attention to your surroundings. No, that does not mean in a paranoid way. Just know where you are and what is going on around you.

And if you should find yourself in a bad situation, stay calm. Hand over your things slowly and do not panic.

What tips do you guys have? What is your feeling on Rio de Janeiro safety?


  1. The Brazilians(from Minas) I visited Rio with were more wary than me, as I'm English, which I suppose is normal. They would be more tuned to it, but I think they see it reported more. There's newspapers that report London crime in such a way you would never live there.

  2. Basic Rule of Thumb for Rio: If you find yourself walking up hill, promptly turn around.

    Almost nothing for tourists is uphill (except Santa Teresa) and even there you should walk up with a big group not speaking English or take a bus or the trolley.

    Other rules:
    Limit cellphone calls at bus stops - they are prime spots for being mugged.

    For women: Carry a noticeable purse with a couple of R$ in it to distract possible muggers and keep anything important (money, documents, maybe even phone in your bra). My mom taught me that trick whenever I went to the "big city" in the States.

    Carioca men tend to put some loose small bills in their pockets and tuck the wallet in their belt under their belly button for the same reason.

    **It is important to have some distraction money in your pocket or purse if you hide the rest. No mugger will believe you are walking around with nothing.**

    For that reason: Always walk around with some money and ID.

    Make a legalized copy of your ID at a cartorio. Once you pay the R$7, it is as good as the real deal, but less of a pain if you lose it. Carry the copy and leave the real one at home.

  3. Great post!

    I would have to say that if you are from one of the big cities in the US (LA, NY, Chicago, etc.), you will likely have a basic skill set to survive in Rio. You will probably have developed your situational awareness (eyes in the back of your head) skill which is mandatory to survive Rio. Here are some other things to remember:

    Don't act like a victim. You have always got to project confidence when walking around Rio. If you act scared or unsure, the bad elements in the area will be attracted to you like vultures to a wounded animal.

    Dress down. Leave the bling bling and kix at home. One of the best things you can do is try to blend in like the locals. Go to the mall and buy some of the native garb. Although Rio has changed a lot in the last 10 years and locals are now wearing jewelry and the latest Nikes on the street, I wouldn't recommend it. Why risk it?

    If a stranger (Brazilian) comes up and tries to talk to you - IGNORE THEM. Usually, they will be asking you for money, however, a lot of times, they are part of a "team" out to rob you. While they are checking you out, their partners are in the background waiting for the signal to follow you and rob you when you are in a more secluded area.

    If you are on public transport, NEVER speak English loudly.

    Guys, leave the wallet at home - just carry a photocopy of your ID. Don't walk around with a lot of cash - just bring enough for the outing or in other words, bring how much you can afford to lose if you get robbed.

    With all of that being said, I do feel that Rio is a bit safer now than it was 10 years ago. The previous suggestions are no different than the way you would act back in the states if you were in a big city. Heck, 20 years ago, I used to work in Compton, California and most of you probably know what a great place that is (NWA, Snoop Dogg, Tupac in da house). I actually feel safer walking around Rio than I did driving and walking in Compton.

    Rio is a beautiful city filled with great people but just like anywhere else, it does have it's bad side. Just be careful

  4. When I worked a lot in downtown Rio, I used to carry R$50 in a pocket just in case. I was once told to have enough that the thief would be pleased but not enough to make seem too rich. If faced with the cash, they may also leave you with all your docs

  5. I always like to add to friends to avoid buying drugs, women, or weapons.

    And, for the paranoid, I often slip a R$20 or R$50 in my shoe. Hey, it's dirty (you're welcome for all those who have come in contact with one of these bills), but it's a cab ride home if things turn sour.

  6. Rachel,

    I think this is a great post, you guys covered most of the good tips and things to avoid. Greg's comment is also great.
    I travel to Rio often for business and have never ever had any problems, have never had a cab driver trying to take advantage of us. Even when we lost our luggage with laptop and expensive projector inside, the delivery guy brought it to us with everything inside.
    Greg is right, confidence is key. The thugs know people who are big city savvy from a mile away. If you walk around wondering, kind of lost, looking up at the high rises, you become pray.
    That is the same in New York city by the way, there are things you just don't do in a big city.
    But then again, the only time I was ever robbed at gun point was in one of the safest suburbs of Dallas, in Carrollton, Texas, sitting in my car at the parking lot of a Whataburger. I even felt the cold tip of the gun at my temple, not fun.
    Have never been robbed in any city in Brazil.
    I love Rio and have never felt unsafe while visiting the city.


  7. When driving and approaching a red light slow down your vehicle so that it does NOT come to a complete stop during the interval it takes for the light to turn green. Thieves will target cars that have reached a complete stop and have an open window according to the police.

  8. Those are really great tips!

    My mother made me a little pouch bag in fabric (lined with waterproof material inside) so I could keep money and credit cards and carry it in my knickers (!). In my bag I would only keep things like umbrella, makeup, phone (never an expensive model anyway) and a wallet with just a few notes and coins.

    Whenever I got to my destination (mall, shop, school, workplace, someone's house, etc) I would pop into the loo, get the little pouch out of my knickers and place it in the bag. Before leaving I'd pop back and transfer it back to my knickers. :) Not too much work at all and at least I felt safe. Carrying stuff on your bra can be useless as sometimes you can see the volume, especially if you're wearing a tight top. It's impossible to conceal a credit card, for instance. Plus, some criminals already know about this cunning plan, thus patting women on the tits while procedures are taking place (true story).

    And yes, a legalized copy of your documents is always a great idea. I did it with all my stuff and, even when I lost my wallet, I was happy I didn't have to go through the nightmare that it is to make new ones.