How safe is Rio?
“How safe is Rio?” quickly became my main question and concern in the months before going to Brazil. After asking several Brazilians for advice and saying that I really wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, I was usually greeted with the same response: “Don’t go there, they are too dangerous, and [pointing at my watch] definitely don’t take that with you or it will be stolen”.
One friend, who had lived in Rio for a while, told me a story in which (after being mugged at gunpoint) he had asked if he could have his SIM card from his stolen phone, to which the thief gladly replied yes and even gave him some bus money to get home. So at least, I thought, when I was eventually mugged, it would be with a smile.
My fear-levels were then exacerbated further by watching the movie Cidade de Deus (which is set in the more dangerous Cidade de Deus slum in Rio) and I stopped worrying about my watch and started worrying about my life instead. But despite all this, my goal had been to visit to Rio at the beginning of 2016 so I was still determined to go.
Since leaving, several people have asked me the same fearful questions I had about the city, so I hope this post will be helpful for anyone wanting to visit what is now probably one of my favourite cities in the world. Here are a few pictures of why:
Stepping into the Unknown
And so I packed what was one large backpack* of possessions for the next three months, minus as much valuable-looking stuff as possible (laptop required though).
(*actually a smaller backpack within the larger backpack which I separated into hand and hold luggage for flights).
When I arrived in Rio, one of my Airbnb hosts very kindly came to pick me up from the airport (and I’m grateful, otherwise I might actually have been mugged if I was seen wandering around with an ‘obviously a tourist’ backpack – see my Curitiba post). We then went out (with his fiance as well) to a cafe for breakfast; At the time I remember being on high-alert and was – like a ninja – watching my back carefully at every point during the walk (in which I now realise is mostly a very safe area in Rio).
Over time, I began to get a better feel for the area (Botafogo) and realised it was pretty safe, (there are more pickpockets in the tourist-ic areas). But as safe as I usually felt, I was still careful not to walk around at night with my headphones in, wave my phone around carelessly, and to cross the road if I saw a group of shady looking people.
I felt less safe when I visited Copacabana and at one point was approached by a shady looking character whilst I was ordering an Uber on my phone (which I then quickly put into my pocket). If you visit Rio, and want to be able to walk to the beach, staying in Ipanema or Copacabana (I prefer Ipanema) is a better option than Botafogo, just take a bit more care when walking around.
A City of Contrasts
Rio is quite unique in that the poorer areas (favelas or comunidades) of the city are often in the middle of richer/tourist areas (and are usually on the hills). As far as I know, they mainly formed in the 19th century as people moved into the city from the countryside when Brazil transitioned from an empire to a republic. It is this juxtaposition of rich and poor that seems to cause the most anxiety when people think about Rio.
When I stayed in Rio, I visited three favelas, mainly because I like to see things for myself, how other people live etc. The communities I went to were said to be ‘pacified’ which basically means that the military police have gone in and set up there. In order to visit those which are ‘non-pacified’ (and probably even the ‘pacified’ ones to be honest), it is recommended to have a guide who knows people there and can show you around (ask in some hostels or look on the internet for a guide). Kudos to Obama for visiting the Cidade de Deus favela.
One favela I visited was near Copacabana. In one of the hostels, was working a young German woman of only 19 years. I was with some others at the time, and we spoke about whether she had seen or experienced any violence. She mentioned that one time, she had witnessed a shooting whilst looking over the balcony. I thought she was very brave for staying after that, but waking up to a view like this every morning probably helped:
After this, I went back to my apartment, grateful that I was living in a safe area. Coincidentally, that same night, I was woken up by the sound of gunshots, and the next day found out that there had been a shoot-out between a policeman and some people from the favelas (according to the news) by a cafe on my block which I would often go to in the mornings (no one was killed). My hosts said they had never experienced this before in Botafogo, and it reminded me that, whilst usually safe, it is still a city of many social tensions.
I would encourage anyone visiting the city to pay a respectful tourist visit to one of the safe favelas because I think that it a. helps bridge social gaps through understanding (these communities are often demonised as being the cause of all social wrongs, when in fact they are usually just people trying to get on with their lives), and b. spending money there helps the economy of the community. You can book a visit over the internet.
Some seemed worried as to what will happen in the poorer areas after the Olympics and whether the military police will move or be driven out, potentially leading to an increased violence in the city. I really hope that violence doesn’t increase after the games, and I hope that one day Rio can find a way to exist peacefully, without threat of danger to visitors, or to locals.
- People from Rio are known as Cariocas, and they have an accent which is very distinct from the rest of Brazil (sounding closer to European Portuguese but more ‘open’). The stereotype of Cariocas is that they are ‘scoundrels’ (malandro), but (except in the case of some of the taxi drivers) I did not find this to be true.
- Visit the Cristo, the views are amazing. You can get up using a bus which stops at a great view point along the way, or you can take the train (I don’t think this stops at the view point, but the view going up is probably really nice).
- Just because you have seen the view from the Cristo, don’t think that you don’t need to see the view from the Pão de Acucar. Rio has an amazing way of surprising you with yet another amazing view in each place you go to.
- Plenty of people I spoke to in Rio said they had been mugged at one time or other, but plenty hadn’t.
- During Carnival, if you visit any ‘blocos’ be really careful, I was wearing shorts with zipped pockets so that no one could snatch anything from me, but I heard a few stories of people having their phones stolen.
- Be especially careful if you are a woman during the blocos because sometimes some of the men are known to try and ‘force kiss’ (and as many people as they can).
- Some of the locals said that some areas can be safe during one season, but then become dangerous later, so it is always good to find up to date information about districts.
- Most say not to believe any ‘news’ that comes from the Globo network, it is owned by a small powerful rich elite and most say it is worse than Fox News.
- Try the polvilho snack Biscoito Globo (I don’t think affiliated in any way with the aforementioned television network). I still have cravings for these now.
- I’d advise against wandering around aimlessly into any area that you feel like because it is easy to turn a corner and end up in a bad area. Stick as far as possible to well lit and busy areas.
- Take care if you go to ‘Centro’, it is the oldest part of the city, but is also renowned for being dangerous, especially at night. In my experience, any area of any Brazilian city called ‘Centro’ necessitated a little more care than usual (don’t ever go to São Paulo’s Centro at night).
- Copacabana beach is infamous for what the locals call ‘Arastao’. This is effectively where a group of kids will run en masse down a section of the beach snatching as many bags and valuables as possible.
- Don’t let any of this stop you from going, Rio is arguably the safest it has ever been for tourists because of the World Cup and the Olympics. I am already considering going back soon!