Your tips for safe traveling in Brazil?
June 17, 2009 11:30 AM   Subscribe

Your tips for safe traveling in Brazil?

My two friends (both women) are going on a trip to Brazil (mostly Rio de Janeiro). I'm rather worried about their safety...

Partially because I'm an overly-paranoid person. Partially because the movie City of God unsettled me (although I'm sure that's a bit like assuming Boyz 'N the Hood represents all of America). And partially because of the US State Department warning for Brazil (excerpt):

Crime throughout Brazil has reached very high levels. The Brazilian police and the Brazilian press report that the rate of crime continues to rise, especially in the major urban centers – though it is also spreading in rural areas. Brazil’s murder rate is more than four times higher than that of the U.S. Rates for other crimes are similarly high. The majority of crimes are not solved. There were rapes reported by American citizens in 2008...

I'm looking for specific tips for staying safe in Rio / Brazil. Areas that are safe, areas to avoid, prevalent scams. Also any general tips you might have for single women staying safe as tourists.

Plus, any anecdotes of successful safe trips to Rio might help to diffuse my anxiety about their safety.

Thanks for your help.

[Previous question note: I also gathered tips from this previous Rio question from 2005 and this question re: Sao Paulo.]
posted by sharkfu to Travel & Transportation around Brazil (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
stay home
posted by patnok at 11:35 AM on June 17, 2009

I haven't been to Brazil but I have been to a few countries within South America. Typically I would do a ton of research beforehand to avoid even venturing into areas which may be dangerous. Being lost often goes hand in hand with being a victim.

I would suggest reading:
Wikitravel: Stay Safe
TripAdvisor: Search 'safe' on Brazil forums
ThornTree: Safety in Brazil

I hope your friends will enjoy themselves & keep safe.
posted by gushn at 11:49 AM on June 17, 2009

As a single woman who has traveled all over South America by herself, I feel particularly qualified to answer this question. My biggest piece of advice is to be as unobtrusive as possible. No jewelry, only carry money on your person that you need for that day, dress to blend in and keep your head out of your ass (by which I mean, pay attention to your surroundings).
Most of Rio is quite safe for tourists. I highly recommend the Santa Teresa and Lapa neighborhoods to get a feel for Rio, and the Ipanema and Leblon beaches are the best for getting a tan and drinking local juice.
Seriously, women are at no greater threat than any man would be, as a matter of fact, we may be safer because the hookers don't set their sights on us. Be smart, practical and esperta, and you will be just fine.
posted by msali at 11:54 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I recently spent 5 weeks in Brasil and the fact is there is a lot of street crime and your friends will hear horror stories from other travellers. In my time there I saw nothing happen and nothing happened to me. One guy in my hostel did wake up to find his backpack gone (stolen by a Brasilian who checked in late and left early) but that aside, nothing. I was in Rio 4 days and Sao Paulo 4 days. the backpack incident happened in the little colonial town of Paraty.

I would make the following points.

- Having spent the last 8 months travelling in South America, I have heard street crime stories about pretty much country I've been to, not just Brasil
- The UK Government site (not seen the US one) has warning like that one for ALL South American countries, not just Brasil
- Not only in Brasil but nothing has happened to me in 8 months
- You can never avoid it 100%, in any country, but you can take sensible steps
- Never ask anyone who is not a policemen for directions
- Do not walk around looking at a street map. Sat in a cafe is OK, not whilst moving
- Copy your passport, do not carry the original around
- Back up your photos regularly - hurts less if you lose your camera
- In Rio, avoid big backpacker hostels in Copacabana, they have been robbed, I stayed in Botafogo, it felt safer
- In hostels use lockers all the time, never leave anything lying around
- I have a lock with a steel cable so I can lock my backpack to the bed if there is not locker
- Sleep with valuables under your pillow
- Books like Lonely Planet have some of the more prevalent scams currently in operation
- All the books say call cabs, don't flag them down. I've never done this, have always flagged em, never had a problem, YMMV
- If you MUST go to a favela (where City of God was set) go with a tour, never alone. I didn't do a tour and felt wrong about the whole idea, but if you gotta go, go with a tour
- Only carry as much money as you will need and are prepared to lose!

All this written down makes it sound like you have to worry about it so much that you can't enjoy yourself and as an overly-paranoid person myself who had travelled little outside Europe and the US I was little apprehensive about Brasil more than anywhere else in South America. But guess what? You get used to a slightly higher level of awareness after a day or two and I loved it.
posted by jontyjago at 12:02 PM on June 17, 2009

Wonderful of you to be concerned for your friends.

I haven't traveled in the area, but I recommend doing some reading before on "safety in Rio" reading. That Google search alone netted a wealth of articles. This guide looks useful. A cursory glance suggests that you'll be able to find some "safe areas" listed on-site. Here's a ThornTree message board thread re: this issue.

One site that's been helpful for me as a woman traveler is Journeywoman. The site is very pro-travel, with tips that are especially tailored to women. Some articles you might find useful. (Note: the articles aren't about Rio specifically, but rather about safety and travel.) These pages have some Rio-based tips: 1, 2.

Hope all goes well for your friends!
posted by ElectricBlue at 12:05 PM on June 17, 2009

Look Brazilian. No jewelry, no watch, no fancy/unusual shoes.
Wear LONG PANTS, maybe worn down pants. Do not talk unnecessary and loud, do not draw attention to you, walk self-confident, be very aware of your surroundings without looking around. Never yell at somebody (it is a bigger thing there then in the US). If you get robbed, give you stuff freely, do not fight back. Never.

Be sure to visit Santa Teresa with the Tam. :-)

Yoyo, 2X to Brazil, 2X to Colombia
posted by yoyo_nyc at 12:06 PM on June 17, 2009

Just read gushn's comment. I have never done any research beyond the Lonely Planet to establish the dangerous areas, and they are pretty well up to date. I would say nowhere is South America is it advisable to do too much random wandering around outside of the main areas. Especially not the big cities. There's enough to do in Rio in the main tourist areas to last several days without needing to do any ad-hoc wandering about. And sharkfu, tell your friends to go to Ilha Grande. Two hours bus / 1 hour boat from Rio. It's stunning.

Oh, and for Rio it's worth pre-booking a hostel / hotel - it's the only time I've done it 8 months and was well worth it, if only for the reassurance factor. Feel free to mefimail me for any other questions / specific tips.
posted by jontyjago at 12:09 PM on June 17, 2009

I would *not* agree that most neighbourhoods in Rio are safe for tourists. Even if that is true, it is not practical information -- "most" does not matter, what matters is whether the ones you are going to are safe or not. You really DO have to do your research on that one, and I would highly recommend asking a local about what is safe and what is not.

Also, all the suggestions not to wear jewelry are spot on. That is pretty much true for all of Brazil, and much more so in Rio or São Paulo. I would even say don't wear "foreign looking clothes", but it is hard to explain what that means really. Just try to blend in as much as you can. A little bit of Portuguese can go a long way, and if you are in a bind, Spanish will also help, not because people speak Spanish to any degree, but with a little bit of effort Portuguese speakers can pretty much understand Spanish speakers and vice-versa -- but not always.

Going out at night is also very different, and again I would not do it unless you are doing it with a good friend who happens to be a local. People head out much later than in North America, and also stay out much later.

If your friends like to carry purses, tell them to carry it VERY close to their bodies, preferably under their arms, with the straps over the shoulder. It is a very good suggestion to be well aware of your surroundings -- people following your too closely, etc. It is always good to carry SOME money with you, even if you are just heading to the corner for a walk, whatever. If you get accosted by a mugger, you will have something to offer, and that can make things go smoother. Tell them to stay together, have contact information of embassies with them at all time, as well as contact information for their hotel/hostel (not just in their wallets, since those may get stolen).

Also, travelers' cheques are practically useless in Brazil. When I visited there after living in Canada for many years, credit cards and bank cards were more practical ways to access money -- but even then, in smaller cities along the coast, it got a bit tricky at times to find ATMs.

As for Ilha Grande, do your research about what hotel/hostel you want to stay in before you get there. The best ones are on the beach front, but they are all quite small, and some can be very crappy. I stayed in one that was on the beach (a quite nice and large white building), and I wish I had the name to pass on, but that was many years ago. Also, the trip is pretty low budget, and it may be kinda tricky to find your way from the bus to the ferry ("balsa"), so be prepared (it is not really a place that caters to non Portuguese speakers). When I first arrived there I was unprepared, and ended up being taken to a very shady hotel far from the beach, and certainly not a place I'd be too keen to walk to at night, even in Ilha Grande. As soon as there were rooms available, I moved to the nicer hotel on the beach.

All this being said, I have visited Rio twice + passed through one while going to other places. Have not had major issues, aside from annoyance like being overcharged by a cab driver and by a boat tour in Ilha Grande (next time, ask the hotel for information about good boat tours, that was my lesson). But if you go to Ilha Grande, you definitely want to take the boat tour.

I really don't mean to sound negative -- but life in Brazil is very different, especially in big cities, and I think it is important to get mention some of the most basic safety tips, and make sure people stick to them.

In Rio, the Pão de Açucar and the Corcovado are awesome. You definetly need to go there. In the Pão de Açucar, if you look carefully you will be able to see some tiny tamarin monkeys in the woods, and you might even be able to feed them if they are around one of the restaurants in the Pão de Açucar. The beaches are awesome mostly for the people, but you should also ask around for which ones are safer.

If you have specific questions, feel free to mefi mail me. I am originally from Brazil, so I can be of some help in that front (but I am not a native of Rio or the surrounding area).
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 12:46 PM on June 17, 2009

I was in Rio last year, and didn't really have any safety-related problems. I was overcharged by an airport taxi, but that's about it.

In general, I found Ipanema/Leblon areas to feel no less safe than a typical American or European city. Other areas you'll want to exercise more caution, or else have a local contact or guide, especially at night.

It's a beautiful city, but not the best for wandering aimlessly - big tunnels separate the main neighborhoods, and you can't get around the whole city on foot. Study a map carefully before walking around. Also, a nice neighborhood can become a favela with disputed turf in just a few city blocks. Any of the lively, crowded areas are generally safe, but watch out for the typical purse snatchers and pickpockets.

Don't dress too affluently, and don't carry around anything you can't afford to lose (take a taxi when carrying around your big luggage). Learn a few words and phrases in Portuguese - a little goes a long way, especially since so few tourists even attempt the language.
posted by sharkitect at 2:38 PM on June 17, 2009

Look Brazilian. No jewelry, no watch, no fancy/unusual shoes.
Wear LONG PANTS, maybe worn down pants.

Unless those long pants are tight dressy jeans, they won't look Brazilian. A cute skirt, however, would go a long way. That may sound impractical for traveling, but if they really want to blend in they should go out of their way to look nice. Brazilians generally take a lot of care in their appearance and women tend to dress quite feminine. That means hair and nails done.

A large purse would be better than a backpack on excursion days, as long as it's a purse that zips (or closes securely in some other way).

If they're being pestered by people on the street trying to sell stuff, a shake of the finger goes a long way and doesn't require language skills--it won't necessarily "out" you as a tourist.

I don't live in Rio, but I live in a good-sized Brazilian city (which is sometimes considered dangerous) and don't have much problem going around town by myself. If they know how to conduct themselves in any large city, they should be fine.
posted by wallaby at 4:46 PM on June 17, 2009

I spent four months in Brazil a few years ago. I never felt threatened, even when we were shaken down by the police going into the airport in Rio. The area I lived and worked in mostly was Baha de Tijuca. It seemed incredibly safe. I was surprised to see people walking along the beach alone at night, like older women walking their dogs at 4 or 5 in the morning. The people at our office said it was among the safest places in Rio. There were some decent hotels along the beach. It is separated from the main part of Rio by the mountains, although the "City of God" is also on that side.

Like the others have said, don't dress too flashy. I wore work clothes most of the time and the locals said I fit in more than any of the other americans working for us there. An essential item is the Lonely Planet Brazilian Portuguese Phrasebook. They should probably have a dictionary as well, but this phrasebook is very good at giving you perfect pronunciation, and breaks it down into situations like common phrases for restaurants, clubs, police, hospitals, etc.

It is also a good idea to have a Brazilian or Portuguese speaker on speed dial in case of emergency. In my case we once had to call our local contact, hand the phone to the police, then they handed it back and our contact told us how much we had to give them. Even if the contact is their hotel, it will come in handy. US cell phones may work there, but they may need to contact their carrier beforehand and get a different SIM card, so plan ahead. That route will probably not be cheap, so also check into rate plans. You may be able to get a pay as you go phone there fairly easily for local communication. If they have a laptop, they should have a VOIP service like Skype or Vonage to talk to home with.

HSBC was one of the few non Brazilian banks that seemed to have branches everywhere I went. If I were to go back to Brazil I would definitely open an online account with them and verify you can access it from there in case of financial emergency.

I never stayed there, but the hotel we mostly used in Baha de Tijuca had arranged tours of the major sights that left from and brought you back to the hotel. Make sure to have them check with the hotel staff and point out the areas they shouldn't stray into.
posted by Yorrick at 7:42 PM on June 17, 2009

@Yorrick: Barra da Tijuca is also the place where a lot of the Brazilian middle class fled from the more crime-heavy inner neighborhoods. That's why it's also a lot safer.

@OP: I've been to Rio on two occasions, once on a family trip and once with friends that were Brazilian. One of the nice things about Brazil is that racial variety is so wide that anyone can look Brazilian. So honestly, don't look like a tourist (ie, wear a fanny pack or hang a DSLR around your neck, speak English REALLY LOUD), and they should be fine.

Petty crime is quite a lot higher, so just be more careful, just like you would in a major US city. Nthing other posters that the State Department warnings err on the overcautious side.
posted by waylaid at 9:06 AM on June 20, 2009

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