8 tips to stay safe while visiting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
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I’ve been going to Brazil for more than 10 years. When I tell people about an upcoming trip, I often get reactions like: “Oh, but isn’t it really dangerous?” to which I usually respond: “Yes, it can be. But dangerous things can happen in many other cities around the world that we consider safe.”
There are certain things that you would be fine doing in your hometown that should be avoided where possible in Rio and other cities in Brazil to avoid attracting the attention of opportunist criminals. It’s more or less just using common sense and being more street smart than you’ve ever been before.
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I was so excited to spend a full two-week holiday in Rio in February. Having spent several months in Brazil over the course of my life and after visiting Rio countless times, fear is something that I don’t let inhibit my time there. That said, it does not mean that something bad still can’t happen, and this time, unfortunately, a combination of wrong place, wrong time and complacency meant that I found myself in harm’s way. I was attacked and mugged, leaving me with a fractured eye socket and no phone, wallet or credit cards.
Reflecting on what happened to me, I felt all the emotions on the spectrum. There are some things I could have done differently that day, which may have prevented an unexpected visit or two to the hospital. The hardest thing to get my head around is that if my actions that day had been in Barcelona, Miami or whatever other beach city you like in the world, the chances are it wouldn’t have resulted in the same, scary outcome like it did in Rio.
That said, I’m not trying to scare you into not visiting Rio — far from it. It’s more a combination of advice thanks to lessons learned that day, as well as other little tips I picked up along the way. Hopefully, these simple tips will make sure you can enjoy this beautiful city in the safest way possible.
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1. If in doubt, take an Uber
One of the best things about visiting a new city is walking around with no particular direction and just exploring. That’s still possible in Rio, but if you’re thinking of going further than a few blocks, then getting an Uber is probably your safest option.
The same can be said for returning home after an evening meal out. It’s far safer just to call an Uber and wait in your restaurant until it arrives — that way, you’re guaranteed to get home safe. Yes, it may seem over the top, and yes, it’s not great for the environment, but it’s just another way to reduce the risk of putting yourself in danger.
Oh, and Ubers are ridiculously cheap in comparison to in the U.S. The cheapest ride I took was 65 cents.
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2. Avoid staying near Copacabana and Ipanema beaches
Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio’s Zona Sul (south zone) are two of the most famous beach neighborhoods in the world. Tourists flock year-round to soak up the Brazilian sunshine while drinking fresh agua de coco. Unfortunately, tourists mean money, expensive jewelry and smartphones — and this is what fuels Rio’s criminals. If you’re set on staying in these neighborhoods, then the further back from the beachfront the better when researching where to stay.
The neighborhood of Lagoa is one of the safer areas if you still want stunning views and being close to the beautiful beaches.
If you want to get in it and feel like a local, then a great part of the city to stay in is Botafogo. You’ll pretty much only see locals in the bars and restaurants in this area and it’s only a short taxi ride away from the beaches.
3. Don’t use your phone in the street
Or even on the beach — it’s where most phones get stolen out of bags. This is one of the easiest things to do, but also one of the easiest to forget because we’re so used to being on our phones all the time when walking down the street. I can’t stress enough how important it is to just leave your phone in your pocket unless you’re in a restaurant or somewhere safe.
The streets of Rio are busy and there are would-be criminals on many corners scouring the streets for unsuspecting tourists on their phones. It’s too easy for them to run or cycle passed and swipe it out of your hand in a second.
If you really need to be using a phone, then it’s worthwhile bringing a cheap backup phone that you take out with you and leave your proper phone at your accommodation.
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4. Avoid being alone
If your friends want to leave the beach or the club and you want to stay, the safest option for you is to probably just suck it up and leave with them. Safety in numbers is definitely a thing. If you really want to stay, then just make sure you get an Uber when you leave rather than walking on your own. This mainly applies to after dark situations, but being on your own in a quiet street in broad daylight can be just as risky.
5. Don’t wear JEWELRY
Whether it’s expensive or not, just don’t wear it. Rings, watches, earrings and especially necklaces are often grabbed and yanked from around your neck. Once again, similar to not using your phone in the street, the most important thing is to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.
6. Buy an undercover money belt
These are great little devices, which mean you can keep your money, phone and any other small valuables out of sight and out of your pockets. Keep a bit of change in your pocket, and if you’re asked to hand over your money and phone, you can show you’ve got nothing in your pockets. Most Brazilians I know use these, too.
7. Don’t engage with beach sellers
This one goes completely against the manners that have been drummed into us since we were kids. But let that all go out the window while you’re on the beach. Every minute or so, you’ll be approached by someone selling cigarettes, bottles of water, knockoff sunglasses and even the most tempting, best-smelling popcorn you’ve ever come across.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of them are legit and just trying to earn a living in the best way they can. Unfortunately, that can’t be said for all, especially those working in pairs. While one speaks and distracts you, another steals your money, phone or bag from your blind spot and before you’ve realized they’re already halfway down the beach.
8. Don’t be complacent
Most of us who can afford to travel and explore the world live in “safe” areas of “safe” towns and cities in predominantly “safe” countries. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, this can often lead to complacency and a sense of “I’ll be OK, it’ll never happen to me.”
My advice, even if you’re in a busy area with people around or walking down a street on your own — don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. You can never be too sure just how safe you really are.
Just to reiterate, I’m not trying to warn you off visiting Rio — far from it, in fact. Chances are, you’ll have an amazing time and wonder why I even wrote this article in the first place. Rio is one of the most fun, beautiful and vibrant cities in the world. Enjoy every second, but follow these tips — and stay safe.
Featured photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy
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