When people learn that I live in Rio de Janeiro, the first question that they often ask is, “is it safe?” Rio de Janeiro has a reputation of being dangerous and violent, and the reputation is familiar to not only foreigners, but amongst Brazilians from other parts of the country too. Movies like City of God and folklore about favelas and gun-toting drug dealers don’t help.
But is it true? Is Rio really unsafe?
Living off and on in Rio de Janeiro for the last decade has made me privy to certain precautions that have now become second nature. I know which areas to avoid at night, what bag is best to use, and how to handle my phone in public. But these learned behaviors took time, and if you’re passing through on a week long vacation, they won’t be terribly obvious.
Here are must read tips on how to stay safe in Rio de Janeiro and how to avoid unwanted incidents.
Is Rio Safe for Tourists?
Is Rio safe for tourists in 2020? Anyone planning to visit will get this question from at least one person.
And, depending on who you ask, the answer might be different.
My answer would be yes, Rio is absolutely safe for tourists! You’ll need to take certain precautions, but that’s true of literally any big city.
Here are safety tips to ensure a safe trip to Rio. With these tips, and luck on your side, you should be more than ok. While nobody can guarantee safety, we think that following these tips is the best way to mitigate your risk.
Safety Tips for Rio de Janeiro
Avoid flashy jewelry
As a friend of mine walked on the Copacabana boardwalk with a visiting friend, a boy ran up from behind and snatched her necklace off of her neck. “It belonged to my Grandmother!” she yelled in Portuguese, but the boy and his friends were already running across the street. It was too late. The necklace was gone.
This happened in broad daylight on a Saturday, when the beach was full of people and activity.
In all of the excitement of having a visitor, and after a nice dinner out the night before, she had forgotten to take off the necklace.
If you’re spending the day outside, leave the jewelry at home.
Don’t walk in Centro at night or on the weekends
Rio de Janeiro’s commercial downtown area is alive during weekday mornings and afternoons with people working, selling goods on the street, and tons of shops and restaurants. But come nightfall and weekends, the once lively area turns into a ghost town. It’s not a residential area, so locals head home and businesses close.
If you want to check out the area, go during the day on a weekday. If you need to go at night or on the weekend for a specific reason, your best bet is to take a ride share or taxi directly there and back.
It’s always best to avoid remote areas.
Every year or so, O Globo, the local news station, does an (admittedly fear-mongering) exposé about petty robbery. They set up hidden cameras to catch thieves in the act. The cameras catch robbers eyeing potential victims and snatching phones or necklaces from unsuspecting pedestrians.
The one thing that each target on these hidden cameras has in common is this: they’re not paying attention.
They’re standing on a street corner and sucked into their phone, unaware of those lurking nearby. Or, they’re crossing the street and paying attention to traffic, with valuables in their hands or on their necks. Some even had their items stolen from inside their car, through an open window.
When your attention is diverted, whether you’re on the phone, in deep conversation, or crossing the street, it’s easy for robberies to occur.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t speak while walking, or cross the street. It’s just that you shouldn’t do those things with your phone in your hand.
Pay close attention to your surroundings.
Bring a backup credit card
Credit and debit cards are used everywhere in Rio. You can even use a credit card to rent chairs and umbrellas right on the beach. Places of business will bring a portable card reading machine right to you, and your transaction is done in seconds.
Unfortunately, credit and debit cards are also frequently cloned and stolen. In most cases, it’s not the physical card themselves that are stolen, but rather, the card number.
While it’s tough to avoid and depends a lot on luck, there are a few things you can do to help the situation:
- ATM Etiquette: When using an ATM, use your hand to cover the key pad while punching in your pin number.
- Update your Contact Info: Make sure your credit card company and bank have your contact information, so they can easily reach you if they notice any suspicious charges.
- Keep Back Ups at Home: Always travel with a back up card. If anything happens to your main card (lost or stolen) you’ll have a second card to fall back on.
Don’t use your phone while walking in public
The item I hear about most when it comes to robberies in Rio are cell phones.
They’re easy to snatch out of hands, especially for thieves on bikes, motorcycles, or with quick feet.
Don’t use your phone on the street, especially if you’re walking. Being sucked into a screen means you’re distracted and will be an easier target.
This also means no listening to music or podcasts while walking or on public transportation. Stay alert and aware of your surroundings.
If you do need to take out your phone for some reason, duck into the entrance of a store and use it inside.
Plan travel in and out of Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa – the hilltop bohemian neighborhood – is a must see if you’re visiting Rio. But reaching this high up area can be tricky.
There are routes up to Santa from lower neighborhoods like Glória, Catete and Lapa, but knowing which route to take and when is best left to locals. Certain paths up and down have been known to be hot spots for petty thieves. It’s best to avoid going in and out on foot all together.
Avoid the unknown and make your way to Santa via bonde (trolley car), car or bus.
Avoid the beach at night
While the idea of taking a night swim sounds divine, it’s not the ideal place to be when it gets dark.
In the early evenings, the beach comes alive with beach sports.
But heading to poorly lit areas of the beaches that are scarcely populated is a big no no. Skip the nighttime swim and head to the pool instead.
Be careful in Lapa
Lapa is nightlife mecca for those visiting Rio. A night out in Lapa should definitely be on your bucket list.
But like any good nightlife area, it comes with its vices. Excessive drinking, sloppiness and debauchery.
There are things you can do to make the most of your time in Lapa. They include:
- Travel in groups: You’ll be safe if you have friends who are watching out for you, and vice versa. Plus, visiting Lapa solo is no fun.
- Wear closed-toed shoes: Ok, this doesn’t have so much to do with safety, and everything to do with hygiene. The ground in Lapa is covered in dirt, with puddles of beer and urine all around. Don’t wear open-toed shoes – and definitely don’t wear Havaianas!
- Don’t drink too much: It’s tempting to go wild while in Lapa, but you’re an easy target if you’re sloppy drunk. Have a drink, then down a cup of water, and so forth. It’s my trick to having fun but not overdoing it.
- Skip the Mystery Shots: A lot of the partying in Lapa happens right on the street. That includes drinking. You’re going to come across dudes with trays of Johnny Walker selling shots. Skip the shots! 99.99% of the time it’s not actually Johnny Walker in those bottles.
Choose the right bag
I once saw a tourist on the bus in Rio with his passport in his back pocket – bad idea!
No matter the city you’re in, keeping your valuables safe should be a priority. Knowing how to carry them is important.
Here’s my criteria for choosing the right bag:
- Use Thick Straps: Thin, flimsy straps are a huge no-no. They’re easy to pull off a body or break. Use a bag or purse with thick, durable straps.
- Cross Body Straps are a Must: If you’re carrying a purse or messenger bag, don’t dangle it off your shoulder nonchalantly. Use a cross body strap so it drapes from one shoulder to the opposite hip.
- Carry Backpacks at your Side or in Front: And keep an arm draped over your backpack too. Pickpocketing is an art, and we’ve heard of several people who have had items stolen from their backpacks without them even knowing.
- Avoid the Clutch: A clutch makes any outfit nicer, but they’re not practical when traveling. They’re easy to snatch out of hands, forget in a cab or lose.
Don’t hike to Christ the Redeemer
Sure, everyone visiting Rio wants to see Christ the Redeemer, and what better way to reach the top than a hike through the biggest metropolitan rainforest in the world?
While I know people who have done the trail, they’ve all admitted that it was a risk they were willing to take. It’s well known that the trail is dotted with petty thieves waiting to rob unsuspecting people. It’s a win-win for them: most people on the trail are tourists with phones and other valuables, and there’s literally nowhere to run.
Why take the risk when there are plenty of other hiking opportunities available in and around Rio? Skip the hike to the Christ and take the train or a car up instead.
Use Uber and 99Pop
Rio’s metro is easy, but their bus system can be difficult to navigate. If it’s night time and you’re unsure of where you’re going, it’s easier and safer to just take a car.
When in doubt, grab an Uber or 99Pop.
Ride shares in Rio are inexpensive and convenient. Plus, they allow you to share your ride, so you can alert a friend or family member of your journey.
Get travel insurance
The best part about planning a trip is all the fun stuff – what fun stuff are you going to do? Where will you stay? What amazing food will you get to try?
Travel insurance is like the pre-nup before the wedding – no one wants to think about the bad things that could happen, they just want to hope for the best.
But the truth is, if you have an issue, having a safety net is a relief. Travel insurance is always a good thing to have.
Be safe on your trip to Rio, or your trip anywhere really, and give yourself a safety net. Fingers crossed you won’t need it, but if you do, you’ll be happy you have it.
What’s your best safety tip when traveling?
Read more about Rio de Janeiro here.
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