How to Stay Safe in Rio de Janeiro

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Rio de Janeiro is an amazingly vibrant and awe inspiring city.  Regardless of how stunning Rio may look in photos and videos, many prospective visitors are only concerned about the crime and violence they read about. Rio, like many large cities, definitely has issues with crime, but much of that can be avoided if you are a smart traveler.

Most recently a swarm of teenagers robbed unsuspecting tourists and locals at Copacabana beach and in several other neighborhoods. This occurred after a court decision was made that now makes it illegal for military police to search teenagers on their way to the beach. Searches were occurring regularly on buses coming from poorer neighborhoods and young black men were being diverted away from the beaches. Many felt this was racist and rights were being violated so a law was recently passed making this practice illegal. It was racial profiling at it’s worst. The city of Rio de Janeiro is now trying to come up with other ways to decrease petty crime in the tourist areas.

Brazil is also in the midst of an economic crisis. The Brazilian currency the Real, has taken a huge nose dive since we moved here. In fact we debated a lot of purchases for our house when we first moved to Brazil because everything was so expensive. As I write this article, the Real is at around 4 to 1 compared to the dollar. It is a difficult time for Brazil and Brazilians. People are struggling financially. Businesses are struggling to stay open and people are being laid off. So with economic problems, it only makes sense that petty crime and thievery may go up. 

In fact, despite these problems we think you would be remiss to pass on a visit to Rio out of fear. With the Olympics coming up, Brazil being more affordable to tourists than ever, and the tourism industry improving to accomidate more foreigners, we think you should come and enjoy this Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City).

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We just recently returned from our forth visit to Rio, and I’m going back in a few weeks with my best friend. Living in Brazil and traveling through Brazil I feel that as usual the media is sensationalizing the crime here. Yes, there is crime. I’m not denying this. With any major city in the world you will find crime. Think New York City. People all over the world come to visit NYC and get robbed, pickpocketed, and sadly some even get killed. It happens EVERYWHERE.

But I refuse to lock myself inside my home for fear that something bad could happen to me. I want to live my life to the fullest and I love to travel. I’ll admit there are some places that I think are rather stupid to visit, for example being a tourist in a country in the middle of civil war is not a smart thing to do. But as for Rio, I’ve never felt unsafe there. I’m always cautious but I’ve never felt in any danger. Just the other week I (Elizabeth) jogged on Copacabana beach alone and had a wonderful run! One visit I sunbathed on Copacabana beach all day solo while my husband went to work at a vendor show. I’ve taken the metro in Rio de Janeiro alone. I’ve walked down the streets alone. No problems.

Remember, most street crime is a crime of convenience for the perp. If you have a purse or camera dangling to your side it is very easy for someone to run past and grab it (or even drive past on a scooter). Likewise, if you leave your valuable laying on top of a table, or out of your sight, it makes it too easy for a thief to grab them. So make their “job” difficult for them. By taking these simple precautions you can make sure that you don’t look like an easy target – and hopefully a thief will look elsewhere.

You should always practice common sense safety tips when you travel and even in your own hometown. Here are a few tips on how to stay safe while you are visiting Rio de Janeiro. And we hope that you come to visit and have a nice time while you are in Brazil!

Tips to Stay Safe

Stay in the Zona Sul or Southern Zone of Rio. This is the safest part of the city and has the largest police presence.

Leave anything expensive at home. Don’t wear flashy jewelry even if it is fake. Most thieves cannot distinguish between a real diamond and cubic zirconia.

Ladies, use a purse or bag that crosses over your body. Leave that designer handbag at home. Also make sure it stays zipped and in a crowd, shift it to the front of your body.

Men, if you bring a wallet put it in your front pocket or on a chain. If you have a day pack, make sure it stays zipped and if you are nervous wear it in front of you.

Leave your passport, any extra credit cards you are not using, and expensive smartphone in the safe in your hotel room. Do not bring this stuff to the beach! I repeat, do not bring expensive stuff to the beach. You don’t need it there and you may lose or ruin it.

Make copies of your passport and put them in your luggage in case your passport is stolen.

Write down or save in the cloud the phone number of all your credit cards in case you need to call to cancel them. This will save you time and stress. I know from experience as I was pickpocketed in Rome.

If you travel with a significant other and have the same credit cards, carry different ones in the event one of you gets pick pocketed. Because if you both carried the exact same cards, guess what you will have to cancel them all. It’s good to have at least one card you can use.

Distribute your cash in different pockets. If you travel with someone else give them part of your cash to hold. I usually stash emergency cash in my room, shoe, the small jean pocket, or bra. I learned this living in Bogota, Colombia in 1997. Money belts may be helpful in a bag snatching incident, but most robbers know that tourists wear them.

If you must go to an ATM try and see if there is one in your hotel or a nearby hotel first. If not go with a buddy so they can watch while you withdraw cash. If you are alone be vigilant.

Do organized tours of the city. They save you time, money, and provide some safety. We will bring our expensive camera, tripod, etc. with us when we take an organized tour with a group and guide. We blog, therefore we need great photos. That said, keep your camera strapped across your body and keep a close eye on your belongings. It gets crowded at those tourist attractions.

Only go into a favela with a guided tour. We did a tour and felt perfectly safe. However do not go into a favela on your own!

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As for the swarm of thieves at the beaches, we hear about this happening every few months since we moved to Brazil. We still go to the beach. I guess I don’t care if someone steals my beach bag because the only things you will find in it are sunblock, a towel, and maybe a book. I carry only enough cash to rent a chair and umbrella and buy a few drinks or snacks. Again, do not take your smartphone to the beach. If you bring a camera, bring a cheap one you won’t cry about losing. Better yet, when we wanted to take photos of the beach, we went in the morning, took a few photos and then went back to our room and put our cameras in the safe before returning to lay out on the beach.

If you are robbed, do not fight it. The people injured at Copacabana recently were seen on video fighting and chasing the robbers. If this happens to you, just give them your valuables and move on with your life. You are likely to get hurt, and possibly killed if you fight back. While that iPhone may be expensive, it is not worth losing your life or ending up in the hospital. (And you really shouldn’t have brought it to the beach anyway!) Neither are my ideas of a fun way to spend a vacation. I survived being robbed in Colombia and guess what I did not argue or fight back, I just handed over my bag. While a little shaken up, it turned out not to be the end of the world.

If you are out walking and you feel someone is following you or making you uncomfortable, dart into a store or restaurant and tell someone what is happening. This happened to me once in South Korea when a man started talking to me on the subway and then followed me and wouldn’t leave me alone. I went inside a store in my neighborhood and asked the owner for help. He chased the man away.

And my biggest tip for visiting any major city? Do not get stupid drunk. Most stories of people getting robbed or hurt start with, “When I was leaving the club at 4:00a.m…” Getting intoxicated makes you an easy target. Criminals look for easy targets so I guarantee you they are hanging out in and outside nightclubs in Rio looking for an easy mark.

And most ladies know, but men also need to take caution, do not accept drinks from strangers!

In Brazil try the famous drink and my favorite drink the caipirinha but only drink one. Only tourists drink more than one of these drinks because Brazilians know how strong these are! Seriously, three caipirinhas and we are talking black out drunk which is never good in an unfamiliar place!

So there you have it. These are my safety tips not just for visiting Rio de Janeiro but safety tips in general for visiting any new place. I believe if you follow some general safety guidelines it will protect you from most crime. There are always the rare exceptions. You can do everything right and still be a victim of crime. But I refuse to live my life in fear.  I hope you visit Rio and love this city as much as we do. I’m also hoping my next article in October isn’t about how my best friend and I were robbed in Rio! Ha ha! But I will take my chances. What about you? What are your thoughts on visiting Rio de Janeiro? Do you have any safety tips you would like to share for travelers? We would like to hear your opinion even if it is different from ours.