The recurring question of safety in Rio

Rio seems to be one of those few places that can't be talked about without the question of safety being brought up. Here is how we answer it, based on our week-long experience there.

“How safe is Rio?”, “Is Rio safe for tourists?”…the most common Google searches show how much safety plays a role in the decision to visit Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately it usually triggers two types of reactions, neither of which are particularly useful: some will almost tell you that you will get mugged or killed while still on the plane when others will paint an idyllic picture of perfect safety because “nothing happened to them”.

Like everyone else we wondered and looked for answers online before our trip there. After spending a week in Rio, here is how we now answer when friends ask us about it.

Let’s be straight, Rio is a city where violence and crime are real issues. In 2015-2016, the situation improved and large investments poured into the pacified favelas to increase income from tourism (even some boutique hotels started emerging then). There is no telling as to where the city will be headed as Bolsonaro pulls Brazil to the far-right but for the past 2 years the situation only seems to have gone downhill. Looking at our modest experience, we had to change our initial hotel located on the edge of one of the “pacified” favela in Ipanema due to the repeated 15min-long gunfights raging just next door in the morning, afternoon and at night. At the top of the Corcovado and the next day on the Sugarloaf, we could hear sounds of gunfights in distant favelas. And any Cariocas you talk to will mention insecurity at some point.

However, even if the above sounds bad you should absolutely visit Rio! With its incredible natural site, vibrant atmosphere and world-renown wonders, we had some of our best time in Brazil there and it is easy to stay safe with basic knowledge and common sense.

Favelas are usually close to safe or upscale neighborhoods but violence is confined in those poorer areas. We recommend you to stay at the heart of one of the neighborhoods of Zona Sul (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon and possibly Botafogo): it is the perfect base to visit most must-sees and offers many great options to lunch, dine and party. Zona Sul is also the safest area in Rio before and after dark. From there, it is just a matter of respecting the basics:

  • Don’t be that obvious target flashing jewelry and expensive smartphone/camera.
  • Do it like everyone else and only take what’s necessary to the beach, including a bit of cash if you want to buy something from the vendors or the cabanas.
  • Just ask people to keep an eye on your personal belongings when you go swimming if you brought things of value.
  • A Carioca we talked to explained that it happens that vendors walking the beach back and forth are actually not selling anything but looking for easy things to snatch. Be mindful (not paranoid) of where you leave your belongings.
  • Prefer the main road to small streets or dark alleys when you walk back home at night.
  • Take a cab back at night if you are not centrally located.
  • Enjoy the miraculous sunset from the beach (Ipanema’s is the best we saw) but avoid wandering on the beach late at night.

All in all, there is no denying that Rio is plagued with crime, but with the above in mind, we certainly were able to fully enjoy what the city has to offer – our top tips here.

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