Every time I told someone I was going to Rio De Janeiro for New Year’s Eve last December, one of two things would happen:
- Scenario 1:
“Rio! Oh my god, that’s great. Good for you….such an amazing destination! I wish I was going!”
- Scenario 2:
“Rio? Oh my god, that’s….that’s great. (Pause) Rio, uh? Do people go there? People go there, right? Isn’t it dangerous? Are you going alone?”
Those were the mild reactions. My father spent a month disapproving of my travel destination. His initial reaction went something like this:
“You’re going to get stabbed in the middle of a crowded street in broad daylight!”
Later, “stabbed” would change to “mugged” or “robbed” or “assaulted”or “harassed” or “kidnapped.” Once he actually used the word “beheaded.”
My brother had a slightly more rational response:
“I think Rio is perfectly safe. I heard Iraq and Afghanistan are also lovely this time of year.”
These reactions were extreme but not completely unfounded. Rio has a reputation for high crime, violence and poverty, and my father was speaking from experience. He visited Rio on multiple occasions while working for merchant vessels when he was younger (read: over 40 years ago) and he was convinced that nothing had changed.
As a fearful traveler, my panic began to set it. Like any hypochondriac in need of reassurance, I turned to Google for guidance:
- Brazil’s hotel association chief is concerned that a string of recent stabbings may put tourists off Rio de Janeiro
Great. Just great.
Even the bloggers, writers, and message board reviewers who shared their love for the city cautioned their readers to stay safe:
“…be careful if you suddenly come across an overly friendly local. You may think you’ve found your own Girl (or Boy) From Ipanema, only to wake up hours later, the victim of a sleeping draft known as Boa Noite Cinderela (Good Night Cinderella). – World Nomads
“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.” – Elizabeth and Dale Abroad
“Be careful about public transportation at night; take a taxi and not a bus.” – Travel Places
“No early jogging or walking in Copacabana. Before the police arrive, joggers are good targets for muggers, especially when carrying ipods or watches. Wait until 10am to leave your hotel.” – Join Rio
Suffice to say that by the time I arrived in Rio two days after Christmas, I was convinced that I would get mugged (or worse) the minute I stepped off the plane. I spent the next 8 days exploring the city while watching my back at every turn, clutching my purse to my body, and sleeping with one eye open. I was overly cautious and perhaps rightly so, but after one week, I left the city with a new appreciation for its seedy charm.
Having experienced the city first hand, I now understand its reputation. Rio is rough around the edges. Its people are boisterous and colorful. The black and white cobblestone sidewalks are whimsical but grimy. The city’s unforgettable backdrop is a visual metaphor for its great divide: Beautiful beaches and mountain peaks worthy of a five-star tourist paradise surrounded by the harsh reality of over 600 favelas (slums) that are home to the city’s working class.
Despite the dark edges and interesting characters I met during my visit, I never really felt unsafe. I used the metro, walked the streets at night, left the comfort of the city’s South Zone (considered to be the safest area), and even dared to leave my hotel room in Copacabana before 10 am.
The only real “incident” I witnessed was on New Year’s Eve. I was one of the 2 million people walking the streets of Copacabana, decked out in my best white clothes, when I suddenly noticed a scuffle. A boy not older than 12 stole a woman’s purse. He ran past her while she was distracted and within minutes four heavily armed police officers were chasing him down and eventually tackled him to the ground. I had followed the advice to leave my purse in my hotel and for that reason I had no issues that night at all.
My advice for anyone visiting Rio is to do your research, come prepared and then leave your fear (and valuables) at home. The dangers associated with the city are the same that you would find in any city around the world. The key to safety is to avoid doing anything stupid: don’t flash your valuables, don’t stumble out of bars completely intoxicated, and don’t walk into a favela by yourself. The only real danger is having your stuff stolen and even that can be mitigated by staying alert and avoiding deserted streets.