One of the most common questions that visitors have about Brazil is whether it’s dangerous or not.
First, let’s get the truth out of the way. Brazil—and Latin America in general—is nowhere near the safety of countries such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It’s also more dangerous than pretty much most Asian countries such as Thailand and Japan.
While there are lots of seedy places in Latin America, Brazil is certainly near the top of that list. I’ve lived and traveled all over Brazil, and while I didn’t have anything bad happen to me, there were moments where I felt less than safe.
Rio de Janeiro is a very unpredictable city. I spent over three years living in Brazil with most of that in Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro is one of the most amazing and exotic cities on the planet. But it can also be pretty seedy and dangerous.
The best word to describe a place like Rio and Brazil, in general, is that it’s unpredictable.
When I lived in Rio de Janeiro, I made it a rule to never leave the apartment without anything I was willing to lose. That meant never leaving the house with an expensive watch, an expensive phone (e.g., latest iPhone), lots of money and other things.
Carrying a big bag of things might automatically make you a target.
Almost all of my friends were robbed in Rio at one time or another. My close friends and roommate were once walking in downtown in the middle of the day on a Sunday. Suddenly, a couple of guys came over, surrounded them and demanded their valuables. They had no choice but to surrender everything they had.
Other friends suffered a similar fate. One friend was jogging near the beach just as the sun was coming down when a couple of guys approached him and demanded that he give up everything. He lost his iPhone and expensive running headphones.
When I lived in Rio, I remember reading a popular message board where a guy had been robbed no less than three times during three weeks. Since I was living in Brazil at the same time, I found that rather amusing and strange. On the other hand, I could see that happening so I can’t accuse him of lying.
A friend and I once experienced a little trouble that could’ve quickly turned into something much worse. We were just chilling no the popular Copacabana beach when I suppose we both fell asleep and woke up as the sun was going down.
What was previously a pretty packed beach, suddenly looked pretty deserted and getting dark quickly.
All of a sudden, two guys approached us and asked for the time. My New York street-smarts quickly alerted me as to something not right. We quickly answered them and they went away.
What about Favelas?
Favelas are shanty towns all over Brazil. Most big cities have them.
In Rio de Janeiro, there a bunch of them, with the biggest called “Rocinha.” It’s one of the biggest shanty towns in the world with a population of 100,000. There’s even a McDonalds there as well.
The basic rule with favelas in Rio de Janeiro is that if you’re walking uphill, turn around and head back. Chances are you’re heading straight up to some favela.
Generally, you should never head to a favela alone. But if someone who lives there invites you to visit, then it’s absolutely fine and you can definitely go there.
When I lived in Rio, I trained Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Some of the guys who trained there lived in Favelas. Many actually offered to show me around if I wanted.
How to stay safe
The best way to stay safe in Rio (and that applies to the rest of Brazil) is by blending in with the locals. For instance, in Rio de Janeiro, locals wear simple clothes such as cheap shorts, a sleeveless tank top, and Hawaiians flip-flops.
So, if someone is wearing nice pants and a formal shirt, they’ll stick out like a sore thumb during the day and it’ll be obvious that they’re not from there.
Another thing that really helps is to not look around all over the place as you’re walking down the street.
I know that a lot of people are extremely scared of visiting Rio de Janeiro and Brazil in general. They’ve heard that it’s a dangerous city, so I definitely can’t blame them.
When I lived in Rio de Janeiro, one of my close friends refused to visit Brazil at all costs. Even after I told him that I’m living here and that I know where to go and what to avoid, and that I have local friends who know the area pretty well.
He still wouldn’t visit me.
It’s been over six years since I lived in Brazil. I have heard that it’s gotten even more dangerous over the years. Having said that, I still have zero qualms about visiting Brazil.
I certainly don’t feel it’s that much dangerous than big American cities like New York or Chicago.
Just keep your street-smarts at all times and don’t show off, and you’ll be OK.