How dangerous is Rio de Janeiro? In the United States, Rio has a reputation for being scarily violent despite its beautiful beaches, friendly people, and warm climate. I’ve been going to Rio for the past twenty-five years, and I can’t count the times people have said to me: “You’re going to Rio for six weeks? Are you crazy!”
So how dangerous is Rio? Well, in my experience, the level of violence isn’t that much worse than in many big American cities except in the slums (which the Brazilians call “favelas.”) Still, whether you’re headed to Carnival, the World Cup in Soccer, or the 2016 Olympics, there are some things you need to know in order to stay safe. I love the city. It features prominently in my poetry and novels, but there are hazards you might not anticipate.
Number One: Traffic. Rio has long had a reputation for violence, but in my 25 years of traveling to and living in Brazil, I’ve found that the number one danger in Rio is traffic. Buses run red lights at 30mph while there are people in the crosswalks; cars careen around blind corners at high speed; motorcycles come roaring down one-way streets the wrong way. Never cross a street without looking both ways more than once (I favor 4 times), and always assume that the vehicles coming toward you will not stop. Never stand in the street. Yes, you will see Brazilians doing it, but it’s their country and maybe they have special spirits protecting them. If you get into a cab, fasten your seat belt. Given the way the cab drivers dart between buses and trucks, you may also want to close your eyes. Rio’s cabbies make New York City cabbies look like ads for traffic safety. As for renting a car, I’ve never had the guts to try driving in Brazil, although my husband has on occasion. Note that outside the city, roads sometimes suddenly end in 2 foot deep pits that will blow all your tires. Don’t speed. Better yet, to stay safe in Rio, don’t drive.
Number Two: The Ocean. Rio has some of the world’s most beautiful and most famous beaches, but beware. The water is sometimes polluted and can give you nasty skin rashes (inquire locally). This rarely happens at Copacabana, but there the surf can be a real danger. The waves looks small, manageable, but they pack terrific force and the currents are vicious. I was once wading up to my knees in little waves, when a slightly larger one came in and knocked me off my feet so hard that the entire front *and back* of my left leg was purple with bruises for a week. I’ve known people who went in for a dip and were sucked out to sea. The waves also sometimes come to shore in a way that make it nearly impossible for you to get out of the water. My husband once nearly drowned about 10 feet off the beach. Yes, there are lifeguards. Yes, they are competent and dedicated, but you can get into trouble very fast. To stay safe in Rio, watch where the locals are swimming and follow their example.
Number Three: Robberies. It’s probably not news to you that tourists frequently get robbed in Rio, but there are some things you can do that will make it less likely that the victim of a robbery will be you. The basic strategy I follow is to look like a missionary who may want to collar you and tell you the Good News. Wear your older clothing and before you leave home, remove all jewelry that looks valuable. Take off your little gold earrings, your bracelets, even your wedding band if you can face not wearing it for a while. In the place of your valuable jewelry (and by valuable I mean anything that remotely looks valuable even if it is only worth $10), don costume jewelry. I have three seed necklaces and two cheap-looking silver rings that I always wear when I’m in Rio. I always make sure that I can get both of the the rings off my finger fast if someone asks me for them. I’ve heard stories of people getting their fingers cut off by robbers, but I think these are mythical. Still, better to be safe in Rio than sorry at the Emergency Ward of the local hospital. By the way, health care is pretty good in Brazil and they tend not to charge for drugs. Instead, they give them to you. As a Brazilian doctor once said to me: heath care is a human right.
How dangerous is Rio? Probably a 6 or 7 on a world scale of 10. Staying safe there isn’t all that hard, but you need to be alert.