Let’s be honest and say that Brazil doesn’t have the greatest reputation for safety. Add the ready availability of firearms to a country with extreme income inequality, restricted access to education, health care and other social infrastructure for low socio-economic groups, racial discrimination, high youth unemployment, government, and judicial corruption as well as a flourishing drug trade and you can see you have a pretty good chance of developing rather healthy crime rate.
I’m guessing this section is likely to be well-read. Fear of what might happen should not put you off from going to Brazil. Yes, there is risk but there is also reward.
Common Sense Advice
It is pointless to spend your whole holiday paranoid. Exercise some caution and common sense and things should turn out ok. Remember that roads and alcohol are your biggest threats. Just be vigilant and aware of your surroundings.
If the worst happens remember that a thief doesn’t want to kill you, they just want your money. And money can be replaced.
Avoid wearing expensive watches and jewelry.
Dress casually – wear what the locals wear. This means you Mr & Mrs. America wandering around Rio in your matching tracksuits with his & hers T-shirts proclaiming “Proud to be an American” and “God Bless America”. One of the funniest things I’ve seen on my travels.
Keep your wallet small and don’t carry it in the back pocket of your pants. Don’t wander around with your expensive camera dangling around your neck. Put it in a bag. An opaque plastic bag from a local shop (not the local jeweler’s shop) is ideal.
Don’t walk around with your head buried in a map or stand on corners looking lost.
Walk with purpose. If disorientated, walk into a shop and buy a drink. Sit down, relax and then read your map.
Write directional instructions on paper before leaving one location for another. This means you are only looking at a note, not a map, to confirm you are on route.
Relying solely on the personal testimony of ‘nothing happened to me so you should be safe too’ is foolish but equally so is, ‘I walked down the street and had my camera stolen, it will happen to you too’
Take taxis at night.
If leaving a bar or club gets the security guards to put you in a taxi.
Never take taxis where there is another person other than the driver in the taxi. This guy is not the driver’s instructor, assessor, cousin, brother. I am pleased to say I haven’t heard too many bad reports about taxis other than incorrect meter rates. Peru sounds a lot worse than Brazil for taxi dangers.
When at a bus station or on a train always put your foot through the strap of your day pack.
Carry loose change in your pocket for bus and train trips. This avoids opening your wallet and displaying how much money you have. For a petty thief, this loose change may be a sufficient reward if indeed you are pickpocketed.
Bars and Clubs
Buy your own drinks and never leave them unattended.
Don’t lose track of your drink card. Treat it like cash.
It’s when you’re drunk that problems begin.
In tourist, bars ask yourself why the girl seems so interested in you. Where are her friends and who is she with? Many hotels have banned people from bringing ‘guests’ to their rooms because they wake up the next morning to find their guest has robbed them.
Trying to score coke from a stranger in a bar in Rio is just dumb. You’re asking to be ripped off or set up by police. Don’t walk down dark streets to close a deal. There is no deal. It will be you walking back to the bar less wallet, jewelry, and pride.
The same goes for hungry street kids late at night in Pelourinho. There is no bakery down the side street to which they pointed. There really isn’t, I checked the next day when there was a bit more light.
Baggage Security – Luggage Locks
Some backpackers place wire mesh security nets over their backpacks to fully secure their valuables. In one way this does offer increased security but it also brings attention to your bag by saying ‘the contents of this bag are extremely valuable. Personally, I don’t really think these nets are worth it. You’re better off buying a set of locks for your luggage. Luggage locks are more discrete and quite effective. A wire mesh makes you stand out from the crowd and conveys a message that says, ‘I view you all with suspicion.
If you have your possessions locked in a compartment of your bag and are observant of your surroundings this is generally a sufficient deterrent to thieves. Yes, sometimes you can just be unlucky but most thieves are looking for an easy target. Be vigilant and make sure the easy target is not you.
On long-distance buses, you will almost always get a ticket when you hand over your luggage to the attendant. Bus services are on the whole quite professional and attentive when it comes to luggage security but always carry your passport and camera with you as hand luggage. Not all insurance policies cover valuably lost whilst in the undercarriage of a bus
The reality is that hostels can be high-risk areas for valuables. Unfortunately, you can not always trust your new best mate who has been great to go out partying with over the last day or two. You still have to lock your bags and take care of your passport, cash, and traveler documents.
The best travel locks for your bag are the ones that have a little wire cable as not all hostels in Brazil have individual securable lockers to store your backpack safely.
The odds are low but someone could pick up your pack and walk out with your entire belongings. Having a cable lock means that you can lock your backpack or bag to the bed or another piece of immovable furniture. If someone does steal your gear you at least want them to work for your money.
The vast majority of tourists that travel to Brazil enter and leave with all their possessions intact, nothing but good memories, and do not need to draw on their travel insurance. This is not to say that security issues do not need to be considered or that you shouldn’t have travel insurance. A little common sense is usually all that is needed to ensure you have a great time.
Everyone is justifiably worried about being robbed at gunpoint but focusing on this means the main dangers in Brazil get overlooked. They are so common most people pay no attention to them at all. They are roads and alcohol.
The biggest risk to your life in Brazil is traveling in a private motor vehicle. The US state department wrote this little gem:
“Brazil’s inter-city roads are widely recognized as among the most dangerous in the world. The Federal Highway Police reported 120,000 accidents in 1998, but this is believed to be a very conservative figure. As is the case elsewhere in the region, poor driving skills, bad roads and a high density of trucks combine to make travel considerably more hazardous than in the United States. There are no laws requiring truckers to take mandatory rest stops, and they often drive for excessive periods of time. All major inter-city routes are saturated with heavy truck traffic, and for the most part have only two lanes.”
The only point they missed was the culture of drunk driving but on the whole, it sums up the situation fairly well. Seat belts are generally only worn by those in the front seats because in Brazil anyone sitting in the back seat is miraculously protected from injury in the event of a car accident. If you are in an accident don’t expect ambulance response times to equal those in your home country.
As you travel through Brazil keep a look out on the side of the road as you enter and exit towns. Typically there will be a police station and nearby a collection of smashed-up cars left to remind you of what can happen on the road you are about to travel upon.
Brazilian drivers are quite happy to cross double yellow lines on winding roads to overtake, trucks tailgate each other, and motorbike riders zip in between cars. On Christmas Day 2006 I watched as a motorcycle rider attempted to overtake a car on a winding road, lost control, crossed in front of an oncoming car which hit him a full speed and catapulted his body through the air before it crashed against our passenger door. His bike and the car (pictured below) were complete write-offs. By some miracle he survived with only cuts and bruises and all we had to do was wash his blood off our car.
You only have to go to a hospital emergency department on a weekend to see the number of accidents caused either directly or indirectly by alcohol. Telling young travelers not to drink is hopeful at best but abusing alcohol is the quickest way known of increasing your chances of problems occurring. Lost cameras, lost money, lost passports, getting ripped off by nightclubs, or getting ripped off by taxis are just a few problems you can thank alcohol for and you do not have to be in a foreign country for this to happen.
With the help of a few drinks, some people manage to quickly transform themselves into complete wankers. Young men in particular begin to feel like the toughest guys in the pub and need to prove it to their mates. If this is you before you think of starting or finishing an argument consider this. You’re the foreigner, you probably don’t speak the language and you’re most likely outnumbered. Are these the odds you want? If you’re still not convinced know that Brazilian guys love Ju Jitsu and it is one of the country’s most popular sports. You might even get a demonstration.
Solo and Female Travelers
As a single traveler, the disadvantage is that you have only one set of eyes and ears. When you’re sitting in a bus station for 3 hours having a travel partner to watch your bags whilst you go to the bathroom or buy food is a luxury you don’t have. You do need to be more vigilant of your surroundings when you are on your own. That said you can safely travel on your own through Brazil. Don’t let people tell you otherwise. Incidentally, if you’re at a bus station for a few hours looking around for the sign Guarda volumes which is the luggage storage service.
At times everyone needs to ask others for directions or advice. Who can you trust? My personal approach was to always ask a middle-aged woman with children. Women are much less likely to be eyeing you off as their next victim. Stereotypically women are nurturers and protectors. Most prisoners in jail are men, not women. Most violent crime is committed by men, not women.
As a man, I can’t give first-hand advice to single female travelers. I can only say that many women have traveled through Brazil before you so don’t let fear hold you back. Women have sailed solo around the world and climbed Everest so you can probably travel safely through Brazil as a single female traveler. Just use your common sense and exercise good judgment.
Statistically, most violent crime occurs in young males with the perpetrator and victim being known to each other. This is the complete opposite of female travelers.
Yes, Brazilian men can be a little direct and a little quick off the mark for Western women. Should this stop you from traveling or going out and having a good time? Again many women have traveled through Brazil and few would say the little negatives outweigh the positive experiences.
*If any female travelers would like to add comments or improve on this section go right ahead. As a male, I’m never going to be an expert in this area.
Travel wallets are not a foolproof means to protect yourself from theft but they are better than walking around with a wallet in stuffed into your back pocket. Travel wallets that you can wear around your waist or hips under your clothing provide good protection for valuable documents when on the street or on public transport.
They are completely useless if you wear them outside your clothing. You might as well have $100 bills taped to your shirt. Cheap travel wallets are made from cheap materials that sweat against your skin. Brazil is a hot and humid country. It is worth spending a few extra dollars, buying quality, and not looking like you’ve wet your pants on a hot day in Rio.
Worst Case Scenario
You are mugged at gun/knife point by a gang of youths who demand your wallet and all your valuables. It’s a pretty simple choice. Just give it to them. If you are not shot, stabbed, or heavily beaten what have you lost? A camera, a watch, and a few photos? Travel insurance will cover all of it but the photos.
Let’s look at the situation from the thief’s point of view. Here is a rich tourist from a first-world country with so much money they can not only take an extended holiday but fly overseas for it. Robbing you present a risk for them as well as you so they want to do the job as quickly as possible with the minimum of fuss.
Shooting you attracts attention and dead tourists attract unwanted attention from the police. This is bad for future business. They need tourists to keep coming back in order to run a sustainable business. Therefore the gun/knife is a very effective motivation tool but they really don’t want to use it unless you force them to. Do something stupid or heroic and they might have to.