Visitors to Brazil are often scared of the reputation that the country has in terms of personal safety and security. Much of this reputation has been earned of course, but in the days of 24 hour rolling news channels and worldwide internet coverage, there is also a tendency to dramatise dangers, and Brazil is no different to anywhere else in this respect.
Some people arrive in Brazil expecting civil war in the streets, and to not be able to leave their hotels at night for fear of violence, but then arrive to find people strolling in the streets, eating dinner outside and laughing and joking as if the civil war never existed. With it didn’t. Even the recent trouble around Penha in the Zona Norte of Rio de Janeiro, with tanks and armoured cars travelling up the streets and drug-traffickers escaping Vila Cruzeiro for the Complexo do Alemão, even this didn’t affect most of the rest of the city too much, never mind the rest of Brazil. Life continued as normal for most people, and tourists in the city didn’t seem to notice the supposed civil war as they went to watch Bossa Nova bands on the Saturday night.
This is not to say that Brazil is a trouble-free country of course, and it never will be while such a huge gap between rich and poor continues to exist. Visiting foreigners will always be seen as rich by most Brazilians, and even the most hard-up, spent-up backpacker will still be comparatively wealthy by local standards, and may be a target for those locals who need some quick money and are prepared to use violence or the threat of it.
The best advice to give somebody visiting Brazil is to avoid making themselves a target as much as possible, to first minimize the chances of being robbed.
The first step then is to leave valuables behind as much as possible, don’t wander the city streets wearing expensive watches and jewellery, as the small amount of clothes you are likely to wear in Brazil will leave them permanently on show. Leave them in the hotel safe or in your hosts’ residence. Better still, leave the real valuables at home.
Technology-wise, Brazil still trails a little behind most of Europe, North America and Far-East Asia. State-of-the-art cell-phones, cameras and laptops are more expensive to buy in Brazil so they will always be very valuable commodities here. Keep them hidden away in zipped bags when not in use, and certainly don’t ever walk around city streets with cameras hanging around your neck, or iphones in hand checking online maps. A few sensible precautions, such as always being aware where you are using such equipment, and you lessen the risks greatly. Laptop bags are obvious to most people, so perhaps even covering them with a canga (beach sarong) might fool people into thinking you have nothing but a beach bag on your shoulder. If carrying laptops, then taxis are the best idea to safeguard your equipment.
This advice applies to all of the large Brazilian cities, the state capitals usually, not just Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Equally though, there are many places just a few hours’ drive or less from metropolitan areas that are completely at odds with Brazil’s rough reputation. Within an hour or three of these cities, you may find places so relaxed that the only shooting that concerns you is for shooting photographs, and you may find yourself wandering around with your camera around your neck without a care in the world. The basic rule is if you see holidaying Brazilians walking with cameras around their necks, then you will likely be ok.
Contrary to popular belief, many such places still exist in Brazil, and you can be carefree in Praia do Forte or Morro do Sao Paulo two hours after leaving Salvador, or in Porto de Galinhas from Recife. Even the two World Cities of Brazil, Rio and Sao Paulo, have tranquil escapes close by in Buzios, the mountains around Itatiaia and along the entire Costa Verde - the scenic route between the two metropolis which includes Maresias, Ilha Bela, Ubatuba, Paraty, Trindade; Angra dos Reis and many others. You will find it difficult to believe that 30 million people live within a few hours’ drive of these places, especially so on Ilha Grande.
While the solitude of jungle trails and empty paradise beaches is highly recommended here, solitude in the city is not generally recommended. Avoid walking down quiet streets and empty parts of the city beaches, especially at night. Taxis are cheap enough and found easily enough to make this unnecessary.
Public transport in Brazil again is nothing to particularly fear, and people seated on suburban buses usually ask to hold the bags of those standing in the aisles. Most passengers are ordinary working people with no interest in stealing from your bag, and if stealing was common on local buses, nobody would hand their bags to strangers but everybody does. Some areas of the cities are best avoided completely of course, so be aware of where you will alight from bus or train. Ask for local advice before travelling to districts that you don’t know personally, there may well be a safer route avoiding a particular quiet metro station on a Sunday for example. Some downtown areas of the big cities are certainly best avoided outside of working hours. The streets are too quiet to be safe for walking. Plan your journeys and you can avoid this. Local advice is always worth seeking when visiting Brazil, and Brazilians are hospitable people so never be afraid to ask advice. You may be surprised at what you hear, as places that attract wealthy tourists, such as Copacabana Beach, may well be less safe at times than visiting the poor communities of the favela with a local for guidance.
Long distance inter-state buses and Amazon boats give more time and opportunity for would-be thieves, so always keep your valuables hidden on your person at all times during long journeys, and don’t leave bags unattended during food stops.
With regards to money, the best tip is to only take out the amount of local currency that you might need for the day or for the evening. Avoid carrying large amounts around with you. With travellers cheques becoming obsolete, and carrying large amounts of cash not recommended, the best method to manage your money in Brazil is probably to use the ATMs at banks. Please check our Money & Banks blog for further information on using them, but with regards to your safety, please remember that banks in Brazil only allow small withdrawals between 10pm and 6am for safety reasons. Try to use them for withdrawing money during working hours when security is present. Always put the cash into your wallet, purse or bag immediately and leave the building. Do not stand at the machine counting money and waving notes in the air for everybody to see.
Another tip with regards to digital cameras is to remove the memory card when travelling and not using your camera. This way, if anything does happen to it, then at least you don’t lose the photos. Similarly, a full back-up of your laptop and all its files before travelling is wise.
Of course, the very best advice that we can give for anybody travelling to Brazil is to make sure that you buy travel insurance before you leave home. This way if anything bad does happen, you may be far less inclined to resist a robbery of goods that can be easily replaced on your return home. If anybody wants to steal from you, it is definitely wise to hand over what they seem to want immediately rather than risk a confrontation on the streets of Brazil. Your valuable goods should of course be insured anyway, as you do have Travel Insurance... right?
There are many little ways to improve your personal safety and security while travelling in Brazil, and thus giving yourself the best chance of returning home safe and sound. Most people return home with nothing but wonderful memories of a wonderful country, and perhaps the worst thing that you can do is to arrive with so much fear that it stops you enjoying all the incredible experiences that Brazil has to offer.