Is Brazil Safe for Travelers in 2021? 9 Travel Safety Tips

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Just how safe is Brazil for travelers? From crime and transport safety to card fraud and the risk of theft, this is what you should know before you go.

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Sunset in Brazil Photo © Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

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Since my first trip to Brazil, more than a decade ago, I’ve lived in three of the country’s 26 states and visited another 14. I’ve made friends, fallen in love, become a father to a beautiful bilingual daughter, and we all wake up here every day happy to call it lar doce lar (home sweet home).

Yet, I’m not blind to Brazil’s safety concerns. There is huge socio-economic disparity and it trickles down into every facet of local life, from education and employment to housing and healthcare. Brazil ranked 7th on Forbes’ Billionaires List for 2020, yet minimum wage in the country remains less than US $0.90 per hour.

With a population of 210 million, and such a large wealth gap, societal issues are inevitable. However, there are various measures you can take to limit your chances of trouble and stay safe to ensure you get the most from your trip to this colorful, culture-rich country.

COVID-19 safety measures in Brazil

The Brazilian Government’s response to the global pandemic ranged from flippant to farcical and must ultimately be deemed a failure. Towards the end of 2020, the country had one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death tolls and its currency the Brazilian real was showing little sign of recovery after hitting a record low against the US dollar. Even as corpses piled up around the world, president Jair Bolsonaro called the coronavirus “a little cold”.

Such thoughtlessness undoubtedly played its part in an, at times, negligent approach to containment. An emergency aid package resulted in eligible (and too many ineligible) citizens receiving US $110 per month, but different states imposed different rules and many of the country’s streets and shops remained crowded.

Depending on where you are traveling, failing to wear a mask can result in a hefty fine and while hand sanitizers are readily available, a study has found up to 80% of them were ineffective in killing COVID-19.

Similarly, while por kilo restaurants (where you pay by the weight of the food you buy) are great for those traveling on a budget, it’s probably best to avoid them during a pandemic. After all, hearty plates of rice, beans, meat and fresh vegetables might not be the only thing you come away with from the buffet table.

Risk of theft in Brazil

The first night I met my fiancée — New Year’s Eve, 2015, on Copacabana Beach — she was brazenly approached by a young guy suggesting they team up to relieve me of my possessions. When she declined, he followed up by requesting we watch his rucksack while he swam in the Atlantic. He was the epitome of an opportunist.

When it comes to theft in the country, it’s worth remembering our swimming villain. Wealth disparity means opportunistic crime is rife, so leave your jewelry at home. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen people have necklaces snatched. Same goes for cell-phones: use them sparingly in public and always be aware of your surroundings when taking photos. Don’t think yourself too cool for a money belt, and it’s good practice to fold your notes with the smallest denominations on the outside.

It should go without saying too, but let’s just drill it home, that if you are mugged, don’t fight it — whatever you are set to lose has less value than your life.

Card fraud in Brazil

A 2016 Global Consumer Survey found Brazil to have the world’s second-highest rate of card fraud. As well as online hacking, criminals are known to affix physical devices and cameras onto ATMs to clone your card and pin.

These can often be removed with a bit of force so always give the card reader a shake before starting and cover your pin with your hand. Better yet, stick to machines that are well-lit and have camera surveillance as not only are they less likely to have been meddled with, you’ll also be safer when withdrawing. I've had my card cloned twice, and while I got the money back both times, it's a hassle.

That should not mean you become paranoid about your plastic though. Portable card readers are prevalent throughout Brazil and usually with no minimum spend. Once, while sat in my car stuck in traffic, I had a guy offer to wash my windows for some loose change. When I told him I had no coins, he pulled out a card machine. So long as you keep your card in your possession and confirm the price on the screen before entering your pin, there’s little risk involved.

Are Brazil’s favelas safe?

The number of Brazilians living in slum-like conditions in favelas totals 13.6 million – that’s more than half the population of Australia. Unsurprisingly then, while favelas are often represented as ramshackle hovels filled with poverty, drugs and gun violence, there is more to them than the stereotypes.

Gourmet restaurants, art clinics, jazz clubs, boxing gyms, and floodlit football pitches can all be found crammed between the open-brick buildings and corrugated roofs. Since many are located on hillsides, favelas also offer some of the best views, yet reputations exist for a reason and the vast majority of Brazil’s 41,635 murders in 2019 occurred there.

No two favelas are the same, so do your homework. Aside from being labyrinthine, even in the “pacified” neighborhoods that run daily tours, gun violence remains troublingly commonplace between residents and trigger-happy police. Check with apps such as Onde Tem Tiroteio (Where the Shootouts Are) for up-to-the-minute information.

Transport safety in Brazil

With plug sockets, Wi-Fi and occasionally even snacks, coach travel is a great way to get around Brazil at a leisurely pace. Don’t store your valuables in the hold and keep hand luggage nearby rather than on the storage shelf, where it can disappear if you nod off.

While generally safe, coaches have been known to be targeted by hijackers — especially in the north. A friend lost almost everything when he was hijacked in 2017, saving his wedding ring by hiding it in his mouth. More than likely, the worst you’ll experience is just a runny nose from the Arctic air-con.

Likewise, if you’re not using ride-share apps like Uber and 99 Cabs, now is the time to start — not only are they cheaper and safer, but the perks are better in Brazil than most other places, with drivers offering ice cold water, sweets, and sometimes even mobile Wi-Fi.

Meanwhile, taxis are renowned for a variety of scams. If you pay with cash, watch out for drivers swapping your larger notes for fakes before blaming you. Others process your card, but add one or two zeroes to the tariff. Worse still, some charge it normally, but hand back a random card before going on a spree with yours.

How to stay safe in Brazil by day and night

Large-scale gatherings are commonplace even outside Carnival, especially with the polarized political situation. Yellow has come to represent the current government, while red is that of the Workers Party, so read the news and be aware of what’s going and any heightened tensions. Then avoid protests regardless.

If you’re going to the beach — and let’s be honest, who visits Brazil and doesn’t go to the beach? — only take the essentials with you, and never leave them unattended. The manifestation of large groups of thieves swarming the area grabbing everything in sight is common enough to have its own name: an arrastão. It’s a “big drag” by name and, if you lose your valuables, a big drag by nature.

Just like anywhere else in the world, trouble is more likely to find you if you’ve been drinking alcohol. That doesn’t just mean you should drink responsibly, but also watch your drinks. Surprisingly, the infamous date-rape drug Rohypnol is legal in Brazil and available with a prescription. Causing extreme drowsiness in 30 minutes and often a loss of memory, the sleeping tablet known here as Boa Noite, Cinderella (Good Night, Cinderella), is popular with thieves and sexual predators.

Is Brazil safe for solo women travelers?

Someone is sexually assaulted every eight minutes in Brazil and the vast majority are women. While I, as a white man who can speak the language, have never felt threatened in that sense, several Brazilian women have told me not only do they never walk at night unaccompanied, but they also avoid using ride-sharing apps or taxis if alone.

Unfortunately, leering and catcalls should be expected, but it should be limited to that so long as there are others around. Brazil has a free 24-hour hotline dedicated to serving women in need of assistance. Just dial 180.

Is Brazil safe for LGBTQ+ travelers?

In 2012, LGBTQ+ app Grindr named São Paulo the host of the world’s best gay parade and Rio as having the best gay beach. By 2018, the Brazilian Government had officially certified seven cities as “gay-friendly” and Pabllo Vittar, a gay drag queen, was one of the hottest pop stars in the country.

Yet the number of crimes based on sex and gender has been steadily rising. In 2019, 329 LGBTQ+ people suffered violent deaths, while a year later transgender murders in Brazil — already the world’s deadliest country for trans — had increased by 70%.

Download Dandarah, an app aimed at the LGBTQ+ community by way of news, real-time safety maps, and a panic alert button.

So, just how safe is Brazil for travelers?

Brazil is an amazingly diverse country. Apply common sense and take heed of the advice above and you’ll be unlikely to run into trouble. Only 7% of Brazilians speak English  so it’s a good idea to learn some Portuguese phrases. Not only will it open doors, it’ll also help in an emergency. Just don’t confuse pão and pau…

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18 Comments

  • Alexandre Albertoni said

    I'm a Brazilian-born citizen and I just gotta warn you not to come to Brazil! Unfortunately, crime is rife in my country and no one is safe whether it be daytime or nighttime. If we, Brazilians, are not safe, let alone them tourists... In 2016, there have been well over 59,000 murders in Brazil!!!

    Reply

  • sam said

    fucking brazil i never want to go brazil ..

    Reply

  • Bruna at I Heart Brazil said

    Ok ok, let's get things straight here. I just stumbled across this article, and although I believe you should watch yourself in Brazil (and in any other country out there), the text sounds like tourists should be paranoid while in the country, which is not true.

    I was born and raised in Brazil, have welcomed and met many foreigner tourists in the country, and not once I heard they got smuggled or scammed. Could it happen to you? Yes, it could. But honestly? Just use common sense, and avoid dodgy areas.

    For the comments above mine, @sam, you should definitely visit Brazil. It's a beautiful country with delicious food and unique landscapes. You would love it.

    @Alexandre, I know where you coming from. Our government is shitty and isn't concerned about making the country a better place. I won't search for the 59k murders in 2016 you talked about, but I believe you. The point is that in relative terms, Brazil is not one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
    Our population is way over 200MM. And it turns out that most homicides are between drug gangs.

    Anyway, read up tips on how to be safe in Brazil, but don't avoid the country because of it. Use common sense, and in my opinion, you're good to go. Safe travels!

    Reply

    • JUSTIN EMMET OCONNOR said

      I LIVE IN BRASIL AND IM AUSSIE I HAVE LIVED ALL OVER THE WORLD. I HAVE WORKED IN BELFAST,IN ISRAEL AND PALESTINE,IN THE USA UK AND SPAIN AS WELL AS BRASIL.
      I HAVE BEEN A SECURITY GUARD IN AUSTRALIA AND IN ISRAEL AS WELL SINCE 2002.
      I HAVE SEEN THESE COMMENTS...
      BRASIL HAS A POVERTY PROBLEM. PERIOD. AUSTRALIA HAS A BAD ICE DRUG ISSUE AND I HAVE SEEN SO MUCH VIOLENCE IN AUSTRALIA,I HAVE WORKED ON ARMY BASES,IN PRISONS ETC,THAT I THINK SYDNEY IS MORE DANGEROUS ALL THE DRUNKEN IDIOTS ARE MORE VIOLENT.
      BRASIL CAN BE DANGEROUS.....DEPENDS HOW YOU DRESS HOW YOU LOOK HOW YOU CARRY YOURSELF IN THE STREETS...NEVER SHOW CASH IN PUBLIC.....NEVER GIVE CASH TO HOMELESS.....JUST FOOD ONLY......AND BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS.....THE COPS ARE PRETTY GOOD IN BRASIL......
      JUST TAKE IT EASY AND U WILL BE OK......

      Reply

  • Caio said

    How much exaggeration. Of course, crime exists and all over the world, but it is not in the alarming way it was presented. I live in Brazil, more precisely in the Capital of São Paulo for 24 years and I have never experienced any of these situations.

    Reply

  • Stacey said

    I went to Brazil and I loved it, it was totally positive experience for me. It is very beautiful there, everyone back home in America said I would die if I went. I said well it is the chance of a lifetime, if I die I will have died seeing Brazil.. I went to Salvador, Bahia and then I went to the Chapada Diamantina National Park, Vale do Capao, Palmeiras, State of Bahia. I camped there at a place that has the coolest little cabin like buildings to stay in and hiked to see the Cachoeira da Fumaca. It was the most awesome and best experience of my lifetime. Yes, I suppose it is dangerous, but really crime can happen anywhere and does all around the world. The Brazilian people were very kind to me and I had the most positive, life-changing experience ever. It was totally worth it, Brazil is so beautiful...

    Reply

  • Tom said

    I’m going to Rio in April. Reading this is scary but in my experience of travelling you just need to be vigilant and use common sense. Stay out of trouble !

    Reply

  • Joey said

    Omg, I was researching to see if it would be safe to visit a friend there but now I realize that there is no way in hell I am going to travel to Brazil after reading this. Thank you for the warnings! How scary!

    Reply

  • Brendan said

    Can anyone provide advice for the city if florianopolis? I plan to stay a month or two I’m from New York. Thanks!

    Reply

    • Aline said

      Hello Brendan, I just came across this post and am actually shocked about the article, it is very general as of the Rio de Janeiro region, which I cannot speak of because I live in Santa Catarina. I am Brazilian and live 2 hrs from Florianopolis, as far as Covid, it is just like every other country, the people who are taking care of themselves are ok, some get it, recovery rate is looking good, it is sad yeah but it is not different than any other place and cite the president? Please...Never had my necklace snatched...Feel free to use your credit card around here, there are no traffic on big favelas in SC, maybe isolated spots which I never came across, it is safe to travel there is nobody that will assault you like that or 'rape women every eight minutes', anyway, Brazil has 27 states, we travel domestic all over and it is not like a place that you have to be so concerned about taking a vacation. Guess Gary should have pointed on a bit more positive way.

      Reply

  • Tiffany said

    Aline! Hi, I am going to Brasil in about 3 weeks and wanted to know if you have any tips or something that can help me. Im going to Rio for a week. I am from Costa Rica. Thanks!

    Reply

  • Josiel vasconcelos said

    I live in brazil, i have traveled to several states and i have never been mugged. Violence against crime in the country has decreased in recent years. Poverty? It has it in any corner of the world. Remembering that Brazil is not just Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The country is wonderful and diverse in culture, food and dialect. North to south you will discover a Brazil that is not shown in the media. São Paulo has more than 10 million inhabitants, so the insecurity will be greater like every big city on the planet. But apart from some capitals, they can come to Brazil, our people are warm and kind. Always careful, but there is no need to become paranoid. Most of the median cities in Brazil do not have accentuated violence. We have cities here as safe as in Norway. And I'm sure that many of our cities are less poor and more secure than dozens of cities in the United States. As the country has good revenues from tourism and entertainment, it does not show the millions of Americans living in poverty either. Cities like baltimore, new orleans, chicago, NYC, atlanta, newrk, detroit etc and dozens of other cities that have worse places in misery, dirty and worse than in brazil what a pity that the media does not show.

    Reply

  • Joe said

    Interested in going. Is everyone being safe around Covid?

    Reply

  • Flavia said

    I was born in Rio, but I live in US for the last 25 years. I’ve been car robbed in Rio on gunpoint, my car was recovered by the police after it was spotted driving by the unlucky bad guys right in front of my dad’s business; my two older brothers got their cars carjacked and never found their cars, my mom never had it happened to her, and my dad once loss to a thief. My best friend from Rio lost her dad from a carjack, he got shot when he reacted to defend his daughter in the car from the gun man...he was a very calm and cool UNIG university professor. I was 17 and my brother also were teenagers (we drove underage at that time) and once I got my shopping bags snapped when I was 15 in Copacabana, but the business owners/guards shot the guy (nobody told the police who shot) I don’t think he died. I was always taught to lock the doors and windows of our house, bedroom doors, look behind before open our house gate, and before open the house door. My first credit card was cloned and charged in a furniture store, the credit card company solved the mystery and got their money back. Our house in BR was never robbed, thank God. And I never lost a friend for gun shot, house robbery or raped.
    I’m still traumatized by the violence I lived through, and still lock my house and bedroom door here in the US, lol When I came to the US for the first time, I felt in peace and never looked back. I go very occasionally visit BR, and still jump when I hear a motoboy muffler shooting noises and am terrified leaving Santos Dumond airport in Rio. So covering the violence with a strainer (tapando sold com penera) is not the same as to say it’s safe to travel, or nothing will happen. If you want to be safer just go to Miami it’s very similar or go to California to see the beaches and meet lot o cool Brazilians. Still 25 years later I haven’t heard friends or family loosing their cars or life, just their cell phones and purses. Or maybe it’s so normal that no one bothers to call me to tell me the news. So, I guess it must be a little better. 🤷🏻‍♀️
    The problem is Brazililian government/laws protect underage criminals, they don’t serve jail or any sentence and they can even kill. So keep two eyes on the little pivetes too (little street kids) there’s a mafia that uses them to still, and if they come to mug you give your stuff or your life, since they will walk free regardless. All the tips above are very reasonable and right on the money!

    Reply

  • Meg said

    Brazil isn't the most dangerous country for trans, that's both an insult to Brazil and the multitude of countries that have more trans violence.

    Strange comment.

    Trust me, trans in South Sudan and Afghanistan (the recognised GBV capitals of the world) would swap places with a Brazilian in a heartbeat. And for general lawlessness to boot.

    EDIT: You should know that much of this misinformation is spread by a toxic, partisan\anti-partisan Brazilian activist group.

    Reply

  • Beatriz said

    I was born and raised in Brazil and Ive lost the count of how many times I’ve seen people being mugged by guys riding bikes in the city center. I’ve been mugged 5 times and one of them the guy had a gun pointed to my head. My family got kidnapped and shot once and I can’t describe the fear of walking by myself even in the daylight and busy streets. This is the main reason I left the country in my first opportunity. Anyways I love Brazil I really do and definitely recommend the visit, but with caution!! Don’t use your phone in public and don’t trust anybody. Don’t walk alone at night even in busy streets. Be careful and enjoy this amazing country with amazing views and beaches!!!

    Reply

  • Jay said

    I have been all over Brazil, I made lots of friends in 2018/ 19 , the people are very welcoming,I fell in love over there not only with a beautiful woman but with Brazil it’s self,yes you need to be aware of your surroundings and do not flash cash or wear expensive clothes or jewellery and if you take a mobile just take a bog standard cheep phone,be safe on public transport don’t buy of sellers on the buses, I am still in contact with my friends from Brazil. As for crime there’s crime all over the world, I’m from uk and I think it’s worse here, I can’t wait to go back, I will be going to Rio, Copacabana,espírito santo,serra and nova Almeida and São Paulo then Victoria b4 coming back to uk, I have already exchanged my money as it’s at around 7.65 réis for £1 when I last went it was 4.75 réis , it is a beautiful place I would live there if given the chance, in fact I have requested that when I pass away some of my ashes are to be sent to a friend in Brazil to set me off in a firework over the beach, once in a life time trip for most so be strong and go and I’m sure you will return.

    Reply

  • John said

    American man here - I first visited Brazil in 1989 when I was 24 years old. That first trip was a BLAST, but Brazil was a different place, the Varig Air Pass was unlimited...you could fly all over Brazil with no limitations. I went all over the place, from Belem to Porto Alegre....Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Maceio, Rio, and I was based in Sao Paulo. I only areas that I didn't visit was Manaus and Acre. Very few thieves were walking around with pistols at that time...I was never mugged, and nobody ever tried to mess with me.

    things changed around 1995....suddenly guns were everywhere, and little pivetes all had little pistols.

    I visited Brazil 4 more times, the most recent being in 2007, to Porto Alegre.

    There was a thrill to going there when I was in my 20s and 30s, having to watch your back all the time was even kind of fun. I was 41 on the last trip, and I did not enjoy it as much. Now that I'm in my mid 50s, I can't imagine ever going there again...well, never say never, but it probably won't happen. But that first trip in '89 when I was a kid was magical.

    Reply

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