How to stay safe in Rio: The World Nomad's perspective

Christ the Redeemer is awesome, however, Rio is a city defined by division.

The gaudy wealth of Ipanema and Copacabana are juxtaposed with the crowded poverty of the favelas, often resulting in violent clashes and crimes, its no wonder there is a growing concern for Rios reputation.

The landscape, squashing the city between the mountains and the surf, only brings this into tighter focus, but contrasts and close quarters also account for a lot of Rio's charm. If you keep your wits about you and keep yourself out of harm's way, you should have a smooth ride through Rio.

Doing the rounds in Rio

Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), Rio's iconic sculpted overseer, is first on many tourists' lists and after undergoing maintenance in 2010, it's even more impressive.

There are many ways to reach the top of the statue's perch, Corcovado Mountain. The easiest but most expensive is to an organised tour group which will pick you up from your accommodation. These often include a trip to Sugar Loaf Mountain as well. They are convenient but not the best idea if you plan to spend a while at either location.

The alternatives are taxi, tourist van or the funicular (cog train), which can all be found at the train station on Rua Cosme Velho at the base of the hill.

You may be able to negotiate a flat rate with a cab driver but if you're looking for a budget option, try to join up with a half-full van that is about to set off. The driver will want to maximise his return on the round trip and at that point, anything is a bonus.

If you want to take your time, the best bet is to take the train up. It costs $R36 for a return trip, including the $R5 park entrance fee.

There is a walking trail but it will take around two hours to reach the top and robberies are not uncommon along the track.

Sunset Scramble

Rio's bizarre lumpy landscape means the city boasts one of the world's most incredible sunsets, a fact which isn't lost on the locals.

During the summer crowds gather on Ipanema beach almost every evening to watch the sun sink between theTwo Brothers Mountains. You'll often hear applause over the surf as the last rays fade behind the horizon. But the best place to capture the daily spectacle is from Sugar Loaf Mountain. A cable car ride to the top will give you an almost unobscured 360-degree view of the city.

Unfortunately, as one of Rio's most popular tourist destinations, it's not a very well kept secret. There are long waits for the cable car in the early evening. The trip takes two legs as well, stopping at the smaller Urca Hill on the way, so you'll have to queue twice.

A less manic way to handle it is to head up a little earlier to avoid the lines, take in the daytime view and have a drink at the hilltop bar while you wait for the sun to drop.

Like Corcovado, it is possible to walk up the back of Sugar Loaf. The trail begins near the cable car station but is obscured by a cleverly placed pillar. It's quite a strenuous climb, however, and if you decide you don't want to repeat it on the way down you'll be dismayed to find out you can't buy cable car tickets on the summit. Buy yourself a one-way ticket before setting off, even if you're planning to walk back down.

If you hang around for the last cable car down (generally 8.40pm but check signs) be aware that taxis may be in short supply by the time you reach the bottom. Buses aren't recommended after dark, especially if you have to make a few changes or will be waiting at the bus stop for a while, so maybe forsake the last few snaps to make sure you grab a cab.

Favelas Take the Rap

Rio has a network of favelas, or shantytowns, scattered throughout the city. The residents of these impoverished areas are blamed for much of the city's crime. However, the majority of the favelas residents are law-abiding citizens, with a few bad eggs giving the rest a bad name.

In fact, the favelas themselves are quite safe. Iron-fisted drug lords prevent crime in their territory and the surrounding districts, meaning a visit to these vibrant communities should be a big to-do on your list.

For more on Rio's favelas, visit our dedicated guide.

Beaches in Rio

The beach is where Rio's great division ends. People from every end of the city are sprinkled over the sparkling white sand, tossed together in the surf. Copacabana is the most renowned, but the local favourites Ipanema and Leblon are growing in popularity among tourists. All are incredibly crowded during high season but somehow there's always space available, whichever you choose.

No polka dots on this itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny bikini

The crowds mean a lot of petty crime goes unnoticed, so keep a watchful eye on your valuables. Most thefts on the beach will occur behind your back or while you're distracted but some are more brazen. Some travellers report bands of children rushing onto the beach and grabbing everything they can before disappearing into the streets, while jewellery and cameras have been ripped off tourists in broad daylight as well.

But with so much on offer at the beach, there's little need to bring anything more than a towel and the smallest swimwear you can find. If you chose to hire a chair and umbrella from one of the many stalls, they'll generally offer to bring drinks to you for the rest of the day, although you may pay a slightly higher price.

If you're out for a bargain, there's a plethora of hawkers wandering the beach, selling everything from sunglasses to chicken hearts. If you felt so inclined you could plant yourself in your seat and admire Brazil's best bodies from sunrise to sunset.

Chances are the heat will get to you at some stage however and you'll want to cool off in the water. If you're in a group, have someone stay and watch your valuables. Otherwise you can ask someone nearby to keep an eye on them, the Cariocas (Rio's residents) hate crime as much as you and will be happy to oblige. One trick is to hook the straps of your bag around your umbrella, preventing a quick swipe, although this is far from fool proof.

The water itself isn't particularly clean, especially around the channel at Leblon, so try to avoid swallowing any.

Be careful in the surf as well. There are lifeguards on duty but the sheer mass of people in the water means you could be drowning in plain sight and very few people would notice.

Signal Towers

Locals will tell you the numbered lifeguard towers (postos) on Ipanema serve a secondary function as well, dividing the beach into demographics.

The surfers congregate near Arpoador at Posto 7, the young and the beautiful head to Posto 9, family groups dominate Posto 11 in Leblon, while the area between Posto 8 and 9 is a famously gay-friendly zone. Each tower seems to have its own reputation but in our experience, there is little obvious difference between them.

Girls should note that although Brazilians are comfortable with bikinis apparently crafted from dental floss, topless sunbathing is not allowed.

The beaches are best avoided at night, with wandering tourists a target for robberies. But if you do head down there beware of locals offering you drugs. They are usually working in concert with a cop nearby to extort a bribe from you.

Good Night Cinderella

The parade of flesh on Rio's beaches might have you on the prowl at night, but be careful if you suddenly come across an overly friendly local. You may think you've found your own Girl (or boy) From Ipanema, only to wake up hours later, the victim of a sleeping draft known as Boa Noite Cinderela (Good Night Cinderella). It may sound like a fairy tale but there are numerous reports of the knockout drug being used to rob unsuspecting victims.

It's best to head out with a buddy so you can keep an eye on each other. Never let your drink out of your sight and don't accept drinks bought by strangers.

In some cases the victims were even drugged in their hotel rooms so don't let your guard down once you get home.

If your newfound friend seems overly interested in where you're staying, they may be organising a buddy to help clean out your belongings. Try not to be specific about your accommodation, especially if it's an expensive hotel, as this will make you a more inviting target.

Getting around Rio

Walking around Rio's main streets, especially near the beaches, is perfectly safe during the day, despite the city's reputation. However, just because you're in a wealthy or touristy neighbourhood doesn't mean you're safe to wander at night. In fact, these areas are specifically targeted by criminals.

The safest way to get from place to place in Rio is by registered radio taxi. Ask someone at your accommodation to order one for you, or duck into a nearby hotel if you're out an about. The city's yellow cabs are a good option if you're in a hurry and are a little cheaper as well. Try to find a cab with a meter or prearrange a price before your trip. There's no shortage of cars so you can afford to be picky. Always check the cab's front window for a license sticker and take a note of the company's name and number on the side. Never get into an unlicensed cab.

Take care when paying your driver as well. One known scam involves the driver quickly grabbing a $R50 note, deftly swapping it with a $R5 before accusing you of underpaying. Take care when you're selecting your notes and ask them to turn on the overhead light if it's dark. If you're sure you paid the right amount, don't let them intimidate you, although you don't want to push your luck too far.

Buses in Rio are cheap, frequent and quite safe during the day. Because of the city's long, skinny shape it's difficult to go too far out of your way, even if you jump on the wrong bus. Be very careful of pickpockets however. One traveller had his wallet taken from a zipped-up pocket inside his bag by a couple of girls working in concert.

Steer clear of buses at night, especially if you have to change lines. Bus stops are a known target for muggings.

Take care in Rio at night

Managing the worst case scenario

Despite all its charm, Rio's reputation for crime is well-deserved and no matter how careful you are to avoid it, there's a chance that you'll end up having a bad experience. However there are several ways to make sure one bad experience doesn't ruin your trip.

Don't make yourself a target. Rio's dress code is very casual so don't overdo it. Shorts and thongs (both kinds) are the rule on the street. Leave the iPod and any expensive jewellery at home.

Take a taxi, even for short trips, and stick to well lit streets if you're trying to find one.

If you're in a crowded place, be aware of your belongings. At the Lapa street parties or during Carnival, groups of kids often swarm tourists. If this happens, keep your hands in your pockets or hold your bag to your chest.

A dummy wallet with a few reais in it can make the thief feel like they've snagged something while saving you the hassle of cancelling cards.

This technique can also work if you're unlucky enough to be the victim of a mugging. Whatever you do, don't struggle. Hand over your things and try hard not to provoke your attackers. Losing your camera might be upsetting, but losing a litre of blood will be far worse.

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  • Paula Ribeiro said

    Sou portuguesa, vivo a 52 anos no Rio de Janeiro e NUNCA foi assaltada, roubada, ou sofri qualquer tipo de violência urbana. Não moro e nunca morei em favelas. Moro em um bairro tranquilo e NUNCA presenciei ou sofri qualquer tipo de violência. Os cariocas e o povo brasileiro são de forma geral, pessoas de bem. Violência há em toda parte do mundo, mas aqui não há ataques terroristas e nenhum avião explodiu o Cristo Redentor.

  • Paula Ribeiro said

    I am Portuguese , I live to 52 years in Rio de Janeiro and was NEVER robbed , stolen, or suffered any kind of urban violence. I do not live and never lived in slums. I live in a quiet neighborhood and NEVER witnessed or suffered any kind of violence. Cariocas and Brazilians are generally good people . Violence is everywhere in the world , but here there is no terrorist attacks and any plane exploded Christ the Redeemer .

  • We got robbed in Rio in June, 2016 said

    My wife and I got robbed in Rio on Saturday June 4th, 2016. We traveled in almost all European countries, US, Canada, even Mexico multiple times. This is the very first time we have such problem.

    The robbery happened on Copacabana beach around 11:30AM, the place and time are supposed to be safe. However it just happened. 3 young people grabbed my wife's purse and my bag, and then ran away. I believe there are more people around to support them.

    When reporting this case in Rio Tourists Police Station (yes, it's just for tourists so you know such problems are common there), another German couple told us they were attacked and robbed by a group of people with knifes when ridding a taxi. The group of people just stopped the taxi and robbed them everything including passports. They had to work with German agent and Brazil immigration office on the passport and visa problems. So riding a taxi doesn't guarantee safety in Rio.

    CNN reported earlier that Olympic tickets were sold only 6% so far. There must be reasons for this. Security is probably one, or big one, of them.

    So be very very careful if you HAVE TO go to Brazil at this time.

  • CitySafe said

    Great article ! especially the part about the favelas.
    I created a map of dangerous areas and scams of Rio on my website, you can check it out here

  • V.W. Singer said

    I don't understand why anyone would go to somewhere that is so unsafe. From what I read above I certainly wouldn't go there even though I've been all over the world, often alone.

  • Federico De Agostini said

    A 15 year old kid just attempted to rob me on the beach in Copacabana pointing a plastic knife at me (one of those knives that break when you try to cut through a piece of chicken in the park during a pic-nick, lol). I was able to run away and duck in a hotel.
    I was very stupid walking alone late at night along the walkway in Copacabana, although my hotel is just a few hundred meters away from there. I should have asked a taxi driver to drop me off right at the entrance. After a very fun night in Lapa I decided that I could take a walk before going to bed just to take some air, I was sadly mistaken.
    I am traveling by myself, I knew before coming about the safety issues and even before reading this article I was told to take all the precautions listed, which I did until tonight.

    If you stay where it's crowded and well lit without wondering off, avoid trusting or accepting things from sketchy character and are aware of your surroundings it's likely that nothing will happened, if you let your guard down like I just did tonight, you are very likely to be mugged or worse.

    It's a great pity because most of the people I met so far are lovely and the city is one of the most fun and most beautiful I've ever visited.

    Enjoy Rio but beware....

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