Admit it: you watched City of God and now you’re terrified you’re going to get mugged by a gang of rocket launcher-wielding children in the depths of a favela in Rio.
Staying safe is a common concern among visitors to Rio, and it’s a genuine one. Rio de Janeiro is an amazing city but it has it’s problems like any metropolitan centre and street crime can and does happen.
If you’re worried about getting mugged (or worse) in Rio de Janeiro, here is some refreshing news. The city is safer now than it ever has been. As the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics approach, the government have done much to implement a wide-reaching program aimed at bringing formerly-lawless parts of the city back under control.
The favelas used to be no-go areas for the police, but a series of operations over the last two years has seen them oust the drug gangs and install police station in some of the most notorious places in Rio, including the infamous City of God (Cidade de Deus).
The funny thing is, the favelas weren’t necessarily the worst places in terms of street crime. The drug gangs had their own code of conduct for residents and would mercilessly punish those who broke the ‘law’. As such, robberies and theft inside the favelas were low (at least, among those who lived there – an unsuspecting gringo who would walk in was a different matter).
Because of the harsh rules inside the favelas, and because the real money is to be found in the pockets and purses of the tourists, the thieves would descend into the streets of popular areas like Copacabana.
Even a few years ago, it was dangerous to talk on a mobile phone in the street, and stick-ups (yes, with guns) and snatch-and-grab robberies were common.
The increased police presence on the streets has changed things for the better. Street crime still happens, but far less frequently. Tourists are more likely to be the victims of hustles, scams or pickpockets than out and out robbers.
Here are a few tips on staying safe in Rio
Be aware of your surroundings
Don’t walk blindly down side streets you don’t know, stay in busy, populated and well-lit areas, and never go into a favela without a local as a guide. If you find yourself in a place where you’re uncomfortable, jump in a cab and head back to where you know as soon as you can. It’s better than wandering around looking at a map – you might as well have a huge sign over your head saying “Lost Tourist Here: Please Rob Me”.
Leave valuables at home
The expensive watch, that gold chain, the brand new smartphone… Do you really need to take them with you when you go to the beach? Leave them somewhere safe if you’re out on the streets. Conspicuous displays of wealth are a sure-fire way of attracting unwanted attention.
Carry back-up cash
Even locals do this: have a second stash of cash (not too large) hidden somewhere on your person. If you do get robbed or pick-pocketed, then you’ll have enough to get a cab back to somewhere safe.
Don’t put up a fight
As tempting as it might be at the time, don’t think your jiu-jitsu will help you out. You don’t know if your attackers might be armed, and you’re unlikely to be able to deal with multiple assailants. Stay safe and give them what they want and they should leave you alone.
Don’t act scared
Attitude and confidence go a long way to staying safe. If you’re always nervously looking around, touching your pockets to check if your belongings are still there, and generally behaving like you’re five minutes away from being robbed of all your possessions, then it’ll be noticed and you’ll be marked out as an easy target. If you carry yourself with confidence and look alert yet comfortable, a potential robber will think twice before approaching you. Your posture and body language are important signals, so send out a self-assured message and you’re unlikely to be bothered.
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