Dark tales of Brazil: is it really that dangerous?

Have you tried enthusing your family and friends about taking a trip to Brazil? I mean, lets be real. Why would you visit a country with a 200% chance of getting mugged? Where you are constantly vigilant of ‘City of God’ scenarios in the famous favelas in Rio de Janeiro? And don’t even get me started on the shark that might feast on you when you want to go for a swim in the sea. And, if you manage to survive the swim, lets see if no one stole all your belongings on the beach. 

When I announced I was going to move to Recife in Brazil people looked at me as if I had just cut off my finger. People assume it is very dangerous here in Brazil. Undeniably, it is not entirely safe in some areas of Brazil and it is probably safer in your home country. But, no risk no fun right? Don’t let it stop you from visiting this beautiful country! Lets find out how dangerous Brazil really is. 

ROBBERIES

Brazil is a country of great contrasts with one of the largest between rich and poor. The unfair distribution of wealth and the current political situation has led to a growth in crime. I met a lot of travellers, but also Brazilians who have been threatened with a weapon and/or robbed. Most commonly these incidents took place in urban or touristic areas. I believe I am lucky it has never happened to me even though I spent over a year of my life in Latin America. 

In Brazil there is a risk of being robbed, but there are many things you can do to limit the risk. For example, don’t bother to wear expensive jewellery, just leave your belongings in your ho(s)tel or maybe even back home. This also applies to your debit card, credit card, passport, cash, etc.: keep your items safely in a locker in your ho(s)tel and only carry these items if necessary. Don’t flash your fancy camera or phone, chances are someone will take it from you. Think carefully about the things you do: don’t walk the streets in the evening, especially not alone and don’t enter deserted alleys. Make sure your bag closes properly and carry it close to your body. Don´t leave your belongings unattended (especially at the beach) and don’t hang your bag over the back of your chair. 

CITIES VS. VILLAGES

Here in Brazil I notice a big difference between safety in urban areas and and villages. I live in Recife, a city with more than a million inhabitants. The streets in Recife are often empty at night because it is not entirely safe and everyone knows it. If I want to go somewhere in the evening I always use Uber. I also have to be careful what routes I take. For example, between my work and the office of my Portuguese class there is a poorer neighbourhood that I better not pass. In cities it is very important that you know where you want to go what the best way is to get there. Don’t be shy of asking a trusted local for recommendations.  

When it comes to safety in villages its a different story. Almost every weekend I visit Porto de Galinhas, a village an hour away from Recife. It is very touristy here, but also very safe. I can safely walk the streets alone in the evening. In Porto de Galinhas I even leave my things on the beach if I want to go for a swim. It is best to consult a local to determine whether an area is safe or not. Sometimes a village gives the impression that it is safe when it’s actually not. This is what makes safety so difficult, it is hard to guess where you are at risk. 

DON’T BE AN IDIOT

When I was backpacking I heard many stories from travellers who have been robbed in South-America and also in Brazil. Almost all of these stories have one thing in common: the travellers did not follow the recommendations I described above. Don’t get me wrong though, some people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, a colleague of mine was robbed right in front of our office in broad daylight last year. But for travellers whom adhere to the safety precautions mentioned above and think before they act, there is nothing to worry about and Brazil is a safe travel destination. Just don’t be an idiot. 

FAVELAS

You have undoubtedly seen or heard of the blockbuster ‘City of God’. This film has had an enormous influence on the image that people hold of Brazil. As I’ve never been to a favela myself (and I do not plan to visit one) I’ll keep it short. Favelas are not a place for tourists. Honestly, the entire concept of a tourist visiting a favela leaves me speechless. Favela tours is not a responsible form of tourism in my opinion. Also without a tour there is no valid reason for a tourist to visit a favela. You would not be the first foreign victim of a robbery or worse. My advice? Stay away from favelas, there are plenty of other places to visit in Brazil.

TRANSPORT MODES IN BRAZIL

Once you’re in Brazil you have to travel distances to reach all the beautiful places you came to see. Travelling from one spot to another can be done safely, if you consider your mode of transport carefully. For instance, in cities it is not recommended to hail a taxi on the street, this could end badly for you. Use Uber at all times, order a taxi via application 99 or have your ho(s)tel order a taxi for you. Once you’re in a cab or Uber pay attention to the route your driver is taking. The other day I was in an Uber that took a detour through a favela to avoid traffic without consulting me first. In case you end up in a similar situation the best thing to do is to ask your driver to leave the favela. In the mean time check if the windows are closed and the doors are locked and hide your valuables in your bag. And most importantly: don’t get out of the car and keep calm.  

Short distance bus connections aren’t great in Brazil. Therefore, I use BlablaCar, a platform that allows drivers to share rides with strangers to reduce gasoline costs. In my opinion it is safe to travel by BlaBlaCar, but you do need to be selective when taking a ride with someone. Make sure you only book rides with drivers who have at least 10 evaluations on their profile, have uploaded a profile photo and verified their documents. Try to talk to your driver a few days before your trip and agree on a pick up and drop off point. You can also check the profiles of other passengers joining the ride. If for whatever reason you don’t feel comfortable with a driver, cancel the ride and book with another driver. Better safe than sorry! 

Undoubtedly you will cover quite some distance by bus. Long distance day and night busses are comfortable and safe. I do have an important note to make your trip safer. Never keep your valuables (passport, cards, electronics etc.) in the bagage compartment, keep it in your hand luggage instead. Sometimes, during a stop in the night, burglars break into the bagage compartment and valuables disappear. And for your convenience: busses (especially night busses) are cold so make sure you carry a jacket with you and always check if the bus has a toilet.   

SHARK!

After I’d finally somewhat reassured my family about potentially getting robbed by all the ‘dangerous Brazilians’ and favelas we arrived to the next topic of discussion: sharks. Did you know the beach in Boa Viagem in Recife is in the National Geographic top 5 most dangerous beaches in the world? Should this just happen to be my new hometown. Okay, sharks are a problem in some areas of Brazil. Due to the destruction of ecosystems sharks no longer have any fish to chew on and they are looking for an alternative meal: tasty gringos. 

Don’t feel too spooked though. After the first shark attacks huge reefs have been constructed in risky areas that indicate how far you should go into the water. If that is not the case the area is blocked off and surrounded by signs telling you not to enter the water. In areas with a reef it is recommended to not enter the water during high tides. Other than that it is absolutely safe. However, if you insist in swimming past the reef, during high tide or in blocked off areas you will end up as a shark meal. Just don’t do that, okay?

IS BRAZIL REALLY THAT DANGEROUS?

Brazil is a safe destination to travel to as long as you are not being an idiot. It is important to be vigilant and look over your shoulder constantly. Think before you act and don’t do silly things like flashing valuables on the street or wandering the streets alone in the evening. Keep an eye on your belongings at all times. Consider your transport modes carefully and stay away from favelas. Take into account the warnings for sharks. Follow these safety rules and the biggest risk in this fantastic country is that you don’t want to go home… 😉

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