When my Plan A to go on a student exchange to Chile failed, I immediately jumped on a poorly-planned, impulse Plan B; I felt I needed to go to South America anyway, so I picked the only remaining option and chose a city in the south of Brazil. I got accepted and started to learn Portuguese with probably more enthusiasm than skill. And almost without fail, everybody who heard – my mum being the loudest – asked me:
‘Why are you going there? Isn’t Brazil dangerous?’
This concern clearly worries many travellers headed that way. When googling ‘is Brazil dangerous’, instead of statistics and factual reports, most of the search results are posts on travel forums, adorned with an unnecessary amount of question marks to emphasize the gravity of the question. The whole of South America gets a bad rep for theft, violence and cocaine, and amidst the prejudice stands Brazil, known for its corruption, favelas and samba (the worst vice of them all!), only beat by chaotic countries such as Venezuela in terms of shadiness. After returning home, my friends have jokingly been telling me that they’re glad I’ve got my limbs intact and my passport still in my pocket (I guess I deserve that part of the banter – example 1 and example 2). And the same questions about travel safety in Brazil keep on coming.
So, it’s time to tackle the unfortunate subject of safety and danger. With six months of living, travelling and immersing myself in Brazilian culture, here is what I found out.
Rio may be dangerous but I’m the queen of the city so
Stories wilder than the Wild West
If you want to go digging around for the truth about a country’s dark secrets, you always ask the locals. In this case, though, you rarely even have to ask.
As soon as I arrived in Novo Hamburgo and started making friends with Brazilians, I begun hearing warnings and cautionary tales. Safety in Brazil was often one of the first topics we discussed. They told me not to walk alone at night, not even to the university which was barely a ten-minute stroll away through a reasonably clean suburb. Even Uber drivers, as they dropped me home, waited to see that I got inside the gates safely before driving away. A few people even asked me, unbelieving: ‘Why would you come to Brazil? It’s so dangerous here!’
Of course I was intrigued to find out if any of these warnings were based on true events or whether the rumours were wildly exaggerated. So I asked around.
A Spanish backpacker I met in Rio told me about a guy who’d put him in a chokehold in the middle of the day a few blocks from Copacabana as another guy went through his pockets.
A couchsurfing host told me that, again in Rio, his phone got snatched out of his hand as he was trying to pay for a city bike with an app.
A Tinder date told me that once he’d been riding his motorbike in the middle of the night when two other bikes started following him, trying to corner him or chase him off the road, and he just barely managed to drive off.
A neighbour informed me that a delivery driver had been robbed literally just outside of our pousada’s gates as he was bringing pizza to one of the residents.
An Uber driver told me that once when he was stopped at a red light, alone in the middle of the night, a man with a gun in his hand tapped on his window and told him to get out of the car. He never got that car back, either.
A German girl, who sat next to me in a bus to Uyuni, told me she would really like to visit Brazil but was hesitant to put it on her list. ‘My sister went there for a conference some time ago, and she’s a seasoned traveller’, she told me. ‘She got robbed four times in a week.’
These are just the stories off the top off my head, but I’m sure that if I went through my travel diaries and the dusty little nooks in my brain, I would remember more.
The facts (Non-fake news)
You always hear stories. But what do the actual facts say?
In March, The Economist published an article revealing the most violent cities and countries that are not currently at war. Brazil has the unfortunate honour to dominate that list: half of the most dangerous cities in the world are located there. (One of the supposedly worse ones, Porto Alegre, is the one that I was living close to. Uh-oh.) ‘Brazil reigns as the world′s overall murder capital’, states the article. It also suggests that this is simply due to the country’s vast size: with a population of 207 million, Brazil is more likely to have more crime in general than its smaller neighbours.
Forbes researched the topic as well. Their alarmingly named article As Crime Wave Hits Brazil, Daily Death Toll Tops Syria shows that even though the rate of violent crime had decreased, Brazil still experienced 58,383 deaths from violent crime in 2015* – even more than war-torn Syria did, when you compare the number to Syria’s 55,219 victims. However, they do point out that violent crime seems to be a problem that is concentrated on small areas instead of being a national problem. In addition, The Global Peace Index determines the country’s level of peacefulness (which also includes safety in society) as “medium” for Brazil – which is the same as granted to other popular destinations such as Thailand, Vietnam, Peru and even the United States.
While stats and horror stories might discourage you from travelling, from a tourist’s perspective getting offed by a random criminal is not very likely. According to FCO, ‘189,269 British nationals visited Brazil in 2015. Most visits are trouble free.’ Most crimes committed against British nationals were theft and pick-pocketing instead of violent crime, although FCO do report high levels of crime especially in the bigger cities. However, neither the British, US, Australian or Finnish foreign affairs ministries recommend not travelling to Brazil nor flag it as a particularly dangerous country; they list all the usual dangers and recommend taking special precautions in order to avoid trouble.
Well, in my opinion…
I don’t claim to be an expert on Brazilian travel. Even though I spent a long time in the country and got to know the culture and my region well, my experience definitely differs wildly from that of the people who have actually lived there all of their lives, so it is only wise to take my words with a grain of salt. Having said that, though: nothing bad happened to me in Brazil.
I found Brazilians to be warm, welcoming people, who after five minutes of chatter would invite me to their house to dine with their family, and accepting the invitation didn’t feel weird because I knew it was heart-felt. Teachers would compliment me on my very shaky Portuguese, and the man working the tourist information desk at the Rio bus station walked me three blocks to the bus stop because it was five a.m. and he was worried that I might get lost or robbed. I spent a lot of Sundays at my friend’s family’s house, having dinner or lunch or just tea, and her parents made us exchange students feel like we were a part of the family – they even welcomed Emma, who didn’t know a lick of Portuguese, with the same warmth.
What about travelling around, then, you might ask? I travelled solo which made me a little nervous at first, but on the road I met lots of other solo travellers, both male and female, and realised that South America and Brazil do get played up a little in terms of danger. I explored the cities – big and small – and national parks both on my own and with travel friends. I took good care of my belongings, stayed aware of my surroundings and felt safe. The only time I ever felt a pang of concern was when my Uber driver got lost on our way to the metro station but didn’t tell me, and as we zoomed past the turn I knew we needed to take, I half-jokingly I texted his name and register plate to my friend just in case he was planning on kidnapping me. (Spoiler: he wasn’t.)
But I can’t deny that Brazil holds a certain atmosphere of tension. You can feel it in all the bigger cities, all over the streets like a discreet smell that your nose can’t quite pick up but which still irritates your lungs. You get used to its weight quickly but as soon as you travel out from under that dark cloud, the change is imminent. I felt it for the first time in Ilha Grande, a little paradise island south of Rio whose residents are pretty much solely tourists and business owners catering for tourists. It was safe enough to leave your bag on the beach while you took a swim without having to worry that someone was going to steal it. I felt it again in Montevideo, Uruguay. It felt like a knot had been loosened in my chest or as if a stalker had finally taken his eyes off my neck. I can’t explain it otherwise – you just felt the difference.
And of course small signs around you show, too, how safe the place is. In Brazil, houses are built with sturdy iron gates in front of them, which kept amazing Emma and I. Brazilians seemed to be just as amazed as we explained that only very rich houses in Finland have such gates around them, and in some suburbs people even leave their back doors unlocked when they go out for the day. (Of course measuring a country’s safety against Finland is a little unfair – after all, it is the safest country in the world.) I was surprised to see people still walking on the street with phones in hand – which you’re advised to never do as a tourist – but it is not as common as in many other places. Women, even though they’re walking seemingly relaxed and without looking over their shoulder, still hold their purses on the front of their bodies and casually hold their hand over them.
A lot of tourists still get robbed in Brazil. However, millions of tourists travel to the country every year and return after a trip of a lifetime unscathed. I have said it before and I will keep saying it again: a country is always so much more than just the terrible stories you hear about it. Oftentimes the reputation of a destination is based on out-dated information and tall tales that have taken on almost urban legend levels. (I mean, when I showed my mum pictures of Vietnam, she was surprised to see power lines since her idea of the country was based on what history books tell of Vietnam War.) Brazil may not be exactly a safe country, but I would never rule it as an unsafe one, either.
As a general rule, taking all the normal precautions keeps you relatively safe. Before you travel, you should google some of the best safety tips for the country, but here are a few basic ones:
- Do your research on specific places where theft and robberies are common and if you can, avoid those areas. (For example, the walking path to Cristo Redeemer is notorious for robberies; it is better to take the cable car or a bus up.)
- Only carry a little bit of cash and nothing too valuable. Look after your belongings at all times.
- If you do get mugged, hand over your valuables. Don’t resist, since robbers are often armed, even though they mostly don’t want to hurt you.
- Walk with purpose and your head heald high, and stay aware of your surroundings at all times.
- Don’t store your valuables in the overhead compartment in busses.
Brazil is a wonderful country full of rich, distinctive cultures, great food, world-famous sights and warm-hearted people, and it quickly became one of my favourite countries. Don’t let unreasonable fear dictate where you travel – you might miss out on the greatest experience of your life.
Have you ever travelled somewhere that people consider dangerous? Would you visit Brazil?
*This number is different than the one given in The Econimist’s article. I’m not sure which one is correct, but my guess is that the real number is hard to estimate due to bad documentation.