Rio botanical garden
Rio’s heavily guarded botanical garden is a nice place to wander

Safety was my main concern when visiting Rio de Janeiro. I’d heard stories of muggings from people who’d visited, advice from former residents to avoid hills and the beach at night, and terrible accounts of attacks on tourists on public transit.

Overall, I didn’t feel as safe as I do wandering around New York. You do need to keep your guard up, and there are some areas you should know to avoid. However, as a female traveler touring solo at times, I never felt unsafe because of my gender — Rio is a great place for women to travel alone.

Here are my tips for staying safe in Rio:

Learn a little bit of Brazilian Portuguese
I can’t stress this enough. English is not as widely spoken as it is in say, Europe, and Spanish, despite some similarities, is not the same as Portuguese (thanks, Captain Obvious). It’s incredibly helpful to know a few phrases and words in Portuguese for taxis, asking directions and ordering food (greetings, ‘where is,’ right/left, basic numbers, and of course, “obrigada”).

It’s OK to bring a nice camera, just make sure it’s inconspicuous
I left my DSLR at home because I didn’t want to look like a target with a nice piece of equipment. I regret that. Not only was my little point-and-shoot insufficient for the this-place-can’t-really-be-real views from Sugarloaf and the Corcovado, Rio is a tourist destination, and as a tourist you’ll be going to places where cameras are common. That said, if you do have a big camera, be sure to have a non-camera-specific bag or purse that you can stow it in while you do your exploring.

Leave the fancy jewelry at home
A friend pointed out that the beautiful women of Rio are far more stylish than I’ll ever be, so I shouldn’t worry about fashion. That’s true, and I doubt my fake diamond studs from Target would have lured muggers out of dark corners. At the same time, it was easier to leave the nice looking stuff at home and just not worry about it. As for what to wear in Rio, keep in mind it’s a beachy city and the land of Havaianas, so put on flip flops and some casual beachwear and you’ll be good to go.

Don’t bring a towel to the beach
Cariocas don’t really use beach towels, so laying one out on the sand screams “I’m a tourist.” Then again, ladies, if you’re wearing a typical American-style U-bottomed bikini you’ll look like a tourist anyway.

Bring a Blackberry, hide your iPhone
I met an American couple who had recently moved down to Rio. When I asked about safety the guy shrugged and said, “Everyone has their mugging story.” His was my favorite: he was walking at night when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife. The boy asked for the guy’s cell phone, which he handed over without a fuss. The boy looked at the device — a Blackberry — and handed it back with a sneer, saying, “I don’t want this, it’s not an iPhone.”

Bring cash, change it when you arrive in the airport and keep it in your hotel
ATMs can be a nightmare in Rio if you have a U.S. bank account. We spent 1 hour machine-hopping to about 8 ATMs, none of which would dispense cash for a Chase account, until finally returning to one of the first ones we tried, which produced cash the second time around. Also potentially from ATMs: a friend traveling to Rio at the same time for work reported that four of her colleagues had their debit accounts hacked.

Take cabs
At the airport you can pre-pay for your taxi into the city. Once in the city, cabs are pretty easy to hail and aren’t terribly expensive (compared to other things in Rio). Some guidebooks suggest taking a cab at night even if you’re walking 100 yards. In Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon that’s a little overcautious, but if you’re going to the clubs in Lapa you definitely definitely want to avoid walking.

Don’t go on the beach at night
Given the staggering number of beach-worshippers by day in Rio, it was a little spooky to see how quickly the sand clears out once the sun goes down. Copacabana recently installed lights where the beach hits the street, but deeper into the sand it’s still dark. Ipanema and Leblon were pitch black. In general, while the beach bar huts are a fun stop for a nightcap, it’s not advisable to wander around the dark beach itself at night.

Do not avoid Lapa, but be careful here
Lapa’s the undisputed nightlife hub of Rio — many of the music and samba clubs are here. But it’s also a neighborhood that’s still shedding its shady past, so while walking around at day is now relatively safe (thanks to an increased police presence), walking extensively at night is not. Local ladies I spoke to say they slide some money in their bra or shoe when going out here — purses are a no-no. And keep those cell phones hidden; I heard multiple accounts of phone snatchers pulling them off people’s ears mid-convo.
*One thing to note about Lapa and night safety in general: while the risks are there regardless, a lot of tourists make themselves larger targets by getting too drunk. If you don’t want to get mugged, a good place to start is to not stumble incoherently around the streets.

Avoid favelas, except with an organized group or on invitation
That whole “don’t walk up hills” bit rings true. In Rio, what would be the most expensive, glitzy ocean-view hillside real estate in California is taken up by favelas. These shanty towns may look a bit like the cliff villages on the Amalfi Coast, but here they’re associated with poverty, the country’s extreme income gap, and gangs and drug trafficking. Not really an ideal spot for an evening stroll. Favelas are opening up to tourists more these days, and can be vibrant and welcoming places to explore, but it’s still best to visit with an organized tour or by invitation from someone in the community.

Know your neighborhoods
Even if a neighborhood doesn’t have a reputation for being unsafe, it might not be the smartest place to stay. Santa Teresa is a little hilltop artists’ hood. While it’s still not the safest place at night, some wonderful boutique hotels are drawing visitors to stay here. Once here, however, many guests discover that it can be a real pain to find a taxi to actually drive you up the windy streets to get to your lodgings. If it’s late and you’re trying to get home from a club in Lapa, you really don’t want taxi after taxi saying no way, I won’t go there.

More photos of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil

This blog post is my own opinion and is based on my experiences on the ground in Rio de Janeiro. 

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