I’m A Little Worried About A Trip I Have Planned – This Is New For Me


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I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited a lot of countries around the world both for pleasure and for work and not all have been destinations you’d necessarily wish to visit with your family.

Some of the places I’ve visited (in parts of Africa and in parts of Asia) are definitely not tourist destinations and, to put it bluntly, they’re not very safe….but I was ok with that.

I’m comfortable with how to act and behave in cultures that are different from my own, I’m reasonably confident that I know how to minimize the chance of trouble when I’m out and about and I’ve never been involved in a serious incident abroad in my life….so why am I suddenly concerned about a trip to Rio de Janeiro?

Image Rodrigo Soldo via Flickr

Back in JuneI finally succumbed to the temptation of participating in the incredibly generous Iberia promotionand I used the 90,000 Avios that I earned to book a roundtrip Business Class fare between Madrid and Rio.

At the time I was excited to be booking a trip to a city I’ve never visited before (one that has been on my radar for some time) but now, a few days before the deadline to use the Avios from the Iberia promotion, I’m having second thoughts.

I’v always known that Rio isn’t the safest city around and that it has a few areas where a tourist would be foolish to visit…but how many major cities can you mention where this doesn’t apply?

I’ve known all along that if I visited Rio I’d have to be reasonably careful about how I presented myself in public and I’d have to make sure I didn’t do anything particularly foolish….but that hasn’t put me off from wanting to visit what look like a great city to explore.

Not acting like a tourist is something I consider to be a forte of mine so, up until now, I haven’t really been fazed by the idea of visiting a city with a reputation for having an edge.

But now I’m wondering if it’s just an “edge” or if Rio is actually just plain dangerous.

Over the past week I’ve been doing a bit of research into which hotels I should consider staying in and, as I hold top-tier Marriott status and I’d like to make the most of the benefits that come with that status, I’ve been considering the JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro and the Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel and Resort.

JW Marriott Rio De Janeiro – Image courtesy of Marriott

The reviews on TripAdvisor were inconclusive (although the JW is clearly in a much better location than the Sheraton) so I turned to Flyertalk to see what other frequent travelers had to say about the properties.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes of reading some of the comments on the JW Marriott Rio thread to have me wondering less about the quality of the accommodation than the decision to visit Rio in the first place!

Here’s a selection of comments from this past year:

I’ve seen people mugged directly in front of the Marriott, as well as many other spots along Atlantica. You need to keep your head on a swivel the whole time anywhere in Copa these days. With the horrible economy there, the muggers and other scumbags are out in force [catocony]

As a resident of Brazil, I’d urge using extreme caution in any of the major cities and don’t take on a false sense of security just because you see locals with iPhones or expensive electronics. While they often don’t discriminate, the criminals CAN quickly spot a tourist over a local…
I’ve had many friends (tourists and locals) mugged in “safe” areas of Rio. One was only able to keep his iPhone because he convinced the muggers that he was deaf (a truth)…. [NDDomer86]

I know of two people who were held up at gunpoint by several young kids and forced to kneel in the sand during daylight hours on the Copacabana Beach very close to the JW. When I stayed in this area (in the Copacabana Palace), if I walked around the neighborhood at any hour, I carried only a bit of cash, one credit card, my passport card, and a card with the name and address of my hotel plus my room key (without the envelope where the room number was written), all in a pocket. No phone and no watch of any brand, and I even tended to wear short sleeves so that it was immediately obvious that I was not wearing a watch. This was for daytime on major streets.
Rio is a seriously dangerous city, although some locals try to downplay the issues. Be very careful. [MSPeconomist]

They don’t exactly paint a pretty picture do they?!

Image Christian Haugen via Flickr

Still, this is the internet after all and these are people’s opinions and anecdotes so there’s always a chance of exaggeration and possibly embellishment as well.

I decided to get an opinion from sources with little more authority.

The US State Department’s website is always a good place to start if you’re trying to find out about somewhere you’re planning to visit so I decided to see what it had to say about Rio.

Annoyingly I couldn’t find much that was specific to Rio itself but a few of the general comments weren’t particularly reassuring.

This is from an advisory posted in January of this year:

Violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, and carjacking, is common in urban areas, day and night. Gang activity and organized crime is widespread. 

Hmmmm….that’s not good.

Still, I felt I needed a bit more information so I turned to the UK Foreign Office’s website to see what it had to say.

Here are extracts from an update posted on 30 October 2018:

On 16 February 2018, President Temer signed a decree putting the army in charge of security in Rio de Janeiro city and state. The police and army now both fall under the command of an army general.

You are likely to see a police and military presence on the streets.

Levels of crime including violent crime are high, particularly in major cities.

There has been an increase in reported cases of yellow fever, particularly in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais.

And here is general advice for anyone visiting a “major urban area”:

There are high levels of crime, particularly robberies, within Brazil’s cities and the murder rate can be very high. However this can vary greatly within a city and we recommend that you familiarise yourself with the geography of a city and take local advice to identify the riskier areas. Crime, including violent crime, can occur anywhere and often involves firearms or other weapons. Pickpocketing is common. You should be vigilant, in particular before and during the festive and carnival periods. We recommend that you do not go on to city beaches after dark.

If threatened, hand over your valuables without resistance. Attackers may be armed and under the influence of drugs.

Don’t wear expensive jewellery and watches. Don’t carry large sums of money and consider wearing a money belt. Don’t use your mobile phone in the street and keep cameras out of sight when not in use. Leave your passport and other valuables in a safe place but carry a copy and another form of photo ID, if you have one, with you at all times. Thefts are particularly common on public beaches and include ‘arrastões’ where large groups of thieves run through an area of the beach grabbing possessions. Keep your possessions close and avoid taking valuables to the beach.

Tourists in Rio de Janeiro frequently report armed robberies on the Corcovado walking trail to the Christ the Redeemer statue. We recommend that you don’t use the trail at this time.

Some of this is just common sense (don’t be ostentatious in an impoverished environment, don’t walk around at night by yourself etc…) but other sections are genuinely worrying.

Martial law, gangs of thieves running around in the most tourist-dense areas of Rio, crimes often involving firearms, constant vigilance required at all times of day, no areas are really safe etc……and if the criminals don’t get you then yellow fever just might!

That all sounds exhausting!

Image Alejandro via Flickr

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot over the past few days and I think I’ve pinpointed what exactly is bothering me most about all of this.

All of the other “dangerous” locations I’ve visited haven’t been places that a lot of regular people visit. They haven’t been vacation destinations or destinations on many people’s “must visit lists” so the fact that they weren’t particularly safe wasn’t much of a surprise to me.

With Rio it’s different.

Rio is a major tourist destination with amazing sights and great food and yet everything I’m reading about it makes visiting the West Bank sound like a tempting alternative.

Most tourist destinations have a dark side to them but most are also not really all that dangerous (as long as you’re not completely stupid)….but I don’t think you can say the same about Rio.

With Rio it sounds like it could be quite easy to  take all the necessary and sensible precautions and still find yourself in a situation that you’d really rather not have to face….and that makes me seriously question whether I should be visiting.

I’d love to see Sugarloaf Mountain, the statue of Christ the Redeemer and Copacabana Beach but I’m not sure I want to see them enough to spend my time in Rio on constant high alert and unable to relax.

Image Mike Vondran via Flickr

The biggest issue I have is that I genuinely don’t know just how serious the situation there really is.

Is it as dangerous as the US/UK government agencies suggest or are they just covering themselves in case one of their citizens visits and meets an unfortunate end?

Is Rio as dangerous as some contributors on Facebook suggest or is that just a selection of unfortunate incidents that hides the reality?

The fact is this:

I have a couple of days to decide whether I should cancel my visit to Rio and immediately use my Iberia Avios for a different trip (the Avios will expire after 30 November) or if I should go ahead with my trip and simply make sure I take all the precautions I can. It’s as simple as that.

Right now I really don’t know what I’m going to do…..any advice?

Featured image courtesy of Gustavo Girard via Flickr

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21 COMMENTS

  1. FWIW I haven’t been to Brazil, so I;m not an expert. Yes you are elevating your risk level from your home town by visiting Rio, but is it the same as walking through a minefield? I am skeptical that if one acts appropriately as you describe that the risk is enough to make me not visit.

    With all that said, if YOU are having doubts, trust your gut. If you are going to be looking over your shoulder the entire time, it probably won’t be as enjoyable as a trip elsewhere.

    • I think that, if I go, the key will be to stop myself from looking over my shoulder all the time. You’re 100% right, there’s no point in going if I’m going to end up being the one who makes the trip miserable for me.

  2. I am writing this poolside at the MGallery Hotel in Santa Teresa Rio. Today is the last day in Brazil of our 2.5 week trip. My husband and I were in São Paulo, Foz do Iguazú, Rio (Ipanema), Armação dos Búzios, then back to Rio (Santa Teresa). We depart for home tomorrow. I organize all of my own trips and like you have traveled to some unsafe places (luckily without issue). After reading Brazil blogs, TripAdvisor, and other research, I had exactly the same concerns as you. I feared we would not enjoy this trip and would need to be in a constant state of readiness for something bad to happen. I can say (based on our experience only) Brazil was amazing, relaxing, chaotic, fun, and beautiful. Go, go go!!!

    We were smart. We tried to say understated, took only cash we needed, keep mobile phone use inconspicuous, etc.; however, there is no way possible for us not to stand out as tourists (two very pale Northern European guys).

    We did walk to/from dinner at night in Rio (Ipanema and Santa Teresa). We weren’t out past 11ish though. During the day we walked around everywhere without fear or issue. we did all the sights in Rio and they were amazing and (in our experience) safe.

    I know nothing is guaranteed. Be smart, be inconspicuous, carry a passport copy, keep credit cards in a waist pouch, and by all means…go to Rio!

    We have had an amazing time in every location we went in Brazil. I am so glad we did not change or cancel this trip.

    Enjoy!

    • Thanks so much for the comment – there’s something heartwarming about someone having a great time on a trip that I’ll never tire of hearing.

  3. I have been twice and loved it however, when talking to Brazilian friends they suggested waiting for a year to let things calm down a bit. I was planning on a mid winter break. The army are on patrol and this is expected to end on Dec 31st. So my opinion is, great city better to hold of for a while and see how things play out.

    • That was one of the thoughts I had too (hold off and visit at another point) but the counter argument to that are the questions when will it actually be the right time to go? and will it ever be “the right time to go”? I could be putting this off for ever if I’m not careful.

  4. I’d focus on the actual statistics and advise derived from those figures, more so than tourist trip reports which are merely standalone experiences that can skew one way or the other. A given individual can end up being the rare victim in a very safe spot, or the rare unmolested person in a very dangerous spot, for example. The first person will tell you “it’s unsafe – don’t go” and the second will tell you “it’s totally safe, don’t even worry”. That’s where overall statistics – while still imperfect – can be a better guide in your risk management/risk mitigation/risk avoidance decision-making.

    I don’t think you’re being overly worried but since you’ve already booked…with foreknowledge and sufficient precautions you can probably manage the risk to a reasonable level. I’ve been elsewhere in Brazil but Rio is one place that doesn’t interest me at all. There just isn’t that much there of interest to me in the first place – I’m not a partier…there are many, many nicer beaches other places…Christ the Redeemer would be OK to see in person I suppose but that’s about it. I can find good local food, culture, and scenery in other areas of the country, etc. Coupled with the very real crime rate, just no reason to waste vacation days there. Just my two cents though.

    A few years old but interesting look at some local scams:

    https://www.scamcities.com/scam-city-season-1-episode-3-rio-de-janeiro/

    • Thanks for the link (always good to know the more popular ways I could et scammed).

      I’m coming around to the idea that I probably shouldn’t let myself be put off from visiting somewhere where a lot of people visit without incident…but I’m having trouble shaking the gut feeling that something isn’t quite right.

      I’ve never had this feeling before in all my years of traveling and I think that’s what’s playing on my mind….but I’m also telling myself that I’m probably overanalysing a situation that requires no more analysis 🙂

  5. I’ve been to Rio and Brazil several times. While a lot of that exists, the frequency of it is not what Western media makes it seem. Not trying to be insensitive to those affected, but it’s like saying, “don’t visit California because they have earthquakes and wildfires and gangs”. Would that be a fair statement to make? I don’t think so. But, at the end of it all, if you don’t feel comfortable, there’s no need to go and not enjoy yourself.

    • That was one of my concerns – is the situation as bad as we’re told or is it a series of bad experiences that have been blown up to represent the situation as a whole.

      A big thing for me here is that I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t go places just because of a little apprehension – I’ve never been “that guy” and I’d really prefer I didn’t turn into that guy now 🙂

  6. I agree with Chris

    Last time i was in Rio, i stayed in Santa Teresa then at the Belmond Copacabana. With basic precautions I think it’s just… OK ! The main one we had from Santa teresa, as we were going out dancing samba a few streets away, was that we needed to avoid some streets on the way back at night.. every hotel will tell you, it’s really no big deal and RJ is totally worth it !

    Really . I used to live in Buenos Aires and travelled a lot to Colombia, so i’m kind of used to “basic precautions sometimes”, does not mean something will happen but i would not overthink it.. like, really

    Enjoy your trip. if you can, splurge on an helicopter ride 😉

    Sophie

    • Here’s the funny thing – I’ve visited Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo in the past few years and with both visits I knew that being “sensible” was the key to staying safe and having a good time….and I had a great time on both trips. This is why I’m not really sure why I’m suddenly allowing myself to get worried about Rio – the same theory should prevail, right?

      Thanks for the helicopter ride tip – if I go I’ll definitely look into it.

  7. FWIW, I’ve travelled to some fairly dodgy areas of supposedly dangerous countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Venezuela and Jamaica, to name just a few. Usually travelling alone and often going out at night. I have learned over the years to exercise caution, especially so if the neighbourhood is a little ‘iffy’.

    I have been mugged only once. Yes, that was in Rio. Broad daylight not far from the Copacabana Palace. I narrowly avoided a second incident a couple of days later. Nowhere in the world have I felt the need to have eyes in the back of my head at all times and that was nearly 20 years ago when things were not as bad as now.

    Would I go again? Yes – and you should too as it’s a great city. However, use extreme caution if walking alone and take taxis everywhere at night, no matter how short the distance. I remember being advised by seasoned expats to take a taxi from a bar to my hotel which could not have been more than a 100 yards away around a corner in a well lit area. I poo-poohed the idea on the first night (and arrived safely) got mugged the next day (in the afternoon) and always took a taxi after that!

  8. I spent a few days there last month. We stayed in a huge AirBnb in Botafogo, with a private rooftop terrace and a jacuzzi from which you could see Sugar Loaf mountain and Christ the Redeemer. Nobody was waiting outside our building to mug us, because we hadn’t painted a target on our backs by staying at one of the most upscale hotels in the city.

    If you want to blend in, don’t stay at a really expensive hotel?

  9. I’m Brazilian. I live in the south, and i’ve been to Rio twice this year. Well… it is a more dangerous place than normal, specially nowadays. But I don’t think it’s the case of canceling your trip. It’s an amazing city, great atmosphere, and really different from Europe, for example.

    You should stay alert, of course. Don’t take to much cash with you (but don’t leave it in your hotel room as well haha), avoid walking alone at the night in empty streets. Don’t visit a “favela” (slumps). There are a lot of tour to those places, and it’s very interesting. But these days it’s not a good Idea. Unfortunately, I recommend to avoid favelas, even if someone try to persuade you saying that it’s fine.

    And I really recommend you taking Uber instead taxis. It’s safe and it’s harder to fool you as a tourist.

    You can go to a “ensaio de escola de samba”. A very peculiar samba party of the samba’s schools of the carnival. I recommend “salgueiro”. It’s a very nice “escola de samba” and it takes place in a not dangerous place. Usually it’s ok to buy the ticket there, and you can take Uber without difficulties.

    Be welcoming to Brazil and have a lot of fun!

  10. […] Last week I wrote about some of the concerns I’ve been having surrounding a trip that I have planned to Rio de Janeiro next year and, as so many of you were kind enough to email in with your thoughts and kind enough to comment on the blog, I thought I’d follow up and let you know what I (finally) decided to do. […]

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