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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?
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.
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?!
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!
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.
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