Brazil is on the brain.
Whenever it’s been a long day of tours and talking, I find myself fantasizing about the 2 and a half months I spent in South America. I dream of once again doing some (pseudo) samba in the streets of Lapa or of taking a midnight buggy ride round the sanddunes of Natal. I envision myself floatin’ seaside with half a dozen dolphins or simply starfishing in my bed after too much Carne de Sol (face down, pants unbuttoned).
And I know I’m not the only one whose mind has been infiltrated with thoughts of Brazil.
The start of South America’s summer season is fast approaching, the World Cup is now less than a year away, and all of the political riots plaguing the country at the moment have put Brazil in the center spotlight. It seems as if the entire globe is watching and waiting to see if Brazil — a country with a long history of political corruption and high crime rates — can successfully and safely host one of the biggest events on the planet.
It’s tough to predict what will happen. I’m hopeful, and have a lot of faith in my beloved Brazil. However, I also realize that those who are planning trips down there to witness the World Cup first hand are nervous about what to expect in terms of safety.
Lately, 80% of the poor souls who accidentally stumble across my blog are searching things related to Brazil, and of those, a majority are seeking out information on safety.
Understandable. One day I should tackle the topic, methought every time I saw this.
But then, two days ago, I saw that someone had found my blog after punching in “safe to travel to brazil while blonde?”
And that was it. The public has spoken. It’s about damn time I write about the issue of safety in Brazil.
Is Brazil safe?
This is really a moot inquiry. First, keep in mind that Brazil is HUGE. The country is the 5th largest in the world, and even bigger than the continental United States. It’s also incredibly diverse. Cultural traditions, accents, and landscape vary greatly. Approach the question of safety in Brazil in the same manner that you’d approach safety in your own country — totally relative to specific location, time of day, and situation.
Back when I wrote the post on 6 things to know before traveling to Brazil, I revealed that Brazil is my favorite country. I absolutely fell in love with the people, the culture, the food — sigh, the list could go on and on. If during my time there I felt constantly unsafe and ill at ease, then Brazil would never have made it to the top of my list. That being said, there are certain things — whether they be cultural idiosyncrasies or basic travel know-hows — that I believe everyone should be cognitive of before heading to Brazil. Hence, the following.
Backpacking Brazil while female (and blonde)
Mia and I are both tall, blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed American gals. I’ve got the upper-body strength of a seal and zero experience in self-defense (minus 3 months of Tae Kwon Do in the 7th grade — but let’s be real, I just wanted to wear the pretty white robe). Mia is equally nonthreatening — though her early morning stanky face is fierce — and she even has the misfortune of being somewhat attractive . In other words, by genetic default and statistically speaking, we are the type of travelers most commonly targeted in cases of sexual assault and theft.
I take safety very seriously. Ask any of my close friends and they’ll confirm that I ebb on the side of hypochondria. I don’t mess around when it comes to the possibility of endangering myself.
However, I’m also a stubborn feminist who really doesn’t believe women should feel afraid or limited in their travels because they are women. The unfortunate reality of traveling as a female is that there are extra precautions that need to be taken for the sake of safety. However, those precautions are exceedingly easy to adhere to. Familiarize yourself with the country and adjust to the circumstances. Avoid walking alone at night. Pay a few extra bucks to take a cab when necessary. Don’t get so drunk that you lose control of your senses. Use common sense.
Sure, there are some things that Mia and I had to deal with while traveling that two dudes in our place probably wouldn’t have, namely shouts, whistles, and other forms of verbal sexual harassment. Brazil is a patriarchal culture. Though the constant catcalls can be bothersome and are clearly disrespectful, feigning ignorance to such pursuits was usually enough to end the badgering. As a side note, I’ll mention that we definitely received more attention in the northeast of the country. Fair features are far less common there than in the south where there is a much greater European influence. Thus, we gained quite the celebrity status as being the “tall, blonde, American girls” during our month bartending in Natal.
Occasionally, the advances of strangers escalated beyond the average hoot or holler. We found some Brazilian men to be quite aggressive in their desire to play boyfriend for the night. Fortunately, good ol’ Jenna Marbles taught me how to cope with this years ago (apologies for the explicit language, but you’ll thank me later for the hilarity that ensues).
Dealing with transportation: buses, trains, cabs, and ride shares
The bus system in Brazil is pretty awesome. Long distance buses vary in quality, but generally speaking they are much more luxurious than buses in the US or Europe. The seats are more comfortable, there is more leg room, and they are extremely safe. For long ride, the bus will stop every few hours to allow guests to sit down for a meal. Occasionally, a person selling drinks and snacks will be picked up along the way, sell said items on bus, and then be dropped off at the next stop. If traveling with a backpack or some sort of large luggage, you’ll be asked to store it beneath the bus. Each item is tagged and the guest is then given a receipt. When you arrive at your destination, the bus driver will assist in fetching your luggage, and most are very strict about requiring guests to show their receipts before their luggage can be returned. This is good, as it ensures the security of your bag — but just be sure not to lose that receipt!
Local buses are a different story. Though probably the most efficient way to get around a city, local buses are far less safe or comfortable. It’s important to pay close attention to your belongings during the ride. I’d avoid taking the bus at nighttime or when traveling with all your belongings in tow. On the first night Mia arrived in Brazil, we had the intention of taking a bus to our hostel. However, when we walked over to the bus stop, we got some really bad vibes. There were lots of men at the bus stop, and many began to ogle us or incessantly ask for money — which in itself isn’t particularly dangerous or (unfortunately) unusual as we’d later learn. However, there was something particularly unnerving about that situation that made us decide to head back to the airport and hail a cab, rather than risk getting on the bus with all our stuff. I was glad we made this decision. About an hour after we arrived, two Aussie girls showed up at our hostel in hysterics as they told the receptionist that they’d just been robbed of all their belongings while taking that same bus from the airport to the hostel. I rode public buses many times, and I’d highly recommend them as they’re cheap, (relatively) reliable, and an experience in themselves — just be sure you assess the situation beforehand.
Trains are less commonly used, more expensive, and less reliable. I never used a train while traveling in Brazil, so I’ll refrain from commenting — other than to say that I have only heard bad things about the system.
Taxis are a less affordable, but an extremely safe way to travel through a city. If you’re ever in a precarious situation, don’t hesitate to catch a cab. However, also expect to pay the “Gringo” rate rather than the local rate, which can be astronomically higher. I found cab drivers in Salvador to be the worst for this.
Ride shares. These are very popular in Rio, and by far the fastest and cheapest way to get around. The vans run up and down the main streets of the city (essentially along the streets that line Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana beaches), and pick up pedestrians on the way. One man drives the van and then another has his head out of the window, hollering at people to see if anyone needs a ride. If you’re interested, just wave them down and hop inside, and then when you near your destination, tell the driver and they’ll let you off. I absolutely loved this system as it was MUCH faster than taking the bus, and also a lot of fun as the van was usually bumpin’ good music. Plus, the chaos of stopping to pick people up, and then speeding away made for a fun and exciting atmosphere. Unfortunately, a few weeks after I got home from Brazil I read a story about a Dutch couple who was attacked while riding in one of these vans. The man was beaten up, while the woman was raped. Absolutely horrendous story, and it was frightening to think that Mia and I had used this system so frequently. However, despite the tragedy of this incident, I’d still use the ride share if I were to return to Brazil. Certainly there are risks involved, and what happened to that couple is absolutely horrific. Yet, it’s important to recognize that it was also an isolated incident. I don’t mean to suggest that it had never happened before, or that it will never happen again (unfortunately, I’m sure it has and I’m sure it will), but that experience does not reflect the standard for every other ride share experience.
Keep your valuables safe and stored away
Only carry the absolute essentials during your time out and about. After a while, I became very comfortable with bringing my iPhone with me to Ponte Negra (main beach in Natal) but only after about a week of lounging there. In contrast, I never felt that same sort of comfort in bringing my phone to a beach in Rio or Salvador. The beach is an especially popular location for unsuspecting tourists to be robbed, and thus you must take some real precautions.Ultimately, whether you choose to or not, be sure never leave those valuables unattended while flopping about in the ocean or while snoozing after too many Pina Coladas.
While walking around a city, don’t draw added attention to yourself by flashing expensive cameras or an iPhone. Listening to music is fine on long bus rides, but I’d advise against wearing earphones while riding local buses or wandering unfamiliar streets. Also, consider investing in a money belt. Up until Brazil, I was vehemently opposed to money belts. I thought them impractical, bulky, and made for amateur travelers. I cursed every tourist I saw wearing one (though, to be fair, this is because most of said tourists were ignorant enough to shove their hands down their pants every time they needed a fiver — which OBVIOUSLY defeats the purpose AND makes you look like a pervert). However, I reluctantly purchased a money belt in preparation for Brazil and was very glad I did. Wearing it while in transit with all my belongings (i.e. at bus stations, when walking to a new hostel, etc.) gave me a real feeling of comfort.
Be particularly cautious of your belongings when going out at night. In Lapa, we were told to literally leave everything at the hostel besides some cash and an I.D., which we found to be sound advice. A lot of theft occurs during late night rendevous, so leave your phone and camera in your room, and be sure that money isn’t bulging out of your pockets.
Visiting a favela in Rio and meeting a drug cartel boss
It’s impossible to address the question of safety without referencing the presence of favelas in Brazil. The favelas of Rio gained global recognition after the release of the 2002 film City of God. Favelas are Brazilian slums or shanty towns, most of which developed in the 1970s as poorer individuals from rural areas across the country migrated to cities. Unable to afford the cost of living, many of these people were forced to move into the favelas, increasing the population of these neighborhoods to the tens — sometimes hundreds — of thousands.
The process reminds me a lot of the issue of gentrification here in DC. . . though to a much much more drastic and devastating degree. Unable to find support from the government, citizens of the favelas turned to drug cartels to maintain order in the neighborhoods. The favelas were an ideal location for the drug trade to run rampant as the trade itself provided economic support and the cartels who ran it ensured a sense of safety and stability that had otherwise been lacking due to the lack of law enforcement or the presence of the federal government.
So, are these favelas really dangerous? I’d say some of them definitely can be, at least for a “Gringo.” Others have been “cleaned up” in the last 5-10 years or so, and are no more dangerous than any other neighborhood. Many people believe that the only reason for the government’s newfound interest in favelas is the World Cup, which has only added more controversy to an already very complex issue.
Our British friend Sophie took a very lax approach to the favelas. She stayed in hostels located in different favelas, and even walked through one of the more dangerous ones in Salvador despite warnings against doing so. If asked, she would probably tell you that the rumors you hear about favelas being “unsafe” are rubbish, and that you should most certainly visit one. Hmm, perhaps she’s right, but remember that you will be putting yourself at risk.
Today, some of the favelas that have been gentrified are even somewhat of a tourist attraction. People can sign up for tours and learn more about the history of the favelas, as well as see what life is like there today. I seriously considered taking one of these tours as I am very interested in the subject, but ultimately I decided not to as it just seemed too voyeuristic and weird. Plus, we eventually ended up going to a favela on our own.
One Saturday night, Mia and I were out in Lapa. Being the chatty cat that she is, Mia quickly befriended an Italian fellow who was eager to introduce us to his Brazilian friend — a gentleman probably in his 40s or 50s who spoke no English. I paid little attention to him at first, and even accidentally stepped on his foot at one point. It wasn’t until the Italian told us that his friend’s name was “the King” and that he lived in a mansion in the favela overlooking Leblon that I realized — holy shit, this guy has got to be a drug cartel boss. I mean, you don’t just get the name “the King” for nothing. And I stepped on his foot!!! We tried to gingerly remove ourselves from the situation after this realization, but Mr. King wanted a few more words. “He would like to invite you both to a party at his house,” the Italian relayed to us. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t consider going for just a minute (sorry Mom!). We’d heard stories about just how amazing favela parties can be. Though the neighborhoods themselves are quite poor, the homes of the drug lords who run them are some of the most luxurious in the city. Plus, they throw ridiculously dope parties. However, we knew it wouldn’t be safe to attend. Though entering into a favela at the invitation of “the King” would certainly have been much safer than wandering in on our own, it would also force us to live within the laws of that neighborhood , and thus leaving us very vulnerable to victimization. We politely decline and then excused ourselves from the conversation (right after I profusely apologized for placing my dirty sandal on his Highness’s white sneaker).
We didn’t make it to a favela that evening, but we did eventually visit one about a week later. One of the many benefits of going to Brazil in the months leading up to Carnaval is that you can go to a samba schools around the country. These schools are not places where you go to learn how to dance. Rather, they are essentially big dance parties where some of the top performers of Carnaval practice their moves in front of thousands of spectators who are then encouraged to join along. The dancing and costumes are incredible. There were even fireworks at the school Mia and I attended one Saturday night. It was heaps of fun and I really wish I had photos to commemorate that night, however I decided against it as I knew that this particular school (like most samba schools) was located in a favela.
I felt perfectly safe all night, though I also certainly felt alert of myself and my belongings. The draw of the samba school meant that there were hundreds of people on the streets, which actually made me feel much more comfortable. If that hadn’t of been the case, I probably wouldn’t have gone.
Safety in Brazil then, now, and during the World Cup
All of my opinions on safety in Brazil are based off my experience traveling there from November 2012 – January 2013. In the last few months, tensions have grown and crime rates have increased. The other day, I was chatting with a Brazilian friend who lives in Rio and he said that Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon have all gotten much more dangerous in recent months because of all the riots. When traveling to Brazil, remember that there is a learning curve to understanding the cultural idyosyncrasies and safety precautions of the country. Take your time in adapting to that shift. Laws differ greatly from country to country; what is legal here in the U.S. might not fly in Brazil (or vice versa). Also keep in mind that, though not true of all Brazilian law enforcement officers, police corruption is a reality.
At the end of the conversation, I asked my friend if he thought the crime would continue, or perhaps even worsen, throughout the World Cup. His response? “No. Brazilians care too much about soccer to allow that to happen.” Let’s hope so.
Happy travels. Boa noite.