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Tips for Staying Safe in Rio

Last week, my iPhone got stolen.

I was walking through the streets of Lapa at 6AM after a night out (’cause no, I’m not that much of an early bird!), and some punk subtly reached into my purse and grabbed it as he walked past me. My purse was open (yes, I know, not the smartest idea in retrospect…) but only because there was so much stuff in it that I couldn’t close it!

As soon as the sneaky thief took my phone, I noticed and confronted him, but he played dumb and somehow got away with it. I didn’t think it was worth it to fight him off. Sadly, a lotta Brazilians out there are pickpocketing experts and you’ve ALWAYS gotta have your guard up when walking around.

Just a few days before, my iPhone almost got stolen when I was walking down a busy street in Copacabana, using Google Maps on my phone to navigate.  Someone came up from behind me and tried to grab the phone out of my hands. Luckily I was holding it pretty tightly so nothing happened. But it was alarming, especially since this happened in broad daylight on a busy street!

The good news? I learned a bit from my own experience…AND those of others. Here are a few tips for staying safe in Rio (or any other city in Brazil):

Don’t flash your belongings 

As I found out the hard way, walking down the street with a smartphone out is a surefire way to get robbed. If you need to use your phone (for Google Maps or whatever), then step into a shop to do so. But never take it out on the street.

If you wanna snap a photo of a hot shirtless guy or an adorable dog, then go for it. But first, look around you for any sketchy dudes.

Close your bags and hug them to your chest  

Second lesson learned: ALWAYS close your bags. And hold them tightly to your chest. Don’t have them swinging by your waist.  

Even if you’re at a restaurant, don’t put your bag down on the seat next to you. Some chairs in restaurants have belts to which you can secure your bag.

Be wary of overly friendly strangers

I spoke to another American girl who told me that her cell phone was stolen two times the first two months she was here. One time, she was kissing her boyfriend at Carnival and someone unzipped her purse without her knowing…and another time, she was on the bus and someone started talking to her to distract her and then reached into her bag to take her phone.  

As she said, “they really are professionals here!” You have to stay extra vigilant, since most of the pickpocketers steal from their victims before they’re even aware of what’s happening. So keep your guard up and be wary of overly friendly strangers who approach you.

Leave the valuables at home

This is especially true if you’re going on a hike or to the beach. Many robberies take place on the hiking trails. And mass robberies (aka arrastoes) are a common occurrence on the beaches. This is where a gang of people will come to the beach and try to steal everything in sight. True story.

My roommate made the mistake of bringing his iPad to the beach during his first week in Rio. Next thing he knows, it was stolen (he DID end up getting it back, but not without a fight…which is probably something that you shouldn’t attempt).  If you DO bring valuables to the beach, just don’t fall asleep or it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will wake up with less than you came with.  And if you go in the water, it’s common practice in Brazil to ask your neighbor to watch your stuff for you.

Be careful at ATMs

Need I say more?

Lock your car doors

Thieves will often rob you while you’re at a traffic light. The best way to avoid this is to lock all car doors and try not to drive around deserted areas, especially at night.

Be smart with transportation 

Walking home at night in Rio isn’t safe. Period.

While taking a cab is better than taking the bus or walking home, even that has its risks. I’ve heard horrific stories of people (mostly females) being raped or nearly killed by their taxi driver. The only safe way to order a cab is to call for one. I’ve been told to never hail a taxi off the street (as tempting as it can be in the wee hours of the morning).  If you do, at least make that the taxi is licensed (you should see a license sticker in the front window and the company name on the rear of the vehicle).

Don’t take busses after 11PM. And if you do, make sure you sit towards the front of the bus, as close to the driver as possible (you should probably do this any time of the day tbh).

Stay in the right areas 

The Zona Sul, while subject to petty crimes and robberies, is generally fairly safe, as long as you have your antenna up.

Santa Teresa and Lapa are two of my favorite neighborhoods, but can be dangerous. Lapa is busy at night, so you’ll be okay if you stay alert. But Santa Teresa can be pretty deserted, so don’t walk around there at night.

Centro is perfectly fine during the day, but don’t go at night.

The favelas get a bad rep, but overall, I found the ones by Zona Sul to be fairly safe (since most of them are pacified).  Believe it or not, but the majority of violence in favelas is actually caused by the corrupt police, NOT the drug traffickers.  If you want to check out the favelas (which are home to some of the best views and parties in Rio), only going with a local or someone who’s been there before and knows their way around.

Bottom line: Stay clear of any area that looks deserted, especially at night. And when in doubt, just call a cab.

If you keep you guard up and don’t walk around with a lotta valuables, chances are, you’ll be fine.

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