Brazil is one of the largest and most diverse countries in the world. Ecosystems range from the wet Amazon Rainforest, to the dry desert of the northeast, to the tropical wetlands of the Pantanal in the south. You can find just as much variation in the cities of Brazil as in the wildlife. While Portuguese is spoken throughout the country, accents vary depending on the region you’re in, and other languages such as Spanish, German, Italian, and native Indian languages are also spoken.
Holiday beachgoers tend to flock to the Atlantic coast of Brazil, where some of the best swimming, surfing, and snorkeling beaches can be found. The adventurous types can find plenty of excitement in the Amazon (no, not that Amazon!) and national parks such as Chapada Diamantina. Many cities in Brazil are rich in culture and history, dating back to when the region was first colonized by the Portuguese. And of course, there is Rio de Janeiro, the tourist capital of Brazil, home to the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer and Copacabana beach.
Regardless if your motives for visiting Brazil are business, leisure, or adventure, it’s important to keep safety in mind while traveling. The variety in wildlife, food, and culture in Brazil is accompanied by a variety of crime and methods of theft. While the beaches may be beautiful, a relaxing vacation can quickly be ruined by a single pickpocket making off with your cash or cell phone. To properly enjoy your stay in Brazil, take preventative measures to divert potential incidents of theft and research the region you will be visiting to learn about any specific dangers associated with it.
Street Theft in Brazil and How to Avoid It
Brazil’s cities are big, noisy, and crowded, with plenty of opportunities for thieves to snatch purses and wallets, or make off with an unprotected backpack. In smaller, rural towns, things might not be so crowded, but visitors are easily distinguishable from the local population, making them easy targets for crime.
Beware of teenagers on bikes; one of the most common crimes in Brazil is bag-snatching where the thief rides past quickly on a bicycle and grabs a loosely held backpack or purse. Since the owner of the bag is traveling on foot, it’s usually impossible to retrieve the stolen item.
While you’re walking, keep your backpack strapped tightly to your back. Having an extra chest or waist strap can also be helpful, since it’s a further deterrent for thieves. If you prefer carrying a purse or bag, it’s helpful to have one with a shoulder strap that you can wear across the chest. Whenever you need to open your bag to retrieve something, stop walking and check your surroundings before you open the bag and make sure it’s tightly shut and secured before continuing.
Especially in large, tourist-heavy cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Sao Paulo, some thieves will go farther and carry a knife to cut the straps of a backpack or bag. While this type of crime isn’t as common, if you’re carrying expensive or particularly valuable items it can be worth investing in a bag with slash-proof lining both in the straps and the main compartment. Pacsafe has a large line of theft-preventative travel accessories, many of which include wire mesh lining designed specifically for this purpose. Backpacks like the Metrosafe LS450 Antitheft, and the Venturesafe EXP45 work well as carry-on bags and shorter distance packs. If you prefer a purse, go for one like the Pacsafe Citysafe CX Convertible Crossbody Bag, with a crossbody strap enhanced with anti-slash material.
Depending on what city you travel to, sometimes it can be easy to avoid the more dangerous, poorer areas. In the capitals of Recife and Maceio in the north, the favelas, or slums, are easy to avoid. In contrast, Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia and a popular tourist destination particularly for people interested in Brazilian history, is structured in such a way that a classy hotel may practically have a favela in their backyard. In places where you must walk through more dangerous neighborhoods to reach a bus station or restaurant it’s even more important to take preventative measures and buy the right equipment to keep your possessions safe.
Be careful to not overdo it on gear though; expensive-looking backpacks, flashy bags, and high-tech gadgets all attract a lot of attention, especially in poorer regions. In areas heavily populated with tourists like metro stations, airports, and museums, fancier bags won’t stand out so much. However, if you need to take a city bus to a more run-down area of a city or are visiting a smaller town in Brazil, expensive equipment will act like a lighthouse beacon.
Sometimes the best form of protection is camouflage rather than higher technology. Put your phone and wallet in an old grocery bag along with some cheap, tourist trinkets and no one will suspect that you’re actually carrying valuable items. Thieves won’t want to waste their time trying to take something that won’t be of any benefit to them.
In larger cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, pickpocketing is an issue for both locals and tourists. Wherever streets become crowded enough for people to be physically pressed against each other, these areas are a prime location for pickpockets.
The best way to avoid falling victim to pick-pocketing is to get in the habit of carrying valuable possessions in places other than pockets. While it can be tempting to slip your wallet or cell phone into a back pocket or sweatshirt pouch, this is exactly the type of thing thieves watch for, since in the rush and bustle of pedestrian traffic on city streets it’s easy to bump into someone and quickly snatch these items.
For small items like money or phones, it’s a good idea to purchase a money belt or similar item that can be worn underneath your clothing. I personally bought a Deuter, under the clothes travel wallet, with a shoulder strap instead of a waist band. It’s small and thin enough to not be noticeable underneath a t-shirt, but large enough to fit my cell phone, money, credit card, and passport together if necessary. Eagle Creek also makes highly reviewed money belts to wear around your waist; something basic like the Eagle Creek Undercover Money Belt DLX is enough to keep cash out of sight and reach.
Victims of armed robberies are usually people who are walking alone at night in large cities. The situation typically involves one or two people on a motorbike or other faster form of transportation cornering an individual, presenting a weapon, and demanding money or possessions. For large cities such as Sao Paulo, the United Sates Bureau of Diplomatic Security has issued warning about the high crime rates.
It’s not advisable to go walking alone at night in any city of Brazil, and in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in particular, it’s important to have transportation planned in advance if you’re going out during dark hours.
Attempting to fight back or negotiate with armed robbers is not advisable, and in situations like these even protected bags aren’t of much use. To minimize the likelihood of being robbed, never wear fancy, exposed jewelry or watches and keep cell phones out of site. Also carry cash in a few different places; this could save you from losing all your money at once and divert attention from items like a cell phone or credit card that could be kept in a different place. Chances are the thieves will be satisfied with the cash and will want to make a quick get-away instead of hanging around seeing if you have other valuables.
Another danger zone for armed robberies to occur are smaller, rural villages, since tourists tend to stand out more in these locations. If you do plan to visit off-the-beaten path destinations, it’s advisable to have a secure contact in these areas since hotels and other accommodations aren’t easy to find. As in large cities, avoid the streets at night unless you’re with a group of trusted people and carry cash in a few places at all times.
Transportation Security: Ride Safely
Taxis can be a convenient option for tourists, particularly when traveling with larger suitcases or bags since public buses tend to be so crowded. However, taxis remain one of the most common ways travelers are scammed in the Brazil.
When I landed in Recife, my only option at the time was to take a taxi from the airport to my first destination. I noticed when I got into the cab the meter was already running even before the ride began, and continued to run after we reached the apartment building I was going to. Due to my lack of Portuguese and the stress beginning a new journey, I decided to let this one go, and I paid the extra money.
In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro there are warnings displayed at the airports and bus terminals telling travelers to not accept rides from unregistered cabs. People will wait for tourists who look confused or have a large amount of luggage with them, and then offer them a cheap ride to wherever they are going. Often these people will charge extra at the end of the ride, or in more serious cases will steal your belongings.
A cheaper and safer alternative to taxis, especially in large cities, is the ubiquitous Uber, which is here too. As each ride is tracked by GPS, it’s always in the driver’s best interest to bring you to your destination using the shortest route possible. Since you can link a credit card to your Uber account, you also eliminate the need for a cash exchange for your ride.
In small cities and towns, motor taxis are more common than cabs. If you don’t speak Portuguese, these rides can be a bit more difficult to arrange, but it’s still manageable. Look for motor taxi riders wearing a company logo t-shirt and who are waiting at a designated motor taxi stop. Tell them where you need to go and make sure the price is arranged before you begin the ride; if you know a local, ask them approximately how much the ride should cost to make sure you aren’t overcharged. You can have cash already prepared so you don’t have to open a bag or pull out your wallet.
Brazilian buses have a reputation for being unsafe and dangerous, particularly for tourists, but during my travels I’ve never witnessed or experienced any problems. You should still exercise caution on buses, since they tend to be crowded and offer the opportunity for pickpockets to slip a hand into an unprotected bag.
If you have a backpack, you can carry it on your chest while boarding, riding, and disembarking from the bus. Purses and bags should be shut, and held in front of you, not hanging off to the side where they are more exposed. Check how much the bus costs before boarding and have the appropriate fair ready so you don’t have to get out your wallet once you’re on board. Most Brazilian buses have a sign in the front window with the word tarifa or preco de passagem and then the cost of the bus. If you can’t find the exact cost, have a R$10 bill ready to pay and figure out the exact price from the change. There is typically a driver and a money collector on Brazilian buses, and sitting closer to the front where they are seated helps ensure that no one will attempt to take anything. You can also tell the money collector the name of your bus stop to make sure you get off at the right place since bus stops usually aren’t well marked.
Getting a wrist pouch to hold a little bit of cash and maybe a spare credit card is helpful on buses. It is easier to accept and transfer change and then you don’t have to worry about carrying loose cash in your pocket or trying to open your bag to get out your wallet. The Walker Arm Wallet Wrist Pouch is also enhanced with RFID-blocking material to protect your credit card information. .
The biggest cities in Brazil have a metro system, and they are typically one of the safer and faster transportation methods. Once you’re inside the metro terminal, surveillance cameras and guards make theft and crime more difficult. Just with the buses, metros tend to be very crowded, particularly during rush hour, so keeping your backpack on your chest or placing your hand over your purse makes sure no one attempts to steal something.
Typically, the most difficult part of riding the metro is getting to the station. When a friend was in Salvador, Bahia, the metro stop he needed to reach was located in a slightly more dangerous neighborhood, and he had to be more cautious walking to the station. Once inside, it’s not a guaranteed safe zone, but it’s safer. This pocket of relative safety is not unlike what you may experience in, say, Chicago, Paris, or Istanbul.
Biking and Walking
A cheap and convenient form of transportation in large and small cities alike is biking and walking. Larger cities often have bikes for rent where you can pay for a daily, weekly, or monthly pass to use the bicycles parked and locked at public racks. Since many locals also use biking as a form of transportation you attract much less attention. The most dangerous part of biking tends to be the traffic; since sidewalks are generally unsuitable for bikes because of the number of holes and broken concrete, you have to use bike lanes or public roads in places that do not have bike lanes. If you decide to carry a bag with you while biking, either a backpack or something that can be hung on the handlebars are your best options. Using city bikes also has the advantage that you don’t have to worry so much about your bike being stolen. Personal bicycles are often taken even if they have a lock on them to be sold for parts, or there are also incidents when another biker will purposefully run into you to knock you off your bike, so an accomplice can rush over, snatch the bike, and peddle away with it.
Some walking is always involved in traveling, but if you plan on exploring more of Brazil on foot, you should be prepared to take some extra precautions. A lot depends on how a city is structured. In places like Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, favelas are intermixed in the rest of the city; one wrong turn and suddenly you’re in a very different neck of the woods. Downloading Google Maps (Android, iOS), if it’s not already installed, or another GPS map on your phone is advisable, but sometimes it’s not safe to take out a device, so you can also carry a printed map of the region you plan on walking to. Even though Sao Paulo is bigger than Rio de Janeiro, the favelas tend to be more separated and easier to avoid.
Don’t be afraid to ask for directions if you get lost. Look for people in business suits, older women with shopping bags, or mothers with children, since they are more likely to be willing to help a stranger. You can try asking in English, and farther south in Brazil in big cities it’s more likely you’ll find someone who understands a little English. Even if the person only speaks Portuguese, I’ve had lots of success by just telling them the name of my final destination and then working out directions based on gestures. Knowing the Portuguese for basic words such as right, left, and forward also help. However, if someone comes up to you offering help, be very cautious. This is almost always a scam; the person is either planning on charging you a hefty service fee, or they may have more malicious intentions to rob you, especially if they can see you’re carrying potentially valuable possessions.
Having a comfortable, secure backpack is important, particularly if you’re walking around a lot. Multiple straps, preferably wire-enforced to reduce the chances of the straps being cut, is a good idea. The downside to nicer backpacks is that they tend to attract more attention; while it may seem counterintuitive, messing up your new backpack to make it look cheap and old can save it from becoming a target for thieves.
Scams: Don’t Get Taken
Brazil is an emerging economy, but it has a great deal of poverty. As a result, many people are always on the look-out for ways to make even a little bit of money. Regardless of what your financial situation actually is, tourists are pegged as rich foreigners with lots of extra money and fancy belongings. This is not different from many, even most, of the world’s poorer countries. This stereotype, along with the confusion that naturally comes with being in a new country, makes tourists the targets of a number of money-related scams.
One of the most difficult scams to avoid is that the fact that often tourists and foreigners are charged more than locals, even with public services. When you’re taking a ferry boat from Porto Seguro, you may be surprised to notice that everyone else at the ticket office is only charged R$2 while your ticket costs R$3.50. It’s not a big difference, but you may find the disparity owed to your obvious lack of Portuguese.
Sometimes these price changes can’t be avoided, but in many cases if you check the price with locals beforehand, you can refuse the service if the person is charging too much. Chances are you will be able to find a different van driver or boatman who is willing to serve you for the correct price.
Another common scam to which tourists fall victim is the so-called tour guides who offer to show you around a city or navigate a trail. Even if they insist their service is free, they almost always demand payment when they are finished showing you around, usually at an exorbitant price. If you refuse to pay them, they can sometimes become violent and steal your belongings instead. Calmly and politely refuse when someone comes up offering to show you around. Proper tours can be booked through agencies where you will know all the costs and what is included beforehand.
If you have a rental car in Brazil, locals will often offer to watch the vehicle when they see you parking. They usually only ask for one or two reals, but often they won’t even stay by the car as soon as you leave. The downside is that if you don’t pay them the money, there is a good chance you will find the car vandalized or damaged in some way when you return. In these situations, it’s better to hand over a few coins than risk your tire being punctured or having scratches put in the side of your car.
Hotel and Accommodation Security: Secure Your Digs
Most hotels in Brazil are safe for tourists, and particularly in larger cities many of them have staff fluent in multiple languages. It’s worth doing a bit of research before your trip to find hotels with locked safes. While it isn’t as common, theft from hotel rooms can still sometimes be an issue, so locking money and valuables ensures it won’t be taken. Depending on where you want to explore, it can also be a better idea to leave valuables like your passport, phone, and money in a locked safe rather than carry them with you.
Another common type of accommodation found in Brazil are pousadas, which are more like the equivalent of a bed & breakfast. The benefits of pousadas are that they are generally much cheaper, they often have home-cooked meal options, and are typically individually owned-businesses. The downside is that they rarely have safes, are sometimes a bit run down, and some owners will try to scam tourists, usually by charging more than the actual price if you pay in cash. Incidents like this are rare, and easy to avoid if you find a pousada that has an account on platforms like booking.com and Airbnb where you can read reviews and pay using a credit card online. Pousadas are a great way to experience local culture and tend to have a homier atmosphere than hotels.
The cheapest places to stay in Brazil are hostels, and depending on the type of travel you’re doing, they can be a very convenient and budget-friendly option. It’s not advisable to just show up at a hostel, since there is a greater likelihood that hostels are located in unsafe areas, that the owners only speak Portuguese, or that they will try to charge you extra for your room. Hostelworld is a great option to find hostels, since it allows people to review the hostel and to make reservations online, eliminating the need for a cash transaction with the owner that might include surprise expenses if they realize you’re a foreigner.
In the case you do stay somewhere without a locked safe, buying a pack with a lock can put your mind at ease when you go out during the day. Kensington makes a series of packs called SecureTrek; these come in different sizes including backpacks, rolling suitcases, and bags, all designed to carry laptops. The bags are equipped with anti-puncture zippers with a hammerhead lock. You can purchase the Kensington Combination Portable Cable Lock for Laptops, which allows you to lock your bag to a fixed object to ensure someone doesn’t carry it away.
Other Theft Threats in Brazil
If you plan on visiting any of Brazil’s beautiful beaches, be extra careful about what you decide to bring with you, since beaches are one of the most common places to be robbed. The best option is to just bring a towel, sunscreen, and other trivial beach items that aren’t at a risk of being stolen. If you decide to take your phone along for pictures, you can buy a waterproof pouch; these are often sold on the beach and are a convenient way to hang your phone around your neck and make sure it remains dry. Rio de Janeiro in particular is known for its high crime rates on beaches, so it’s always a good idea to visit the beach with a group of people rather than by yourself.
It’s always a good idea to carry some cash with you when you travel in Brazil. Credit cards are a more convenient form of payment, but not all stores have machines that accept foreign cards, and some smaller stores require payment in cash only. When you’re running low on cash and need to withdraw more from an ATM, plan where you’re going to go to get the money. ATMs at bus stations and metro stations aren’t advisable, since sometimes thieves will wait to see when someone withdraws money to select their next target. Large banks such as Bradesco and Banco do Brasil are generally safer options and these locations also tend to have guards on the premises. Another option is to find a larger supermarket with an ATM; since this is not a typical “tourist” stop and it’s more difficult for someone to loiter without attracting attention, there is very little likelihood of being robbed.
It is especially important to have a safe place to store money when you withdraw cash from an ATM. If you have a rental car and can drive to the ATM, this may be the only time it would be advisable to put cash in your pocket to keep it safe until you reach your hotel. If you have to walk or take a taxi or an Uber, place with withdrawn money in a separate wallet or pouch. Ӧgon Smart Wallets has created a wallet that features a lock with a three-digit code. This may slow you down a bit, but the added layer of protection is beneficial for large cash withdrawals.
The Final Word on Safety in Brazil
Even though Brazil has a reputation for being a more dangerous country to visit, if you plan your trip carefully and take the right precautions, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to have a smooth and successful visit.
Big cities are big tourist destinations, and likewise big crime areas. It’s never advisable to walk around after dark, and be careful about what you decide to carry with you. Use theft preventative gear and disguise valuables to make them appear cheap and worthless to divert attention.
Having your itinerary planned out-what museums you’re going to visit, how you’re going to get there, what hotel you’re staying at, etc.-make it easier to focus your attention on keeping your belongings safe and lessens the likelihood of being scammed. Always be mindful of your surroundings and the people around you, but don’t get too preoccupied that you forget to enjoy the sunny beaches, historic architecture, and tropical wildlife of Brazil.
Resources: For more information on protecting yourself from theft and scams in Brazil, check out the following:
WorldNomads – Insurance and information site
Embassies in Brazil – Handy to know where yours is and to check out travel warnings
Brazil Travel Information – Good general resource