Brazil has a reputation as a rather dangerous place, and while it’s not entirely undeserved, it is often overblown and you should not let fear overshadow your stay. If you take the precautions outlined below, you are extremely unlikely to come to any harm – although you might still have something stolen somewhere along the way. The tips in this section apply everywhere, but be particularly alert in Rio, Salvador and Recife.
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Criminals know that any injury to a foreign tourist is going to mean a heavy clampdown, which in turn means no pickings for a while. So unless you resist during an incident, nothing is likely to happen to you. That said, having a knife or a gun held on you is something of a shock: it’s very difficult to think rationally. But if you are unlucky enough to be the victim of an assalto (a hold-up), try to remember that it’s your possessions rather than you that are the target. Your money and anything you’re carrying will be snatched, your watch will get pulled off your wrist, but within a couple of seconds it will be over. On no account resist: it isn’t worth the risk.
As a rule, assaltos are most common in the larger cities, and are rare in the countryside and towns. Most assaltos take place at night, in backstreets with few people around, so stick to busy, well-lit streets; in a city, it’s always a lot safer to take a taxi than walk. Also, prepare for the worst by locking your money and passport in the hotel safe – the one in your room is more secure than the one at reception. If you must carry them, make sure they’re in a moneybelt or a concealed internal pocket. Do not carry your valuables in a pouch hanging from your neck. Only take along as much money as you’ll need for the day, but do take at least some money, as the average assaltante won’t believe a gringo could be out of money, and might get rough. Don’t wear an expensive watch or jewellery: if you need a watch you can always buy a cheap plastic digital one on a street corner. And keep wallets and purses out of sight – pockets with buttons or zips are best.
You need to take special care when carrying a laptop – around business-oriented airports, like Congonhas in São Paulo and Santos Dumont in Rio, laptop stealing has become epidemic. Scouts wait at exits and phone ahead to thieves on motorbikes, who pull alongside your taxi when it is stuck in traffic and tap on the window with a revolver. Conceal laptops inside bags that do not look like computer bags, and try to avoid looking like a businessperson even if you are one.
More common than an assalto is a simple theft, a furto. Brand-new, designer-label bags are an obvious target, so go for the downmarket look. You’re at your most vulnerable when travelling and though the luggage compartments of buses are pretty safe – remember to get a baggage check from the person putting them in and don’t throw it away – the overhead racks inside are less safe; keep an eye on things you stash there, especially on night journeys. On a city beach, never leave things unattended while you take a dip: any beachside bar will stow things for you. Most hotels (even the cheaper ones) will have a safe, a caixa, and unless you have serious doubts about the place you should lock away your most valuable things: the better the hotel, the more secure it’s likely to be. In cheaper hotels, where rooms are shared, the risks are obviously greater – some people take along a small padlock for extra security and many wardrobes in cheaper hotels have latches fitted for this very purpose. Finally, take care at Carnaval as it’s a notorious time for pickpockets and thieves.
At international airports, particularly Rio and São Paulo, certain scams operate; for instance, well-dressed and official-looking men target tourists arriving off international flights in the arrivals lounge, identify themselves as policemen, often flashing a card, and tell the tourists to go with them. The tourists are then pushed into a car outside and robbed. If anyone, no matter how polite or well dressed they are, or how good their English is, identifies themselves as a policeman to you, be instantly on your guard – real policemen generally leave foreigners well alone. They won’t try anything actually inside a terminal building, so go to any airline desk or grab one of the security guards, and on no account leave the terminal building with them or leave any luggage in their hands.
If you are robbed or held up, it’s not necessarily a good idea to go to the police. Except with something like a theft from a hotel room, they’re very unlikely to be able to do anything, and reporting something can take hours even without the language barrier. You may have to do it for insurance purposes, when you’ll need a local police report: this could take an entire, and very frustrating, day to get, so think first about how badly you want to be reimbursed. If your passport is stolen, go to your consulate and they’ll smooth the path.
If you have to deal with the police, there are various kinds. The best are usually the Polícia de Turismo, or tourist police, who are used to tourists and their problems and often speak some English, but they’re thin on the ground outside Rio. In a city, their number should be displayed on or near the desk of all hotels. The most efficient police by far are the Polícia Federal, the Brazilian equivalent of the American FBI, who deal with visas and their extension; they have offices at frontier posts, airports and ports and in state capitals. The ones you see on every street corner are the Polícia Militar, with blue or green uniforms and caps. They look mean – and very often are – but, apart from at highway road blocks, they generally leave gringos alone. There is also a plain-clothes Polícia Civil, to whom thefts are reported if there is no tourist police post around – they are overworked, underpaid and extremely slow. If you decide to go to the police in a city where there is a consulate, get in touch with the consulate first and do as they tell you.
The drug wars in the favelas that you will have heard about and may well see on local TV during your stay are very localized and unlikely to have any impact on foreign tourists. But you should be extremely careful about using drugs in Brazil. Marijuana – maconha – is common, but you are in trouble if the police find any on you. You’ll be able to bribe your way out of it, but it will cost you the daily withdrawal limit on whatever plastic you have. Foreigners sometimes get targeted for a shakedown and have drugs planted on them – the area around the Bolivian border has a bad reputation for this – in order to get a bribe out of them. If this happens to you, deny everything, refuse to pay and insist on seeing a superior officer and telephoning the nearest consulate – though this approach is only for the patient.
Cocaine is not as common as you might think, as most of it simply passes through Brazil from Bolivia or Colombia bound for Europe. Nevertheless, the home market has grown in recent years, controlled by young and vicious gang-leaders from the favelas of the major cities.
Be careful about taking anything illegal on buses: they are sometimes stopped and searched at state lines. The stupidest thing you could do would be to take anything illegal anywhere near Bolivia, as buses heading to or from that direction get vigorously searched by the federais. Much the same can be said of smuggling along the rivers into Peru and Colombia: don’t even think about it.