Even though I don’t live in Rio de Janeiro anymore, I still love reading travel blogs from people who have passed through there. Safety is a common concern, especially for women. I was surprised to see some misguided advice from well-intentioned people who did not spend long in the city. For that reason, I decided to write about my experience.
Between 2014-2019, I spent about 2 years total in Brazil. During this time, I worked and volunteered at educational nonprofits in Rio. Once I got a teaching job in the U.S., I would travel back to Brazil during my school breaks and summer vacations.
So let’s get straight to the question: Is it solo female travel safe in Rio de Janeiro?
Yes, but you need to take caution.
When I was there, no one ever harmed me. The only time I was ever “robbed” was when I brought an empty purse to the beach and forgot to look after it. When I look back on my time there, I’m overwhelmed by all the positive experiences I had and the kind people I met.
Regardless, there are certain measures you should take if you are planning a trip to Rio.
1. Don’t take anything of value to the beach
Out of all the people I know who were robbed in Rio, most were robbed in two places: at the beach or at the nightlife district (Lapa).
The beaches in the South Zone–like Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon–are stunning and worth visiting. However, they are known to have robberies. Sometimes it can happen at random, but it’s more likely to happen if you make yourself a target.
Don’t bring a purse or a backpack to the beach. Put your belongings in a bag that looks like it has little value. Never take your eye off it. If you want to put your bag down, tie it to your chair. Don’t leave your items on the towel to go swimming.
If you have to take your phone, take it out only when necessary. Put it away or keep it on your body when you are not using it.
Only take the money you’ll need for the day. Leave your debit cards at home.
2. Be mindful of your belongings in restaurants
Don’t leave your bag hanging off the back of your chair. The safest thing you can do is keep on a crossbody purse while sitting down or keep your backpack in your lap.
If you’re sitting outside, don’t leave your phone or your wallet out on the table–make sure to keep them out of sight.
3. Ask where it is safe to go
Rio is a big city, so I can’t give general advice for all neighborhoods. Ask staff members at your hostel or hotel regarding safe and unsafe areas. It may vary street by street.
- Don’t go to the beach at night.
- Be wary walking alone in Copacabana at night. If the streets look empty, don’t hesitate to get a cab or an Uber.
- Be on guard from pickpockets at the street parties in Lapa, especially in the dance circles. Try to bring as little as possible with you when you go to Lapa.
- Avoid going to Centro alone on Sundays–many businesses are closed and it is empty.
4. Take taxis or Ubers late at night
Public transport is relatively safe. I have taken buses and the metro both day and night, along with the official white transport vans (NOT the unmarked white vans).
However, like in any big city, it is significantly safer to take a taxi or an Uber straight home late at night, especially if you are alone and a little uncertain of your surroundings. The metro does not run all night, and the buses will not drop you off right in front of your hostel–you don’t want to be walking several blocks alone in Copacabana at 3am.
5. Learn some Portuguese before you go
While the people working in the hospitality industry, like the hotel or hostel workers, may speak English, it’s not commonly spoken. Your experience in Rio will be much smoother if you study the language before you go. Basic phrases are a must.
I had intermediate Spanish proficiency, which is NOT the same as Portuguese, but it helped me to better understand some of the words I was reading. However, even though Spanish and Portuguese may share some words, the languages sound totally different when they are spoken aloud. Before arriving, I often listened to beginner Portuguese podcasts and downloaded lessons on Portuguese for traveling. Make sure to practice Brazilian Portuguese specifically. Also note that the accent in Rio–called the Carioca accent–is quite strong. If possible, listen to it beforehand.
This being said, I have seen people arrive to Brazil with absolutely no knowledge of Portuguese and they fumbled their way about the city. I just wouldn’t recommend it, especially if you arrive alone.
6. Be aware that as a woman, you will draw attention
Catcalling is something you may experience in Rio and across Brazil in general. I never felt threatened by it.
The only time this ever became an issue was during large events, like World Cup or Carnaval, when everyone was drunk, loud, and in the street en masse. That’s when the men–who could have been from any country–got a bit more aggressive.
And now let’s talk about the favelas.
I’ve heard tourists make sweeping generalizations about the favelas in Rio. “They’re all riddled with crime, only drug traffickers live there, the children work for drug dealers,” and so on. I’ve also heard similar sentiments from a few Brazilian friends who had never been in a favela. There are some favela tours run by outside companies that propagate these lies because it’s good for business.
What I see most from some travel blogs is this idea that favelas = dangerous, but tourist areas = safe. These kinds of assumptions don’t work for any city, especially for Rio. Most of my time in Brazil was spent living in a favela, and I’ve stayed and worked in other favelas as well. And I’ve learned that it’s complicated.
Rio is an expensive place to live, and Brazil is a deeply unequal country. Minimum wage was recently increased to about R$1,100 reais a month, which at the current exchange rate is about $200 USD. Many low-wage earners and a growing middle class live in a favela for a variety of reasons: it’s closer to work, it’s the only place with affordable rent, they may have strong family and community ties. There are many hardworking people who live in favelas and work from early in the morning till late at night.
For many people in Rio, favelas are home. Roughly 23-24% of Rio’s population lives in a favela, according to Catalytic Communities. It is absurd to stereotype 1.5 million people as drug traffickers or associated with trafficking.
The rumors that attempt to criminalize children from favelas are likewise offensive. For example, you may hear people say that kids play with kites to send signals to the drug traffickers. Kites are a simply ton of fun and are a cheap form of entertainment. Kids in favelas often just want to play–like kids.
Some favela communities, or parts of communities, are the terrority of drug traffickers, but there’s also been an increase in militias as well. Militias are groups that include former and current police officers, firefighters, and security workers who work to extort businesses and individuals in a favela. It’s unfortunately perceived as good business to exploit favelas, and the hard-working citizens are the ones who suffer.
There are more than 1,000 favelas in Rio, and each one is its own community with its own situation.
With that being said, if you want to visit a favela, find a local guide and pay them to take you. Bring along your humility and respect.
There are some hostels in favelas as well. Read the reviews and any instructions from the owners carefully. Listen to the advice from the host or staff upon arrival–they should give you advice on getting around and important things to know.
By taking some basic precautions, I was able to have so many fulfilling experiences in Rio. For a while it was a second home, and I miss it every day.
Have you ever gone to Rio de Janeiro? What was your experience?