Sometime in the 1980''s Rio got a very bad press.
The television news was full of dramatic stories of hideous crimes and travellers around the world were advised to keep away from this city of sin south of the equator.
I am now going to say something controversial.
"I went to Rio de Janeiro and NOTHING HAPPENED TO ME!!!"
Shock! Horror! Someone goes to Rio and doesn''t come back with a gratuitous tale of a robbery or mugging. Hard to believe eh? I fact, I will go further and say that I never felt unsafe as I was wandering around and was impressed by how well policed Copacabana was and will go as far as to say that this city is one of the most underrated in the world. Perhaps that is what the Carioca''s want - the tourists scared away so they have this beautiful city to themselves.
All is not sweetness and light. Let''s be honest, the crime rate is exceptionally high here. Although the Brazilians are quick to point out that it is on a par with America''s it is advisable to watch your step. However, if you take the same precautions as you would visiting any big city and don''t wave expensive watches or camera''s around then you should be fine. It would be a shame to miss out on Rio de Janeiro. Be savvy, be aware of your surroundings and don''t take unneccessary risks. Whatever you do don''t let paranoia ruin your stay.
The trick is to blend in. carioca''s will immediately spot a foreigner by the way they dress. If you adopt their dress i.e. shorts, speedo''s and thongs/flip-flops the odds for being noticed go immediately down. The social point of the city are it''s amazing beaches and just like any other beach it is best to leave valuables back in the hotel. You wouldn''t leave your watch at the Trevi fountain or your wallet on Trafalgar Square and then expect to go back to it after ten minutes would you? The same with the beaches, in fact you need very little when visiting the beaches just bathing costume, towel and a few reals. Hawkers sell drinks, suncream and food all day on the beaches. And those sweeping pictures of Copacabana beach can be taken when you go back to your hotel. If you can keep all valuables in the safe in your room then do so. It pays to be sensible in this city.
Back in 1992 the earth summit was held in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil got a nasty shock. Camera crews from all around the world concentrated on the high crime and the favela''s rather then what the government was doing to save the planet. Something had to be done and they poured much money into the policing of Copacabana and you will find policeman situated every fifty yards. The police drive little buggies up and down the beach and take special care of foreign tourists. The prospect of a tourist killed in Copacabana will bring unwelcome headlines around the world and is a thing that the authorities are keen to avoid. I felt absolutely no menace as I strolled along the Avenida Atlantica and was wandering around Copacabana at 3.00am in the morning. The boardwalks and beaches are floodlit at night and barraca''s stay open very late. But I still wouldn''t advise any moonlight skinnydipping, I did hear of three English lads who went swimming on Copacabana and when they came out there were teenage muggers waiting for them. But they did do it at four in the morning which is almost asking for trouble.
Cariocas themselves will tell you where to go and not to go. Most of Rio is fine, especially the beaches, but keep away from the Tunel''s and the favelas which cling to the mountainsides. While I was there one of the my friends was tut-tutting over pictures in ''El Globo'' newspaper of the army combing the Rochina favela. A particularly tenacious journalist made himself a nuisance to a drug lord who is holed up in this enormous slum. The drug lord caught him and "micro-waved" him (set about him with a blow-torch) and burnt parts of his body were found all over the favela. The government was so angry at this that it sent the army in to comb this city of shacks and alleys - and they eventually caught him. Brazil has a long way to go on the crime front, but the will is there to move it in the right direction.
Reading this you may think Rio is one bandit-ridden out-of-control metropolis. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is just like any other big city and if you keep an eye open and don''t do stupid things then you will have a fantastic time in Rio. In fact they are trying to draw the favela''s and underclass of Rio into the tourist industry. Tours of the Vila Canoas favela and the massive Rochina favela are now available (www. favelatour.com.br) and I think they are just as much a part of Rio as the Corcovado or Ipanema. On the bus tour I was on we did visit the Rochina favela on our way to Ilha Grande. This is the biggest slum in South America and currently has 180,000 residents. Although we didn''t go in too far I thought the place was spectacular and reminded me of an enormous adobe town stretching up the mountains (see photo). The houses were built one on top of another until they crept exonerably up and the mountain bristled with washing-lines and TV aerials. Those at the bottom sell their roofspace to to those who want to buid new houses and the whole favela looked so fragile that it would collapse after a gust of wind. It did, however, have it''s own shops, schools and a vast market - almost a city within a city.
I did feel one hell of a voyeur. As we wandered around the favela I felt as if I was intruding. As we passed people in the street they said hello but just how politically correct is it to visit a favela? How would I like it if a tourbus parked outside my flat in West London and tourists clicked shutters and gawped. After all this is a home to many people. The other side is of course that they welcome tourists as an acceptance into the mainstream of Rio. They get good publicity rather then the damaging reputation of a drug-gang dangerzone. Whatever the ethics of visiting a favela I found it one of the most interesting parts of my trip to Brazil. But take a tour, don''t go there on your own. Incidently, there is a reason to envy the favela residents - they often have the best views in Rio for a fraction of the real estate costs.
You may be worried about coming to Rio because of the crime. I''ll not deny it goes on, but most visitors to this amazing city have an uneventful time. There are things to watch out for but common sense and the usual big city precautions usually negate these. The Rio authorities are keen to dispel it''s image and the pro''s to Rio far outweigh the con''s. The authorities are keen to look after you and go out of their way for foreign tourists. They are very proud of their city and want to show it off...and once you have been there and see it...you can understand why...