Staying Safe on a daily basis in Rio de Janeiro and other Latin American cities (some basic rules)

As more of you plan trips to Rio de Janeiro and other places in South America, the Caribbean, and Central America, I thought it time to rehash some safety tips. The upcoming soccer World Cup (2014) and the Summer Olympics (2016) in Rio will really require increased vigilance by tourists. Follow these simple rules to stay safe. Feel free to add further suggestions via the comment section.

Rule no. 1: KEEP IT PUSHING.
This means you should always be on the go, unless sitting on the beach, in a restaurant, or some other peaceful spot. In Latin America, unless you are on a tour, you should never really walk around sightseeing or pointing at buildings. You should always appear to be going somewhere. Think about it, locals have an agenda; they have things to do, places to be. They are moving. It is tourists who have the leisure time to lollygag all day. That is how thieves know you are a tourist. Instead, when you leave the hotel, have a fixed destination in mind and go there (KEEP IT PUSHING). Do not stop until you get there. If lost, locate a bathroom or other spot where you can sit, unmolested, and take out a map. But always, in Latin American cities, KEEP IT PUSHING!

Rule no. 2: BE A CHURCH MOUSE.
We all know the proverbial church mouse and how quiet he is. Well, that metaphor should be your example in Latin American cities. Be as quiet as a church mouse. Avoid speaking your native language loudly in public so that people will assume you are a local. Gringos, especially Americans, are known for being attention starved. One sure way to tell who the Americans are in Copacabana, for example, is to listen to their loud banter. Tourists are understandably excited about being in an exotic locale, but you do not have to telegraph to everybody in town that you are a foreigner (gringo). Wait until you get back to the hotel to scream about all the things you saw. Being conspicuously loud just informs thieves that you are a possible rich gringo!

Rule number 3: LEARN THE LANGUAGE.

It is imperative for your safety in Latin American cities that you understand some rudimentary phrases in the local language. The cities are extremely crowded and situations requiring you address others will frequently arise. To avoid telegraphing your foreigner status you need to be able to communicate.

I remember once taking a group of Americans for a ride on the Rio de Janeiro metro (subway). As we attempted to depart the train, I noticed my comrades getting into a shoving match with Brazilians. What happened, I asked? They told me the Brazilians were rude and wouldn’t let them off the train.

What actually transpired was the result of miscommunication. To Brazilians, people quite often used to living in densely populated cities, it is actually rude, and a bit unnecessary, to move when approached by another person. People in Rio are inured to having others brush up against us (see my post last year on Brazilians being a touchy-feely people). Because my passengers could not speak any Portuguese, they failed to provide the expected, “com licensa” (excuse me), that would then have allowed them to brush by the Brazilians with no problem. Instead, my amigos seemed rude, and then when they began cursing in English, people realized they were Americans, and the trouble began.

So learn the basics:
Good morning-bom dia
Good afternoon-boa tarde
Good night-boa noite
excuse me-com licensa


Attempt to dress as similarly to locals as possible. In stark contrast to most preconceptions, Latin Americans usually dress fairly well. Clothes may not be new but they are clean. The shoes, especially, are a source of pride for Brazilians and others in Latin America. One way people can spot an American is by his shoes (American women usually do well in this regard). American men often wear dirty sneakers, which is a dead give away in Brazil especially.

Also, DO NOT WEAR the national soccer jersey! That’s right. Locals hardly ever wear the national soccer jersey on the streets. Instead, locals wear the jersey of local soccer clubs. So when you arrive in the city be sure to purchase an inexpensive soccer jersey of a regional club and wear that thing OFTEN!

Rule number 5: BE A STREETWALKER!

In some areas, especially red-light districts, people congregate on sidewalks. A gringo walking alone is susceptible to being snatched and pulled into an alley. So, in these areas use your intuition and if possible walk in the street rather than the sidewalk.


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