For the most part, my answer to the title question ‘Is Brazil dangerous?’ would be no. While things do happen that you’d definitely rather avoid, for every traveller who reports a crime there are hundreds more who don’t have a problem. The bad stories have a nasty habit of sticking in our memory and putting us off visiting places and that can mean that people miss out on some really special experiences. So, how do you decide if a place is safe to travel to?
My first port of call is always government advice on travel safety. If they’ve put a warning on a specific country or region I’ll usually avoid it altogether. When it comes to isolated events, though, I’m more likely to accept that, unfortunately, crime is not absent in any country and the best course of action is to learn from what happened and take precautions to avoid it happening to me.
With that in mind, here’s a rundown of the issues I faced in Brazil.
From the moment I crossed the border into Brazil, things started to go wrong. It was new year’s day and my friend and I were trying to get to Foz so we could check into our hostel before a fleeting visit to Iguazu Falls. Things had gone smoothly until we got our passports stamped on the Brazilian side, and then the bus that was meant to come every 15 minutes just never showed. Grabbing a taxi instead, we only just made it in time to jog along the footpath at the falls for one hour before the park closed.
Later that evening, we headed into town to get money out and find some food. There were plenty of banks, but all of the ATMs were in foyers behind locked doors. It took us 45 minutes to find a restaurant that was open and three more hours before our pizza finally arrived.
But these were just minor irritations compared with some of the scary experiences that were to come.–
WALKING ON BROKEN GLASS
The day after we arrived in Foz, having visited both sides of the majestic Iguazu Falls, my friend headed off to Rio for the final two days of her trip. I’d said goodbye at 6am and then crawled back into bed to sleep off a week of manic sightseeing and late nights. My plan was to hang about in Foz for a few days to give me time to plan where I wanted to go next and to do a bit of leisurely blogging. By midday, it was definitely time to freshen up and get back to being proactive.
I grabbed my pathetic microfibre towel and dashed to the bathroom while it was still unoccupied. Letting the uncharacteristically hot water cascade over my head, I felt relaxed and rejuvenated – that sinking feeling of getting my solo backpacker status back gradually dissipating.
The relaxed feeling didn’t last long. As I slid the full glass door to the side on my way out of the shower, the entire thing shattered to smithereens around me, cutting my hands and feet.
Feeling pretty shaken up, I tiptoed gingerly over the wreckage, leaving trails of blood in my wake, to retrieve my clothes from the back of the door. The hostel staff seemed genuinely concerned for my wellbeing, rather than charging me for the damage as I’d feared, but I was still shaken up.
Paraty was pretty quiet, but I made some friends in my hostel and hung out with them in the evenings. We had a 12-bed mixed dorm and everyone seemed really friendly, although we thought it was a bit odd that the men who were doing maintenance on the hostel were also sleeping there.
I’d chatted only briefly to one such maintenance man from Argentina. His English was good and he seemed nice enough. On my last night in Paraty, the others had all checked out and it was just me and him in the dorm room.
In retrospect, it was strange that he’d moved to the top bunk next to mine when he had his choice of 10 other beds, but I thought nothing of it until it was time to go to sleep. I put my book down and he asked if I wanted him to turn the light out. ‘Sure,’ I replied with a smile.
I was not prepared for what happened next. He headed straight for my bed in the darkness and grabbed me, then started stroking my legs and planting kisses on my arm. I pushed him off immediately but it took him a while to get the message that I wasn’t interested. Back in his bed, he used every trick in the book to try to change my mind, accusing me of being too scared so I’d be tempted to prove him wrong and suggesting it would be really hot to have sex with a complete stranger.
Finally, he gave up and fell asleep, but I was too concerned about his intentions to slip into unconsciousness so easily.
There was worse to come in the morning, when I woke to the sound of the bed next to me rocking from side to side. Mr Argentina was pleasuring himself vigorously and whispering in English in between the heavy breathing, ‘Touch my snake’! I reported him to hostel staff, but I don’t know what the outcome was because I didn’t fancy sticking around!
Two days after my unpleasant experience with Mr Argentina, I found myself in Rio, staying at the fantastic Books Hostel in the Lapa district. The area has a reputation for not being the safest at night, but advice from locals and hostel staff was that I’d be fine during the day if I kept my wits about me.
For the purpose of this blog, I slipped my DSLR into my bag with enough cash to last the day and a bottle of suncream. I didn’t want to risk having anything else stolen.
The moment I turned the corner, I saw a toothless woman smashing up a wooden box. She took one big piece in her hand and marched purposefully up the street as though she intended to murder someone.
I saw lots of homeless people, drunks, and small gangs casting me suspicious glances. It was by far the most unsettled I felt in the whole of my time in South America, so I kept my shoulder bag over my head, resting on my front, and grabbed hold of the side where the zip was.
I was sticking to the touristy spots and only taking roads that were busy with pedestrians. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. As I rounded a corner with particularly busy traffic and a high wall on one side, a young guy ran up behind me and took a strong hold on my bag, trying to yank it out of my grasp.
I went with my instinct at that moment and screamed in terror. It was a chilling sound. In those few seconds, I wondered fleetingly if he might have a weapon. Since he’d approached me from behind, I couldn’t tell what he might be planning on doing next.
And then, just as suddenly as he’d arrived, he was gone. Presumably I scared him off with all the attention I was drawing to us.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
As you can see, my first few weeks in Brazil could have been better. I reached a point where I wrote off the whole country as not my kind of place and daydreamed about being back up in the Andes. I felt down about ending my seven months with a run of bad luck. But, as it turns out, you can always rely on good friends, generous family hosts and a massive world-famous festival to turn things around. No matter what had happened to me up to this point, Rio turned out to be one of my favourite cities, and Carnival was out of this world. In future, I’ll be very gentle with sliding glass doors, rethink spending the night in a dorm room with just one man who I barely know, and avoid exploring areas with a bad reputation by myself.