Rio de Janeiro: Brazil’s tourist magnet now has less to fear

By most accounts, I should be very afraid. I’m walking — alone — down a steep, winding passageway in one of Rio de Janeiro’s notorious slums, the Vidigal favela. If I extended my arms, winglike, I would touch, on both sides, homes made of mismatched cement, plywood, tin and tile. In the rare gaps between structures, tattered clothes hang on lines, drying in the 80-degree sun.

I’m being watched, but I have no idea by whom or from where. I’m not entirely sure that I’m going the right way, although I do know that the exit — where slum abruptly ends and upper-class Rio begins — is somewhere downhill from here.

But I’m not worried about my security or the pack on my back, which contains, among other items, a $1,200 camera. And my relative insouciance in this place could signal a major shift for tourists in Rio.

Even if you haven’t seen the fictitious “City of God,” the more sensational “Elite Squad” or the documentary “Bus 174,” you probably know about Rio’s long-standing rep as dicey: beautifully situated and a heck of a party, but, say the warnings, if you dress flashily and stray from well-trod tourist paths, you can count on being mugged. And the favelas? Only on organized tours, my friend. They will pick your bones clean in there.

I’m not comparing the Rio of yore to wartime Baghdad or asserting that crime turned travelers away in droves. Rio has been a top tourist spot for decades. The city’s tourist ranks swell by the hundreds of thousands for Carnival in February. But crimes targeting tourists rise every year during the raucous festival. And the very prominent word in globe-trotting circles for years has been that in Rio, more than in most major tourist cities, petty crime and fairly violent muggings are serious concerns for visitors.

It’s October, and I’ve come to Rio to see how safe I would feel navigating the city alone. I’ve traveled extensively, including in some sketchy parts of the world, but I arrived in Brazil feeling nervous. A friend of mine was mugged twice on one visit to Rio five years ago. In the late 1990s, an acquaintance in the air travel industry reported touring the Rio airport and seeing the bodies of children — executed, it was widely believed, by corrupt police on behalf of drug lords — washing against the rocks at the end of a runway, a scene that drew only mild interest from his hosts.

I spend the cab ride to my hotel peering out the window for evidence of a city run by the underworld.

But I see no such thing.

I do see stark evidence of the yawning class divide here. Ramshackle favelas cling to hills citywide, looking like misplaced puzzle pieces between leafy upscale neighborhoods. The slums — neighborhoods first established by former slaves in the 1700s and notorious in modern times for lawlessness, drug trafficking and violence — have been a priority for city officials who hope to confront crime ahead of the 2014 World Cup (in cities throughout Brazil) and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

In November 2010, police launched the “pacification” program, moving units into the favelas in a major change from the old system of sending in officers to do surgical strikes on known offenders. Stationed in the communities, police are able to build relationships with residents, cultivate sources and earn at least some respect that could translate into less crime. Also, criminals may think twice before committing crimes outside a slum and fleeing into it, knowing that they may be met by police in what was once a relatively safe haven.

The results? For January to September 2011, homicides were down 8 percent compared with the same period the previous year, vehicle theft was down almost 11 percent and robbery followed by homicide was down 30 percent, according to a review by the Rio de Janeiro State Institute of Public Safety.

“I think it’s clearly a safer city,” says Julia Michaels, who writes a blog on crime in Rio ( “The best indicator of this are real estate prices in and near pacified favelas, which are skyrocketing. [There are] very few stray bullets now, which on a daily basis was one of the worst aspects of life in Rio.”

Neighborhoods that were only recently very questionable for tourists to visit have blossomed. One such area is Santa Teresa, where I stayed. The neighborhood spills steeply down from a ridge a few miles north of the main tourist areas of Copacabana and Ipanema. Even a few years ago, drug activity in Santa Teresa’s slums prompted guidebooks to advise against walking anywhere in the neighborhood.

I set out from the Hotel Santa Teresa, an upscale property built in a tastefully restored, 150-year-old coffee plantation. Within steps I’m compelled to sneak my camera out of my knapsack for photos of the colonial-style architecture, the stone streets and the sidewalk cafes. I study every passerby, mentally rehearsing my sprint away from the would-be mugger.

But there are no threats or offensive gestures, no indication that anyone cares one iota about me or my belongings.

The main drag of Santa Teresa winds along the ridge, with colorful art and clothing boutiques abutting cozy restaurants, bakeries and bars. I wander in and out of shops and gradually stop glancing over my shoulder every time I stop to photograph a street scene, a building or the stunning views off either side of the ridge, toward downtown Rio or the distant sea.

Around one corner, on a street of prim pastel houses that recall San Francisco’s Marina District, a film crew is shooting a scene for a telenovela. By now I’ve concluded that, in daylight at least, I have nothing more to fear here than in Takoma Park, where I live.

I climb a flight of stone and tile stairs to the shady patio of Cafecito, an outdoor cafe where casually dressed patrons sip beer and coffee, smoke and write in journals. Joints like this have led Santa Teresa’s resurgence as a bohemian hangout.

I have an incredible cup of coffee — a Brazilian brand, Dona Mathilde — and a melt-in-your-mouth smoked trout and cheese sandwich with an olive oil dressing.

The scene is altogether too pleasant. It’s time to push the limits. I walk down a long hill, where the street yields to cracked stone stairs. I see trash, graffiti and run-down homes but also tidy rowhouses, open storefronts and locals filing into a church.

“Crime? It’s much better now,” says Sandra, a 30-ish Carioca (Rio native) studying to become a judge. I meet her and her boyfriend, Matt, a 50-something expat from San Rafael, Calif., on the Rio subway. “But come 2016, run away.”

Sandra sees the surprise in my eyes. “It’s their nature here,” she continues. “Once the World Cup and Olympics are done, things will go right back to the way they were.”

Some experts share that cynicism. Eliot Brockner, regional manager for the Americas with the risk management firm iJET International, says that police corruption remains a major issue in Rio and that conditions could revert. “There are reputable people out there saying this could work,” Brockner says. “But the prevailing sentiment in Rio is that, without a sustained commitment beyond 2016, these gains are temporary.”

I notice that Sandra, Matt and most other locals wear jewelry, nice shoes and attractive clothes and carry their purses and shopping bags with nonchalance.

One morning, I cruise the stalls of a farmers market in the Botafogo neighborhood, sampling tropical fruit from the farms west of Rio. It’s a bank holiday — one of the many here that help feed an endless party spirit — and Cariocas are out in force. I walk along the shore of Guanabara Bay, on a path packed with joggers, walkers and cyclists.

In Parque Flamenco, a bay-front forest park, a troupe is performing capoeira, the artfully athletic Brazilian dance, for a small crowd of onlookers. I rent a bicycle from a street-side stand and head toward Copacabana. There, as on all holidays and Sundays, three lanes of the beachfront road are closed to motorized traffic, and skateboarders, roller bladers, street musicians, hawkers and loiterers have taken over.

Tourists shoot photos and videos, locals yammer on their phones, surfers stroll by, boards under their arms, and the beachfront kiosks that sell cocktails and light fare are packed. The beach is wide, clean and buzzing. Most volleyball nets are in use, many with the traditional version of the game and some with a newer iteration called futevolei, a soccer-volleyball fusion that prohibits using your hands.

Even amid this blazing daylight conviviality, I hesitate before pulling out my camera or wallet. My behavior feels odd even to me, but it’s in line with the U.S. State Department’s official travel advisory for Rio:

“The city continues to experience a high incidence of crime. Tourists are particularly vulnerable to street thefts and robberies in areas adjacent to major tourist attractions and on the main beaches in the city. Do not take valuable possessions to the beach. Pay close attention to your surroundings and the behavior of those nearby; there have been incidents of robbers and rapists slipping incapacitating drugs into drinks at bars, hotel rooms, or street parties.”

The agency’s advice on favelas is even more pointed: “Most favelas exist outside the control of city officials and police. You should avoid Rio’s favelas, even those that have been recently ‘pacified’ by the state government. Several local companies offer ‘favela jeep tours’ targeted at foreign tourists. Be aware that neither the tour company nor the city police can guarantee your safety when entering favelas, and that favela tour fees may ultimately be used to support criminal gang activities.”

I’m glad I didn’t read that before venturing into Vidigal.

I cycle the streets of Copacabana, where the mature trees, street bustle and mishmash architecture evoke flashes of New Orleans and Manhattan, marred by haphazard urban planning.

Ornate cathedrals and residences, some dating from the 19th century, sit among drab, blocky apartment buildings and hotels from a 1950s construction boom. The sidewalks buck with cracks and crevices, and the curiously abundant manhole covers are, per the State Department advisory, prone to blasting into the air because of explosions of pent-up gas beneath the streets.

I stop in at an apartment building to see my friend Lucille, who moved to Rio from Washington eight years ago, sensing the growing economic opportunity in the Brazilian city. She and her boyfriend, who now have a toddler and an infant, bought a penthouse in central Copacabana last year.

“We never would have moved here six years ago,” she says when I ask about security. “It’s better, but that’s relative to what it used to be.” She and her boyfriend were mugged a few years back in Santa Teresa but, she says, “we ignored all the signs” — an increasingly deserted street, shady loiterers, etc.

Her building, like most apartments in Copacabana and Ipanema, is gated and guarded, but her au pair walks her son to the beach every day, and the streets, bustling with lawful activity, feel safe for strolling, even when we head out at night for dinner.

As for my Vidigal foray, I credit Washington Post foreign correspondent Juan Forero with inspiring that. In October, he reported on a tourist guesthouse that had recently opened at the top of the favela. On the phone, Andreas Wielend, the owner of Casa Alto Vidigal, tells me to come by and not to worry about crime. “Grab a moto taxi at the bottom of the hill,” he says. “You’ll be fine.”

To be honest, I fear for my life in Vidigal, but only during my cardiac-arrest ride up to the guest house on the back of a motorcycle: I dig my fingernails into the seat and lean into my driver, who races up the steep, curving hills, weaving around traffic, people and dogs as though he were in the championship round of a video game tournament. When his bike stalls two-thirds of the way up, I hop off, make the sign of the cross and start to hurry away, not caring where I’m headed. But he restarts his steed and insists that we finish the journey.

From the patio of whimsically painted Casa Alto Vidigal, with its captivating hilltop views of the slum and the Ipanema beach beyond, Jorge Melendez, a Peruvian transplant who helps run the guesthouse, tells me that “you are much safer here” than in other parts of Rio. “The drug dealers here want to work; they would never allow [crimes against tourists] in the favela” because of the police attention it would draw.

Hang around long enough, Melendez says, and “you will see the guns, the drugs, the traffickers patrolling. Believe me, they see you. But they don’t really bother anyone.”

So, I ask, I could walk out of here and nothing bad would happen to me? “Right,” he answers. “I mean, I wouldn’t start shooting pictures everywhere. That might arouse suspicion. But, yes. Follow that path” — he waves a meaty arm toward the steep and uneven concrete staircase — “and you will get down.”

I emerge onto Vidigal’s main artery, where I sense an aura of community that I hadn’t felt elsewhere in the city: Instead of small bands of people frolicking in closed circles, here is an entire village pulsing as a single unit. I’m not romanticizing poverty — and for Rio to succeed in the long term, favela residents will need something more than police embedded as neighbors — but there is a palpable sense in Vidigal of a shared destiny, and with it a shared commitment to making the best of it.

The kids playing, the moto taxis whizzing, the shop owners milling, the music wafting from speakers jury-rigged to overhead power lines — altogether it comes off like an opera.

I don’t want to leave just yet, so I sit down in an austere concrete cafe on Vidigal’s main street, order a plate of fish and tap my foot to the rhythms of Brazilian street life.

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