Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro is bigger and better than ever in 2010, with the street celebrations having surged in popularity over the last ten years and grown to rival the city's famed escolas de samba ("samba schools") as a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately, during the last decade crime also expanded, going from extremely bad to even worse in the "Marvelous City," which remains one of the most dangerous metropolises in the world. The bulk of the murders take place in the poorest neighborhoods, but make no mistake: crime is high even in the fashionable Zona Sul (which includes neighborhoods like Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana) and tourists are prime targets. Another danger is the traffic: Brazil has one of the highest fatality rates from car crashes in the world. However, if you take some simple precautions you can greatly reduce the odds of being mugged or getting mowed down by a carioca motorist, and feel almost as safe (that's a big "almost") as you would in New York or Paris.
More than 700,000 visitors are expected to arrive in Rio for Carnaval ("Carnival" in English) in 2010, which begins on Saturday, February 13. There are four official days for Carnaval, a pre-Lent festival tied to the Roman Catholic calendar, but the celebrating can start early and end later in many Brazilian cities. In Rio, one can attend indoor balls (which run all night long) or journey to the Sambódromo to view the spectacular parades of the escolas de samba ("samba schools"), which each feature around 300 drummers and percussionists, huge floats, and a few thousand costumed dancers (I discuss samba in all its forms in my book The Brazilian Sound). Another option is celebrating with the blocos and bandas; these are groups of people who parade together during Carnaval, usually spearheaded by musicians and a sound truck. They gather at a certain place and time (the concentração), wearing the bloco's T-shirt and fortifying themselves with beers and caipirinhas to get in the Dionysical mood. The bloco names are often whimsical, like Suvaco do Cristo (Christ's Armpit, which gathers below the statue of Christ on Corcovado) or Simpatia é Quase Amor (Sympathy Is Almost Love). Once underway, the blocos slowly make their way down the streets, playing marchas and sambas, with crowds trailing behind them or lining the parade routes. There are now some 500 Carnaval blocos in Rio, ranging from groups of a few hundred to mega blocos like Suvaco, Simpatia, Monobloco, Carmelitas, Cordão do Bola Preta, and Banda de Ipanema that can attract up to 100,000 revelers. At the end of the blog, I list some sources of schedule information.
Whether you're celebrating Carnaval or just roaming the streets and beaches of Rio, here is some advice on staying safe:
Traffic: Brazilians are among the worst drivers in the world. Many think they are Ayrton Sennas or Felipe Massas, and are reckless and aggressive at the wheel. And a disturbing number of motorists in Rio are careless and prone to lunatic maneuvers. One carioca friend of mine said, "Whatever they can do wrong, they will." They don't respect pedestrians, and if they don't run you down they'll come with an inch of you if you're on the asphalt. The motorcyclists are even worse than the car drivers and will sometimes drive the wrong way down streets or even for a short distance on sidewalks for a shortcut. -At signals, make absolutely sure the cars have stopped at the red light. Especially watch out for motorcyclists running the lights. -On sidewalks, watch out for cars crossing in front of you to exit or enter parking garages. Sometimes there are audio alarms when a garage door opens; sometimes not. The driver will always assume he or she has the right of way, even when nearly running down several people on the sidewalk. -Don't challenge cars or assume they'll stop for you. If a driver makes eye contact and gives you a thumbs up, then you're okay. -As a pedestrian, you don't have the right of way. Many Brazilians are foolhardy jaywalkers; don't follow their lead. -I would advise against renting a car in Rio if you aren't Brazilian. If you don't naturally know how to drive with the carioca flow, you're at high risk for an accident.
Cyclists: Brazilian cyclists are also aggressive and reckless, and like to ride on crowded sidewalks, the wrong way on streets, and at absurdly high speeds on public paths (like the one around Lagoa). -Watch out for bike riders, especially delivery guys, on the sidewalks. -Many cyclists in the bike lanes (ciclovias) by the beach move swiftly and are unlikely to stop for you. Don't challenge them.
Your Belongings -Carry a wallet with enough cash, but not too much. If, God forbid, you should get mugged, give that to the robber, with enough money to keep them happy. Don't resist. Your life is worth more than the wallet. -On the street, carry your credit cards (a minimal number, preferably not ATM/debit) separately, perhaps in a separate wallet hidden in your clothing. A zipped pocket is helpful. Except when specifically visiting a bank, I never carry an ATM/debit card as I don't want to get kidnapped for having one. -Leave your passport and valuables in the hotel safe. -Don't wear jewelry or watches (or only a cheap watch you can afford to lose). -Ditch the purse or fanny pack if possible. If not, only carry what you can afford to lose. -Watch for thieves on motorcycles (if you're in a car) or on bikes (if you're walking).
On the Streets -Keep your cell phone or camera in your pocket. Don't use them on the street when you're alone. -Don't stand on the sidewalk studying your city map. Look at it inside a restaurant or store. -If you are alone and see a group of moleques (scruffy street urchins) heading your way, go elsewhere, preferably towards a group of adults. -Travel in groups if possible. Or, move towards groups of people if you sense trouble in the air.
Transportation: Bus drivers drive like bats out of hell, and buses have their share of crime against passengers. However, bus service is cheap and convenient for getting around. The "Real" company (or "Frescão") buses are much safer, but a little more expensive. Taxi service has improved greatly in recent years, and the drivers now are usually honest. The subway in Rio (Metro) is a good alternative to both taxis and buses.
A Few Neighborhoods -Ipanema and Leblon are the safest neighborhoods. -Copacabana is a zoo with a lot of tourist hotels, hookers, and street crime. -In Lapa (where there is much great music), Cinelândia, and Centro (Downtown Rio), the streets are especially dangerous at night. Have a taxi drop you at the club entrance, and flag a cab from there when you leave. Don't wander around unless you're in a big group.
The Beach -During the day, mornings are safest and late afternoons the worst. -At night, stay off the sand unless you're at Arpoador where there is night lighting and lots of people. -Bring the bare minimum to the beach: a little cash, your sunblock, shades, hat, etc. You can rent a beach umbrella and chair once you're there.
Blocos & Bandas -You're safer partying with small neighborhood blocos, which have a relaxed, friendly atmosphere; their members are more likely to watch out for you. -The big blocos, with tens of thousands of people, have a high element of chaos. There is more potential for muggings to occur or for fights to break out. Of course it's exciting to be in the middle of the throng, but it's prudent to stay on the perimeter of the crowd with an exit strategy.
Some Recommendations: -Get tickets to the Sambódromo one night for the escolas de samba (talk to your hotel concierge); it's an incredible spectacle. -Try a feijoada/samba lunch, which combines a feijoada (black-bean stew with various meats) with live samba music. -Check the schedules for the blocos in your neighborhood. One especially interesting choice is the Cordão do Boitatá, which includes guest musicians like Marcos Sacramento, Teresa Cristina, Yamandú Costa, and Moacyr Luz. Banda Sá Ferreira and Bloco Bip Bip are two charming small blocos in Copacabana. For mass spectacles, view the aforementioned big blocos. Some alternative choices include AfroReggae (which plays samba-reggae and funk), Rio Maracatu (playing the powerful maracatu rhythm, not to be missed), and Bloco da Maria Farinha, which parades on beautiful Itacoatiara Beach, an hour away on the far side of Niteroi; they end up on the sand and keep playing well into the night. -On non-Carnaval nights, some great Lapa/Centro clubs for music, especially samba, include Carioca da Gema, Rio Scenarium, and Trapiche Gamboa. -Sample as many sucos (fruit juices) as possible; especially don't miss açai, fruta de conde, and orange juice with acerola. At the beach, make sure to drink an agua de coco (coconut water, from a green coconut). -Visit the lively botecos (bar-restaurants open to the street) such as Belmonte, Devassa, Informal and Bracarense. Make sure to get your graduate degree in cachaça (sugar-cane liquor) and caipirinhas at the Academia da Cachaça.
Conclusion: Travel light and carry only (at least visibly) what you can afford to lose. Act like you know where you're going, not like a distracted fool. The less of an easy target you resemble, with obvious goods to rob, the less likely it is you'll be bothered. And don't be afraid to ask Brazilians for help; they hate the street crime too. The good news is that once you've taken some precautions, you're ready to enjoy one of the most entertaining cities on the planet. Rio has a beautiful natural setting, wonderful music, and friendly people; that's why visitors usually have a great time and often return. And Rio's Carnaval is without doubt the greatest mass celebration on Earth.
*Further Resources -The O Globo newspaper has many Carnaval listings, either in special sections or in the "Segundo Caderno" section under "Carnaval." -Info in English about the blocos: Rio Bandas & Blocos -An interactive map showing blocos in different Rio neighborhoods: Map of 2010 Blocos & 200 Zona Sul Groups -My Brazilian music blog: The Brazilian Sound at Blogspot -The Brazilian Sound site: thebraziliansound.com