YOU know you’ve arrived in a dangerous place when the first thing you see at your hotel is a giant list of tips to avoid a mugging — or worse.
That was my first nerve-racking introduction to Rio de Janeiro — a city with a crime rate almost as famous as its attractions.
Unfortunately, Rio’s seedy reputation is warranted: it’s one of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the world. Muggings, homicides and other violent crimes have been steadily rising in recent years. And just before I arrived, a 16-year-old girl was gang raped in one of the city’s favelas (slums).
Earlier this month, Australian Paralympic gold medallist Liesl Tesch was robbed at gunpoint and in August the city will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
However, one of the biggest surprises of my trip to Rio was how safe I felt as a tourist. There are police and security guards everywhere, and as long as you follow a few commonsense rules — never walk into slum areas without a guide, carry only enough money for the day, leave passports and other valuables in your hotel, hand over everything in the event of a robbery, don’t walk on the beaches at night and never accept drugs — chances are the worst thing you’ll experience is a Caipirinha-induced hangover.
But the safety aspect is just one of Rio’s many surprises. Here’s what else you can expect to experience in the Marvellous City.
1. THE PEOPLE
Brazilians are renowned for their outgoing natures, but for cariocas (Rio locals), friendliness seems to be in their DNA. Virtually everyone we met, from bus drivers to strangers in the street, went out of their way to have a chat and a laugh with us. The locals are one of Rio’s biggest drawcards.
2. THE ATTRACTIONS
Sure, Rio has big-ticket tourist sites like Christ the Redeemer (one of the new Seven Wonders of the World) and Sugarloaf Mountain.
But the city has so much more to offer.
It’s home to two of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Ipanema and Copacabana.
It is an adventure mecca, with surfing, rock climbing, hiking and hang-gliding. For sport lovers, there’s football matches at Maracanã Stadium, and it has arguably the best night-life in the world, from the annual Carnival to all-night samba clubs.
You could spend your entire holiday in Rio alone and still not see and do everything.
3. THE CLASS DIVIDE
Most cities have a class divide, but in Rio, it’s right in your face. It’s normal to see shanty towns perched alongside super-pricey apartment blocks and up-market golf resorts, and the gap between rich and poor is unmistakeable.
4. THE PRICES
While the price of food, accommodation and some tourist attractions are what you’d expect to pay in any big city, some things — like hang-gliding or scenic helicopter flights, for example — are exorbitant. Be prepared to spend up.
5. THE ORDER
The Olympics are almost here, and by many accounts, the country is woefully underprepared, with some venues and train lines still unfinished.
But for a country battling so many problems (an economic crisis, and impeached president, widespread corruption and the Zika virus, just to name a few), Rio is unexpectedly chaos-free. In fact, buses and trains were more reliable than in Sydney.
6. THE FAVELAS
I visited the Rocinha favela expecting to be overwhelmed by misery and poverty. Instead, I saw a vibrant community of people proud to call it home.
Rocinha has been pacified since 2011, when the police took control of the favela back from the drug lords. Today, there’s a heavy police presence and crime has been hugely reduced. It’s home to public schools, a hospital and even a sports centre for underprivileged kids. And the good news is the government is currently working to pacify all 1000 of Rio’s slums by 2020.
The favelas themselves are also surprisingly beautiful, and they have the best views of the city — minus the crowds.
7. THE BODY CONFIDENCE
Not everyone looks like Gisele Bündchen. But old, young, male, female, big, small — in Rio, it doesn’t matter. Everyone flaunts what they’ve got at the beach in the world’s skimpiest swimwear with a refreshing amount of body confidence.
So yes, Rio is definitely polluted, dangerous and often downright overwhelming.
But it’s also a city so incredible you’ll never regret visiting.