Destination RIO Brazil city has risks but also rewards

Sinister side: Rio has its share of crime, but with the proper amount of caution and common sense, your visit will be trouble-free.

January 28, 1996|By Kerry Luft and Laurie Goering | Kerry Luft and Laurie Goering,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Sometimes, it seems as if there are two Rios.

One is the mecca of sand, sex and samba that for decades has lured tourists from all over the globe and sent them home sunburned and satiated. Its Carnival, which this year is Feb. 18-21, is justifiably world famous. As any resident, or Carioca, would tell you, it is truly the "Cidade Maravilosa," or marvelous city.

The other Rio is more sinister. On average, 20 people a day are killed, while nearly a dozen people are kidnapped each month.

Stories and statistics like those have in recent years scared hundreds of thousands of tourists away from Rio de Janeiro. International tourism has been cut by nearly half, to about 500,000 visitors a year, and most Americans who visit Brazil either skip Rio or use it as a jumping-off point for other destinations such as Salvador, the Amazon, Recife or the Pantanal swamp.

And that's a pity. Although most businesses have forsaken Rio ** for Sao Paulo, and the government moved to the ultramodern capital of Brasilia more than 35 years ago, Rio remains the heart and soul of Brazil.

The danger? Well, it's there. But for a tourist, Rio is as safe as any other big city in Latin America. Most violence in Rio takes place in areas a typical tourist never sees, except during the cab ride from Galeao International Airport.

Rio can be split into three regions: the Zona Sul, or South Zone, land of beaches, boutiques and high-rise hotels; the Zona Norte, or North Zone, a working-class area with several violent neighborhoods; and the Baixada Fluminense, or Alluvial Lowlands, an even poorer inland region of slums.

Perhaps 80 percent of the violent crime in Rio occurs in the Baixada and Zona Norte, mostly in hillside shantytowns known as favelas. As many as a quarter of the metropolitan area's 11 million residents live in favelas, which frequently are run by drug gangs.

There are several favelas in the South Zone as well, most notably Rocinha, a giant complex of shacks near the fashionable Sao Conrado neighborhood.

But unless they're on a guided tour, no tourists will enter a favela unless they're incredibly lost or incredibly foolish. Just as you wouldn't walk through some U.S. city neighborhoods, you shouldn't plan to walk in some of Rio's. And that will take care of 90 percent of the crime problem for tourists.

Most visitors spend their days in the Zona Sul, home to the world-famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, as well as the fashionable neighborhoods named for them. In these areas, violent crime isn't unknown, but holdups and pickpocketings are more common.

In recent years, the city has begun beefing up patrols in tourist areas. A tourist police station has opened, and each weekend more than 100 police officers prowl the beaches.

Officials say crimes reported by tourists have dropped to about 20 a month. (Before records were kept in 1992, officials say the crime rate was as high as 20 incidents a weekend). The rate does go up during such busy periods as Carnival, when pickpockets take advantage of the huge crowds and general jostling.

And the U.S. State Department, while still saying tourist crime is "very serious," agrees that it has gone down since the inauguration of the tourist police.

Still, there are several things a tourist can -- and should -- do to avoid problems.

First: Leave the flowered shirts at home, as they're a dead giveaway that you don't belong. Instead, dress like a local: T-shirts (not the type that say, "I * Rio"), shorts or jeans and flip-flops. Cariocas are informal; only a few restaurants have dress codes.

Next: If you walk around with a Nikon dangling from your neck or gold jewelry dripping from every digit, you're asking for trouble. Keep the cameras out of sight until you're ready to take a picture. And leave the jewelry at home.

Be especially careful on the beach. Too many tourists bring cameras, wallets, rolls of money and wonder why it disappears ** when they go for a swim. Instead, wad up a few bills -- enough for a couple of cold drinks -- and tuck them into your swimsuit. Leave the rest at your hotel or in its safe.

Follow the advice of your hotel's staff about where to go and which areas are safe for walking about. When in doubt, take a taxi.

Finally: Don't yap constantly in English. Keep your wits about you; some thieves will try to distract you by talking to you while a companion makes off with your bags.

Now that you know what not to do in Rio, here are a few suggestions on what to do.

Rio's pleasures

Rio is walking along Avenida Atlantica, the Copacabana neighborhood's beachfront boulevard, on a Sunday when the road is closed to traffic and Cariocas push prams and tool about on their bicycles and in-line skates.

It's Ipanema beach on a Saturday afternoon where you can scorch yourself under a blazing sun while wondering just how tiny a swimsuit can be.

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