“Once upon a time, fifteen years ago…”
“A long long long time ago.”
“Yep. Or really not that long. there was a girl, named Juliette, and a boy, named Feng.”
“Nope, sorry, not in this story.”
“I was at home.”
“No, you didn’t exist.”
“What? What does it mean?”
“Uh, sorry … it means you were in my dreams. It was before you were in my belly.”
“Because before I had you, I had to dream of you. Anyway, Feng and Juliette arrived in Rio de Janeiro right in time for the party. But they had no hotel room…”
“ … and very little money left.”
“—That’s not cool.”
“Tell me about it. So they tried every hotel but they were all full. Eventually, they tried one last place. It didn’t look like a great hotel and the sign outside said it was for men only. But they tried it anyway. And they had a room! And they could afford it! So they stayed there and enjoyed the party. The end!”
Well, not really “the end”—turned out Feng and I are still together and still travelling. And I didn’t really describe the “hotel” to Mark, with the shared bathrooms, the jail-style room and the … ahem, questionable neighbourhood.
Since we are ending this trip in Rio de Janeiro for Carnival—even though we had said we would skip it…—we change hotels according to the theory of supply and demand. We started in Copacabana, we are now in Botafogo.
And we decided to explore Catete, Glória and Centro, not quite sure how safe and how good these neighbourhoods were—back in 2002, we were scared and we stuck to tourist districts. This year, we walked from Botafogo to Centro. In fact, we’ve been walking these neighbourhoods for three days now and so far, I’m happy to report we are still alive.
Is Rio safe? I don’t know. Depends, I guess.
Catete and Glória are middle-class neighbourhoods with many businesses and on the main streets, there are women, kids and schools just like anywhere else. I like the atmosphere there. It’s chaotic but fun, not posh and polished like in Ipanema. Feels like any other Brazilian city.
The neighbourhood gets tougher around Rua de Lapa. There, you may want to walk with purpose, although one street is completely safe—R. Joaquim Silva, with the Escadaria Selarón many people come to climb. Behind the Arcos da Lapa is a no-go zone. We snapped a picture and got the hell out of here. Many side streets are probably off-limits are well along the way … it really is a matter of trusting your gut feeling.
We are careful. We are street smart and we’ve been to Brazil several times. We blend it relatively easily, especially as a mixed-race couple with a kid. We know what tough areas look like and we know when to turn around.
Rio Centro is a fascinating place during the day. I’ve seen it mentioned as an “area to avoid” many times but it’s much safer than it was fifteen years ago when we first visited it. We even spent an evening there, checking out the street carnival. We left when we felt it was right to do so—streets do empty fast after dark.
Rio de Janeiro isn’t an easy city. Safety is a real issue and if one street is fine, the other around the corner may not be. Yet, it pays off to break out of your comfort zone and leave Copacabana and Ipamana.
Trust your guts. Be patient. Stay alert. Enjoy.
Don’t be stupid but don’t be scared.