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#WorldCup: How to Stay Safe when Visiting Brazil

September 17, 2015

You can reduce your risk of crime in Brazil if you avoid dodgy areas. (Photo: AP Images)

The news coming out of Brazil ahead of the World Cup is giving me whiplash. I hear that Brazilians are friendly, warm and gracious … but then come warnings about kidnappings, purse snatchings and carjackings. As I prepare for my own World Cup trip, I’m learning that both stories are completely true.

Many foreign countries’ crime rates are lower than those in the U.S., but Brazil is not one of them. According to the U.S. State Department’s website, “Brazil’s murder rate is more than four times higher than that of the United States, and rates for other crimes are similarly high.” Yikes.

The short truth: Tourists in Brazil are sometimes crime victims. But chances are higher if you’re not prepared. Here’s how to reduce your risk of becoming a statistic.

(Photo: AP Images)

Plan ahead

This is not the time for seat-of-the-pants travel. Make plans and contingency plans, and educate everyone in your group about where you’ll be, how you’ll get there and what you’ll do there. “Don’t just wing it. That’s when you get in trouble,” Clay Adler, a Division Chief in the Office of American Citizens Services at the U.S. State Department, told Yahoo Travel.

Long before they get on a plane to Brazil, Americans should read the State Department’s information page for World Cup travelers, which paints a fairly complete picture. The department even produced an app for U.S. travelers, available on iTunes and Google Play.

Logistics are likely to be Americans’ biggest headache in Brazil, especially when it comes to transportation. “Find out how to get to the stadiums and the fan fest areas in advance,” Adler said. With cities overwhelmed and many planned public-transit projects unfinished, everyone will need big travel-time cushions.

If you use a taxi car service, make sure it’s a licensed one (Photo: Corbis Images)

While some recommend against buses and subways, Adler says they’re great if you’re with other people you know, especially during the day. Check the Brazilian government’s World Cup website to plan your route.

The safest bet: Arrange a taxi or car service in advance if possible (your hotel can help). Never use an unlicensed car or van service, and never put yourself in a situation where you’re desperate enough to use one.

Keep in touch

Any American planning a trip abroad should enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Through it, travelers can sign up to get State Department alerts about dangerous areas, unrest, and other potential problems. You can also enter names and contact information for friends and family you want notified in case there’s a problem (authorities can’t release information about you to anyone you haven’t authorized).

Enter your itinerary on the STEP website, and tell others where you’ll be, too. “Provide a family member or close friend with a copy of your complete itinerary, and establish an alternate communication plan such as Twitter, Facebook or family website,” recommends Bob Howell, manager of global response operations for iJET International, an operational risk management company that offers travel and security consulting services. “In the event of a major incident, cellular service will most likely be overwhelmed.”

The State Department has set up an email address, worldcupACS@state.gov, for World Cup-related questions or issues — a nice option if you have Wi-Fi but not cell service.

Stick to the good parts of town

Experts advise staying out of favelas and dodgy border regions. Even police don’t usually venture into favelas, poverty-stricken lawless enclaves in Brazil’s cities. While bold tourists might want to get a firsthand experience of how the struggling classes live, this is probably not the best time.

“In Rio, the favelas are right next to some of the tourist areas and state parks,” Adler said. You’ll have to pass them to get to iconic tourist spots like the Christo atop Mount Corcovado. Be careful not to wander into bad neighborhoods en route.

(Photo: AP Images)

Don’t roam into some parts of the countryside, either. Because of border unrest, according to the State Department website, “U.S. government employees are not permitted to visit any area within 150 km of the borders with Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana or Paraguay.” If they won’t go there, you probably don’t want to.

Major events tend to bring protests in Brazil, and the World Cup has already triggered a few. Stay as far from protests as you can (two words: tear gas).

Talk like a local

Anyone headed to Brazil should learn at least some Portuguese, since very few Brazilians speak any English. “The Brazilian people are super friendly, and they will do everything they can to understand you, but there will be a communication barrier” if you don’t speak Portuguese, Adler said.

Spanish won’t work, either. While some Brazilians know a little Spanish, they are proud of their culture and can be touchy about being lumped in with surrounding South American countries. And while written Portuguese looks a bit like Spanish, the spoken language bears little resemblance.

Blend in

Leave your fancy watches and jewelry at home, since it will only make you a tempting target for people scraping by in a country riddled with severe poverty. Instead, observe what the locals are wearing and follow suit. If you happen to bring clothing that pegs you as a tourist (I’m looking at you, khaki shorts, tube socks and white tennis shoes), consider doing a little shopping in Brazil.

Keep your camera and smartphone hidden as much as possible, since they’re particularly attractive targets. Leave any other valuables in your in-room hotel safe.

Stay healthy

Before you leave, make sure you have adequate health insurance that is accepted in Brazil and carry proof of health insurance with you. Many insurance plans offer few or no benefits outside the U.S. Read supplemental policies’ fine print and understand what they will and won’t cover. “Medical care can be very expensive overseas and very, very expensive if you have a medical evacuation,” Adler said.

As in other warm-weather countries, mosquitoes there can carry yellow fever, malaria, leishmaniasis and dengue. Wear bug spray with DEET. You might also want to purify your tap water.

One more tip: Keep an eye on your drinks. That goes for both men and women; attractive women will sometimes flirt with men, drug their drinks and rob them. Don’t buy illegal drugs in Brazil, since you have no idea what’s really in them and they could also get you thrown in jail.

Don’t be a victim

Those stories you’ve heard about bloodthirsty drug-addled gang members who’ll kill you if you resist a robbery? Sadly, while it’s relatively rare in safer areas, it happens. “If someone does try to rob you, we recommend you don’t resist. Hand over what you’ve got on you,” Adler said. “There have been instances where people have resisted and have been met with violence. Personal safety should be your first priority.”

(Photo: AP Images)

“Express kidnapping,” or “quicknapping,” is on the rise, so much so that many advice-giving websites seem to treat it as a matter of course. The tactic is not widespread, but tourists are occasionally held for a short time for ransom, then quickly released. Travel with a group, stay alert, practice situational awareness and avoid even driving or riding a bus through dangerous areas, especially at night.

Experts recommend making a photocopy of your passport’s ID and Brazil visa pages and taking those with you when you go out, since you will sometimes need to show proof of identity or nationality. Leave the real thing in your in-room safe along with one of your credit cards.

While crime tends to be higher in bigger cities, Howell said, planning ahead is just as important in smaller towns. “Some of the smaller host cities such as Manaus, Recife, Natal and Cuiaba present additional concerns with local infrastructure and possible power outages, overwhelmed telephone and Internet and, more importantly, lack of advanced medical care,” he said.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Know what to do in the worst-case scenario

If you run into trouble, first call local authorities, since it’s their responsibility to investigate, Adler said. With 157,000 police and military on hand to keep order during the World Cup, they shouldn’t be too hard to find. The local equivalent to the 911 emergency line in Brazil is 190 for Policia (Police) and 192 for Ambulancia (Ambulance). Call (21) 2332-2924 to reach the special “tourist police” unit in Rio.

Contact the nearest embassy or consulate for help with replacing a passport or wiring money from the U.S. There are embassies in Brasilia, São Paulo, Rio and Recife and smaller consular offices in Manaus, Salvador, Porto Alegre and Fortaleza. The State Department is also sending consular staff to the four additional cities where games will be held; contact the nearest office to get in touch with them.

This may all sound perfectly terrifying, but Brazil’s many fans point to its great food, singular music scene, gorgeous scenery and friendly people as reasons to check the place out. Just keep your eyes open and know that anything can happen.

Want more like this? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and keep coming back every day for Yahoo Travel’s series on the #WorldCup, with guides to the host cities, advice on safety, and great tips and insider information you won’t find anywhere else. You can also check out all our World Cup coverage here.