35 things you need to know before going to Rio

1 – Rio is unsafe. You probably heard this more than once.  Don’t panic if your cab driver doesn’t stop at red lights after dark. Afraid of armed robbery, most drivers in Rio don’t stop at intersections, even if the lights are red.

2 – Don’t use ATM located at “target points” or after dark. At “touristy locations” (like the airport), your card can be cloned.  After dark, on most locations, including shopping malls you can be kidnapped and they will take money from your account until it runs out of cash. Only use ATM located inside bank agencies, during work hours. Doing so you are not “100% guaranteed” that nothing bad will happen, but you will be potentially safer.

3 – In Rio, an ambulance doesn’t receive the same treatment as an  “emergency vehicle” as it receives in other countries. In mostly countries, when drivers hear sirens, they pull over and open the road to emergency vehicles,  stopping  near the curb until the emergency vehicles are gone. Not in Rio. When an ambulance “screams” and flash its lights, no one driving in front of it will move, and some drivers will tail  the ambulance trying to move faster.  If you are in a cab and see this, don’t panic as it’s the normal practice. Only pray you will not need an ambulance, as the trip to the hospital can take “ages”.

4 – When riding transit, you will notice that seats reserved for seniors and disabled will be often occupied by anyone, usually young and healthy individuals, who will pretend to be sleeping in order not to give the priority seat to those in need.

5 – While waiting on the line at a supermarket or bank,  don’t panic if you feel the belly of the guy behind you scratching your back. In Rio, most  people don’t leave the necessary one arm length  space to the next person. It’s quite common to feel other’s people breath because they go get really close.

6 – Kisses, kisses, kisses.  Forget handshaking. In Rio everyone kisses everyone. Two kisses, one on each side of the cheek. Even if you just met the person for the first time in your life, you will be given two kisses and will be expected to reciprocate.

7 – Politeness using transit?  If you are using the subway, don’t expect that people will form a line by the side of the train’s doors, waiting for people to go out before everyone else can come in. Forget that. People will try to get in at the same time as people fight to get off. This is an excellent opportunity for pickpockets to act. Take extra care with your purse and wallet.

8 – When sneezing or coughing, the etiquette there is not to use the underarm as an “obstacle”. The etiquette is to place the hand in front of the mouth or nose. Disgusting? Surely, it is. Specially if you need to shake hands with that same person a few minutes later. Argh…

9 – Went to a restaurant and would like to take the leftovers? No way!  Unlike most countries where people avoid waste, especially food waste, in Brazil it’s uncommon to take leftovers. Don’t even ask because if you do, the waiter will look at you as if you were the poorest person on earth.

10 – In Rio, if you buy or rent a car, make sure there is a fire extinguisher “somewhere” inside the vehicle. It’s usually under one of the front seats. This is the law there, although all laws are frequently broken.

11 – Accessibility. After the Olympic Games will come the Paralympic Games. You will notice that the city is not ready for people who have any kind of disability.  Most of the roads do not have the curb lowered at the crosswalks making it easy for people in wheelchairs. Wheelchair travel anywhere is a challenge.  Furthermore, people who are visually impaired will find it difficult to walk on sidewalks as cars frequently park with their four wheels spanning the sidewalk, and there are many barriers to overcome, like concrete posts placed to prevent cars from parking and that can be harmful obstacles to people.

12 – Most of the cities around the globe have laws prohibiting people from smoking in public spaces, especially parks and playgrounds.  In Vancouver, smoking is even prohibited at the beaches. In Tokyo, the smoking prohibition expands to the streets.  This simple doesn’t happen in Rio. In the Olympic city of Rio de Janeiro, you will find people smoking in places that would be forbidden anywhere else, including public playgrounds.

13 – Fire alarms. In developed countries, new construction will have smoke detectors and they will make a lot of noise in case of fire. Smoke detectors are simply “non existent” in Rio. If there’s smoke, there will be no alarm sounding, and that’s probably one of the reasons for people dying from smoke inhalation (carbon monoxide poisoning) while sleeping.

14 – Sprinklers.  The new buildings will have sprinklers, but only in common areas like public halls. Inside apartments there will be none. I don’t know if the Olympic Village’s apartments were designated in their design to have sprinklers. If yes, it’s a plus, although I don’t know if they have been tested.  In Rio there isn’t a “splinter’s test day schedule”, as it happens in the US and in Canada, when inspectors come to check if the sprinklers are in good working order. The apartment building where we lived in Rio had sprinklers located at the corridor that gives access to the apartments, but they had over ten coats of paint on them after being painted over and over for more than twenty years. In case of need, they will never be functional if activated.

15 – Firefighters have a willingness to put out the fires, but they are forced to work with obsolete equipment. It is common to read in local newspapers about fires reaching major proportions due to causes  that vary from water that didn’t come out of hydrants to hoses perforated with holes being unable to pump water.

16 – Moving sidewalks & escalators: In many countries people will often stand to one side on the people mover to allow others to pass by quickly.  This is most often seen in the USA on moving sidewalks. When using escalators in Brazil, you will notice that people occupy the entire step.

17 – Although Rio is a beautiful city, you will notice that there’s no architectural regulation there. Most of the buildings will have penthouses that are not regulated and are totally different from the building’s style. They are called “puxadinhos”. This is the Portuguese name for adding constructed area on top of buildings, some of them using ceramic tiles that would be good in farms from the early 20th century,  but are in fact on top of  glass and steel buildings. Just look around at the penthouses and you will see how they create an ugly transformation of the city.

18 – Public health in Rio and everywhere in Brazil is almost nonexistent. People will wait for months for a medical appointment and there aren’t enough beds for those who are ill or in need of surgery. It’s common to see pictures of people laying  on the floor instead on hospital beds.  I have concerns of what may happen if there’s a major disaster during the Olympic games. I am not even thinking about terrorism. Just a bus crash or a fire in a  public space could lead to terrible consequences, as the hospitals are so poorly equipped.

19 – High fever? Sore throat? Forgot your prescription for contact lenses or antibiotics at home? No worries! In Rio you can buy contact lenses and antibiotics without prescription.  Just go to any pharmacy or optical store and order whatever you need.

20 – Buying liquor? Unlike Canada, where you will not find liquor in supermarkets, in Rio you can buy alcoholic beverages everywhere, including gas stations. All supermarkets sell all kinds of liquor, from beer & wine to hard liquor like “cachaça”, an alcoholic drink made from sugar cane, which is very popular in Brazil.

21 – Under age and wanting to drink in a bar or planning to buy some liquor? No worries.  No one will ask you for proof of age. This is very sad as it’s common to see minors drunk or smoking.

22 – If you hear the word “perdeu” it means that you “lost it”. Whatever you are holding, cell phone or wallet, or sunglass, even a sandwich. The person who look at you and says “perdeu” is assaulting you and will take whatever they intend. Even if you are a Olympic black belt judo, stay put and don’t react. Just obey. Even if it is a skinny eleven year old boy threatening you, give him what he demands. It happened once to me, and the little boy wanted my purse. Usually they have a gun under their t-shirt and they will not think twice before using it.

23 – Biking? Be extra careful. Bikers are an easy target for burglars as they usually operate in a group of burglars, inserting a stick on one of the bike’s wheels, or one of them pushing you to the ground while the rest of the group take your belongings and your bike.

24 – Helmets aren’t compulsory for cyclists but I recommend you use one as most of the cyclists there bike aggressively and go at high speeds.

25 – In most  places around the world it’s possible to leave one’s luggage inside the car’s trunk. Don’t do this in Rio. Car theft rate is very high and if you can be unlucky enough to have your car stolen with your luggage inside, then the burglar will have a “plus” when he notices that besides the car he got clothes, cameras, computers and your  documents. Always keep the car totally empty (visible and not visible parts).

26 – Documents? Never take them. When we traveled to Japan, I learned that no photocopy is accepted as document proof. I was afraid to have my passport with me all the time but after a few hours in Japan, I felt totally relaxed as Japan is super safe and the possibility of someone stealing my documents was zero. Not in Rio. If you are from safe countries and are used to go “everywhere” with your documents, don’t do this in Rio. Instead, have your documents photocopied and leave the originals in the hotel’s safe or inside a locked suitcase in your hotel room.

27 – Money? Leave your money  well hidden in the hotel or apartment where you are staying. To go out, go out with just a small amount of cash.

28 – Money belt? They can be handy elsewhere, not in Rio where you can have a “express kidnapping” and the assailants will certainly search your body looking for “hidden gems”.

29 – In your native country you will probably drive a car with your bag or laptop on the passenger seat.  Never ever do this in Rio. If burglars (on foot, or most common, on motorcycles) spot a bag or anything valuable on the passenger seat, they will punch the window, break the glass and take everything in less than 30 seconds. Instead, leave your purse or backpack on the floor and the laptop totally hidden from outside viewers.

30 – Pit bathrooms in developed countries are usually clean and aren’t smelly. In Rio there is a shortage of public “regular toilets”, and there’s also a shortage of pit toilets (and they do smell badly). The result is people peeing on the streets, sidewalks and even in gardens. The police try to fight the public urination by issuing fines but there are many more offenders than policemen, so you will probably smell and feel your toes wet from “pee pools” if you are wearing sandals and not watching the ground to avoid the pools.

31 – Fences, fences and more fences. When you look around you will see fences everywhere. From the wealthiest neighborhoods to the poorest communities people will have bars on the windows, walls with barbed wire fences, and sometimes private guards. The city is unsafe  making the houses and buildings look like jails while the criminals walk freely on the streets. It should be the opposite with criminals locked up and people moving free outside. Unfortunately, taxpayers in Rio live in “jails” to avoid criminals getting inside their properties.

32 – In Canada, the country where I live, it’s common sense to take off one’s shoes when entering a home. By doing this we keep the house cleaner and we decrease the amount of germs carried by foot traffic inside. In Rio no one will does this. If you are invited to a friend’s house, don’t take off your shoes. If you do so,  no one will understand the reason for you being barefoot or wearing socks.

33 – In Rio it’s common to spot people throwing trash on the ground. This is one of the reasons for beach and lagoon waters being polluted. When it rains, all the trash flows into the culverts and from there to the rivers, lagoons and sea. Try to find trash bins, but you find that they are few and usually already full.

34 – Recycling is not a reality in Rio. It will be very difficult to find recycle bins on streets, in markets, or any public spaces in general. Usually the trash is mixed, with recycled and regular trash going into the same bin. It’s really too bad, as the country could avoid a lot of waste. Don’t spend a lot of time looking for blue recycle boxes in your hotel room or rental apartment. It you can’t find them in 2 minutes, it’s probably because they don’t exist.

35 – Security issues close this list, I am hoping that the tourists will return to their countries in one piece and without major issues.  Try to follow this punch list to increase your safety.  If you are concerned with other athletes, relatives and friends that will be in Rio. Feel free to share this list on your Facebook / Twitter followers.

Thank you, good luck and safe travels!


Cecilia Teixeira

Born and raised in Rio, actually leaving in beautiful Vancouver, Canada.


(Thanks to @Terra360 for the English review)



About CeciliArchitect

World Traveler ~ Photographer ~ Social Media Specialist ~ Tourism Vancouver Certified Specialist ~ Independent Tour Manager and Events Coordinator ~ Blogger ~ Architect & Interior Designer (in my previous life)
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