“Are you going to São Paulo? But that’s a dangerous city! Don’t go there!” we heard many foreigners and Brazilians exclaim as we announced we were on our way to that city. Note that “São Paulo” can be swapped with Rio de Janeiro, Belém, Salvador da Bahia, São Luís, Brasília and a couple of other major cities in Brazil.
Unsurprisingly, many of such claims of horror come from people who have never been in those cities and are therefore useless. Declaring a place as dangerous without having any first-hand experience is nothing but spreading fear into the world, in our opinion one of the most destructive – if not thé most destructive emotion – in the world.
Having said that, the same exclamations come from people who have every right to express them: they live there. We took their advice on where to go and when, and which places to avoid. We appreciated their taking us sightseeing, which helped us feel at ease when we were new in the country and our heads still pretty much burst with warnings of danger. We grew confident and explored several of these “dangerous” cities on our own, and simply enjoyed.
To judge a city we use several criteria:
- The above-mentioned cries of danger by local people (meaning those who actually live there).
- Our own experiences.
The first I have mentioned, the second you can google, which leaves me with the third: our experiences. We visited all cities mentioned in the beginning of this blog, and more. Our experiences varied: There were cities where we felt welcome, at ease and enjoyed ourselves, whereas in others we were always on our guard and weren’t relaxed. I am not going to say which emotion ruled where. This is personal and I believe you have to find that out for yourself.
Why did cities feel so differently? No doubt it was a combination of where we were, at what time of the day, if we brought our camera, whether local people accompanied us, and, not unimportantly, whether we were in a good mood or not. It never ceases to amaze me how our moods attract positive or negative energy.
You can avoid a lot of trouble by going to these cities only when you feel good, strong, energetic and feel you can deal with nuisances with a smile and/or by using humor. Being able to joke with persistent vendors or, let’s say, capoeira dancers in Salvador da Bahia, creates a totally different experience than when you feel annoyed by them and try to brush them off – in which you probably won’t succeed or may get yourself in a nasty situation.
Our Dos and Don’ts in Big Cities
That brings me to a couple of tips when visiting these cities. Remember they are our dos and don’ts, based on our personal experiences, and have nothing to do with “musts” or “must-nots”.
- Be in a good mood. Be friendly with those who hassle you. Be persistent in not giving what they want/ask in a friendly way. It can be done, really.
- In a bad mood? Stay home.
- You’re not feeling comfortable in an area, a specific place, or in that city at all? Leave. Trust your instinct and go with it. Or try to find local people who’d like to show you around (for example through Couchsurfing).
- Leave your jewelry, and watch, at home or in your hotel.
- Same goes for your papers. Carry a copy of your identity papers if you like but don’t keep your passport in your pocket.
- Bring only enough money for the day.
- Visit the city during the day until you feel comfortable enough and have reliable information on where you could go at night.
- We brought our camera. We took that risk and we got robbed for it once. Coen figures there is no use in being a photographer if you don’t bring your camera. It’s part of the deal. Just know you increase the likelihood of robbery when bringing a camera (or Smartphone).
- You are less targeted by problem seekers when you walk around with confidence, as if you know the place or know where you’re going. How you accomplish this? Preparation. Read your guidebook on where you want to go and get a feeling for the layout of the city.
Well, that’s about it I guess. If you have tips you’d like to add, please give them in the comments below. Other readers and travelers may appreciate them.
What’s the Attraction of Brazil’s Major Cities?
Brazil’s major cities are not at the top of our list of best travel memories (the friends we made there do!). This has mostly to do with the fact that criminality is part of these places and we could never totally let go off our guard. Yet, we are glad we visited them.
Each city has its own attractions and they are very distinct from each other, whether this is modern architecture in Brasília, beach life in Rio de Janeiro, colonial history in Salvador da Bahia or the azulejos in São Luís. For culture buffs, history buffs, architecture buffs these cities warrant a visit. No doubt for other reasons too, such as dining, entertainment and night life as well, but that’s not our thing so I can’t tell you anything about it.
We loved Brasília’s modern architecture, especially by Oscar Niemeyer. It is one of the cities we explored during the day as well as night, when the buildings are beautifully lit. (read more here).
Another reason to visit Brasília is when you love landscaped gardens. Burle Marx designed many landscapes in Brasília, often around the Oscar Niemeyer’s buildings.
For most travelers Cuiabá is a gateway to the north side of the Pantanal. The city is far from exciting but also (or therefore?) easygoing. Downtown is pleasant to stroll around and there are a couple of churches worth a visit.
Another gateway to the Pantanal, this time to the south side. Campo Grande is a city where you need a car to move around – it’s spread out! Worth visiting for a couple of churches and museums.
In São Luís you park your car and walk! It has by far the best preserved (colonial) downtown of all Brazilian major cities. The city apparently has the largest concentration of buildings with azulejos outside Lisbon. It’s fantastic! (read more here)
Salvador da Bahia will remain a city that evokes a conflict of emotions: we felt very much at ease sightseeing here and ambling downtown. Good memories. Yet, it is also the only place we got robbed (outside the center) but that’s not a reason nót to go back.
We strolled downtown São Paulo but didn’t find it that exciting. More of interest are a couple of parks, the beautiful MASP (art) museum and this was our surprise: a soccer museum, which even I – a non-soccer person – enjoyed. And, of course, also in São Paulo live beautiful people.