Dropping your guard in Brazil


First we saw the handbag with its contents clearly visible. It was left on the passenger seat of a car, windows open and the owner nowhere in sight. A couple of minutes later we were sitting in the town square and a lady next to me left her fully-laden shopping bags on the floor as she wandered off to talk to a friend. This wasn’t on a remote Scottish island or even in one of Japan’s largely crime-free cities; this was Brazil, and the contrast between this care-free attitude to crime was at odds with everything we’d experienced in the country up to that point.

Brazil’s less than golden reputation for personal safety is not without merit, and I was struck by the fact that every resident we spoke to in Rio and Salvador (the two cities we visited) had at least one personal experience of being robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint. Their stories, and the many warnings of danger we’d been exposed to before we arrived in Brazil, had left us acting with extreme caution every time we set out to explore the cities. We used taxis a lot (something I won’t do unless absolutely unavoidable) and we left most of our money in the hotel safe, carrying only what we needed plus a small amount of ‘robbery money’. We didn’t experience anything untoward in either city, but neither did I ever feel I could drop my guard.

But here in the small towns of Minas Gerais state, barely 100 km from the sprawling city of Belo Horizonte, we found a very different side to Brazil. We were here to explore the Estrada Real, the royal road along which many tons of gold from the region’s hills were mined and taken as swiftly as possible to the Portuguese king.

Ouro Preto

In Ouro Preto, the old capital of the region and centre of the Brazilian gold rush in the late-17th and 18th centuries, we wandered freely at night, taking photos and not feeling the need to instantly hide the camera. In Tiradentes, where we spied the unattended handbag, and neighbouring Sao Joao del Rei, we took evening walks without being deterred by the worry of shady encounters.

Of course the apparent sense of safety can be deeply misleading: we might have been safe wandering through Salvador and Rio more than we did, while on an unlucky day we could have had an unpleasant incident in these small towns (just as we could back at home). But the fact that the other tourists (90% of whom were Brazilian) were also so relaxed about the lack of a crime problem in these towns was striking, considering that we were only a few hours’ drive from both Rio and Sao Paulo.

And that was perhaps one of the most striking takeaways from our all-too-short visit to Brazil. That I shouldn’t try to generalise about a country almost the size of Europe by the (very real) problems in its major cities. If I know and keep banging on about how London doesn’t in any way represent most of the UK, then I should also expect that beyond Brazil’s big cities I would find a very different country; and so it proved.

As if to reinforce the point, on a tourist train between Tiradentes and Sao Joao del Rei I noticed a wallet lying on the seat, which a man from a group of Brazilian tourists must have mislaid as he got off the train. Seeing his group walking away on the platform I chased after them and reunited the wallet and its owner to sincere expressions of gratitude. There’s a limit to how careless you should be, even in small-town Brazil.


We were in Brazil to research a set of commissioned articles (including those published in the Spring 2014 issue of Journeys Magazine and on the TRVL iPad app). Many thanks to RealWorld Holidays for their valuable help during our visit to Minas Gerais.

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2 Responses to “Dropping your guard in Brazil”

  1. I always find that small towns have a more genuine and friendly vibe to them. It’s the same in the Dominican Republic. The further from civilization and tourist towns, the more genuine and friendly the people are.

    June 9, 2014 at 4:06 pm
  2. James #

    Small Towns are generally Safe, because of un employment guys migrate to the big cities and they end up Mugging to survive.

    June 10, 2014 at 12:05 pm