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A love letter to Rio, a gangster’s paradise

I’M living in a city where the gangs are so out of control the army has been called in to keep the peace. Like many predicted before last year’s Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro’s hopes for a new beginning were snuffed out along with the cauldron. The economy is in recession, automatic gun fire echoes through the skies, innocent lives are being lost and Brazilian soldiers are now helping police try and keep a lid on this explosion. Instead of just guarding the main highways and busy avenues as they have been for the past few months, 950 troops have now made an incursion into Rio and Brazil’s largest favela Rocinha to squash heavily-armed warring drug gangs.

While they’re not usually the victims of this violence in the ‘burbs, tourists have understandably been spooked.

In the first four months of this year Rio de Janeiro state lost more than $A100 million in tourist revenue, down 8 per cent from January to April last year according to the National Confederation of Goods, Services and Tourism (CNC). Data from Rio de Janeiro’s Institute of Public Security showed crime increased by 6.4% from April to April, my iPhone pickpocketed late one night just one of them. For the city’s two big upcoming calendar events, New Year’s Eve and Carnival, bookings have halved according to the Brazilian Hotel Industry Association. While tourism has been hit by the country’s economic troubles, criminality has been the knockout blow.

“Violence affects tourism because it damages the image of Rio de Janeiro,” CNC business tourism and hospitality director Alexandre Sampan said.

But perception and reality aren’t always the same. My advice — don’t be scared away, there are still many incredible things about the ‘cidade maravilhosa’.


Freshly arrived on the highway sweeping through brown-brick favelas stretching into the distance I was hit by Rio. There’s no soft introduction, no gradual approach, no watching it slowly grow into full view.

When you leave the international airport it’s straight into the city’s northern favelas. You’ll either tense up a little or like me have your head pressed up against the window.

Rio doesn’t hide its less flattering sides from fresh eyes, its global gateway lies at the doorstep of some of its poorest communities, just as they sit among its most expensive neighbourhoods Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. They’re there for everyone to see and not forgotton on the periphery. Jet lag, you can forget that, this view of its stark inequality is like the opening scene from a suspense movie.

In just a matter of kilometres are the beaches and forested mountains of the sparkling south zone. When the airy chords of Brazil’s most famous song The Girl from Ipanema play it’s to here where they take you — to a foreigners idealised vision of a distant, sunny place. And it’s here where I’ve now been living for more than a year, one of about 50,000 Australian tourists who arrived in the country in 2016 according to Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism.

Rio’s changed a lot since those 1960s bossa nova beats were conjured, a true suave golden age it will probably never return to. But despite the problems rising around it, it’s still got that magic. Rio today is all of Brazil rolled into one. It’s all of its cultures from tropical north to prosperous south, all its people — black, brown and white, all its stereotypes from beaches to favelas, all its feelings from fun to freedom, and it’s pretty much what all people from overseas think of when they hear the name Brazil.

It’s not Brazil’s capital or biggest city, But Rio is so much more. The samba is from Rio, Carnival is in Rio, its wonder of the world Christ the Redeemer is in Rio, its most iconic female and song the Girl from Ipanema is from Rio, its most famous international film City of God is from Rio, its most famous stadium the Maracana is from Rio, its only Olympic Games were in Rio and its most legendary beach Copacabana is from Rio. Even though the biggest decisions (Brasilia) and the biggest skyscrapers (Sao Paulo) aren’t from Rio, it bursts with life and influence in a way that makes it king of Brazil.


I could move to another city, halve my rent and be able to splash cash like a boss.

But I wouldn’t be in Rio.

I wouldn’t have the calm, crazy afternoons on the beach near Ipanema’s famous lifeguard tower Posto 9. Thousands of metres of shoreline of people juggling soccer balls to each other, beach volleyball up the back and endless bodies stretched out in-between. It doesn’t feel like a beach you’ve ever been to. Not far away up a huge jungle-covered mountain like Dois Irmaos you feel as if you can touch the sun, peering down over the marvellous city like a bird. When you’re back down, take a push bike and ride around the giant lake Lagoa.

I wouldn’t have the year-round ‘bloco’ samba street music parties which in summer culminate in the greatest party on Earth — Carnival, all at their best in Rio’s rough-around-the-edges historical central neighbourhoods like Lapa. Around these old buildings parties go on with the cops barely batting an eyelid — they have actual crime to deal with. Even in the depths of “winter” you’ll always find people out enjoying music on the streets somewhere with a beer or caipirinha in hand. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Rio is the city that never stops dancing.

To keep that reputation and to combat dwindling visitor numbers, the Brazilian government recently announced a new tourism program playing on the city’s name, Rio de Janeiro a Janeiro (Rio from January to January). Stacking the calendar with 100 events in culture, sports, tourism and business throughout next year, the aim of the hundreds of millions of dollars to be pumped into it is to increase tourist numbers by 20% and to get the industry’s hips shaking again.


There’s always a feeling that a good time isn’t far away.

That’s because of the people. Even though Brazilians from all over the country are some of the friendliest people on Earth, Rio’s residents, Cariocas, are especially so. They give two kisses hello, have their own accent and are extremely outgoing so expect to be randomly spoken to while out and about.

Cariocas live surrounded by intense heat, beautiful nature and a deep tradition of Rio’s music culture strung through communities from dirt poor to dirty rich. It’s no surprise then that they have a grounded outlook on life, equally knowing how to have fun and how to laugh at themselves. Warmth and happiness is the default setting here, to come across someone cold and abrasive makes you wonder “what the hell is wrong with them?”

Sometimes Cariocas are so surprised people want to visit Rio at all they’re thinking the same thing, “what the hell is wrong with them (for coming here)?” And in a way they’re right, there are some bad people here, but they’re outnumbered by the everyday great people of this city. Even with the army on the streets you have to admire how Cariocas get on with such a bright outlook on life, and that is the reason why I love Rio.

Originally printed in my story on

Thanks to my good mate Travis Amick for the photos, follow him on Instagram here

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